I enjoy going to Artie's Deli on the Upper West Side because the food is decent. Artie's is a neo-old-sytle Jewish Deli (it's only been around about a half-a-dozen years) without the neighborhood prices. I grew up on the Upper West Side, and Broadway is now littered with big chain stores--Staples, Circut City, Victoria's Secret, Godiva. Artie's stands out--not because the food is so terrific--but because it's not outrageously over-priced. There is something synthetic about it, but if it doesn't have the history of other classic Jewish deli's like Katz's or Ratner's or the Carniege, it does have its heart in the right place, and it does provide some of the atmosphere you like to see in such an establishment.
I arrived early for a dinner date with a friend last night and saw that my favorite waitress was on duty. When the plump, black hostess greeted me, I pointed to the waitress, an squat, older woman who has the gruff disposition (not to mention charm) of a William Demarest character, and said, "I'm meeting a friend and want to sit in her section." The hostess grabbed two menus and as she led me to a table said, "Are you sure you know what you are doing?" "Yeah, I know exactly what I'm doing."
You go to a Jewish Deli in New York and you want a slightly mean waitress, who talks fast, calls you sweetie and makes no attempt to hide her displeasure at your meager order. I sat in the front section of the restaurant, right next to the street. Behind me was a side-enterance for the delivery guys. Four short Latin kids milled around just outside, wearing matching navy-blue "Artie's" t-shirts. They all wore baseball caps underneath protective helmets. I remembered waiting tables a dozen years ago in a similar neighborhood jernt (Italian not Jewish) just a few blocks north--it's no longer there, and the restaurant that followed it recently closed as well (get ready for another chain store of some sort). The delivery guys didn't have helmets back then. A nice advancement, I thought. Nobody wants a lawsuit, right?
The hostess stood next to me and I told her why I liked my grouchy waitress, who has scolded me virtually each time I've sat in her section in the past. The waitress has short, spikey hair. She moves quickly, her back hunched and her pants hiked-up well over her waist. As I chatted with the hostess, a bald man carrying an over-stuffed plastic green shopping bag walked in through the side enterance and sat down across from me at a four-top table. When the hostess noticed him she became instantly annoyed. "Excuse me, can I help you?" He mumbled that he wanted a table. "How many will you be?" He spoke sharply and you could tell that she had seen him before. He said the was alone and she asked if he would please move to a smaller table. He gestured to a cane--which he was carrying, and not using for support, when he came in. Before he could go into his spiel, she cut him off, holding up her hand and looking away, "Alright, go ahead." I knew exactly the kind of Upper West Side character this guy was--entitled, fussy, cheap.
The man looked like a puffier version of Alan Arkin. He was bald except for some hair around the sides. He wore glasses and had on a white, short-sleeved shirt with a pad and pen and cell phone in the breast pocket. Charcoal grey slacks and inexpensive black shoes. He picked up his phone and began to talk as he scooped the complimentary cole slaw onto a small plate. Then he picked up a sour pickle and began crunching it as he spoke. When William Demarest approaches him, he holds his hand up to her, indicating that he is on a call. She raises her eyebrows, turns to me, and then walks away.
A few minutes later, he raises his hand and catches her attention. Taking out her pad, she approaches his table. "Can I interest you in our Specials?"
"We've got Hungarian gullach---"
"No, I don't want that."
"I got a skirt steak with a baked potato, I got meatloaf platter--"
"I want a turkey burger, rare."
"You don't want it rare."
"I don't? Why don't I want it rare?"
"Because you'll get sick."
"OK, no onions."
"Can I get you something to---"
"And french fries."
"Comes with fries."
"They come cooked one way."
"I'll have onion rings instead."
"I'll have a Diet Coke with lemon."
He took out is phone again as he shoved cole slaw in his mouth.
The waitress tried to charm some of the customers--she told one table about what a wonderful cook her husband is ("He makes me a salad--lettuce, tomato, onions, and cucumbers, aren't I lucky?") and to another couple she raved about how good Reese Witherspoons was in "Walk the Line" ("I seen it twice now on cable")--but mostly she was irked because it was a slow night and she was stuck with a lousy section ("Two chicken salads," she barked to the hostess about one table, as if they were the worst people on the face of the earth). She didn't give my companion and me any trouble and when we were leaving she said, "I heard that you requested my section." I told her I did and she thanked me and called me "sweetheart." Now filled with chicken soup, french fries, pickles and cole slaw, I left a heppy ket.