How Old is Katz's Deli?

Perhaps not quite as old as we've thought

By Robert F. Moss

Katz's Deli
Katz's Deli (Courtesy Richard Berg under CC 2.0)
I just finished up a piece for Serious Eats on the history of pastrami, and in the course of digging into the background of this beloved deli staple I also ended up looking into the history of Katz’s Delicatessen, since it is one of the country's most celebrated purveyor of pastrami. The more I dug in, the more I began to suspect that Katz’s, whose founding has long been dated to 1888, might not actually be as old as everyone has assumed.

The standard history of the now-famous deli, as presented on the restaurant’s web site and related in just about every other account, too, goes something like this: In 1888, two immigrant brothers, Morris and Hyman Iceland, opened a small deli called Iceland Brothers on Ludlow Street on New York’s Lower East Side. Willy Katz bought into the firm in 1903, and the name was changed to "Iceland & Katz". Willy’s cousin Benny came onboard in 1910 and bought out the Iceland brothers, and the establishment became Katz’s Delicatessen.

Harry Tarowsky, a “landsman” of the Katzes (that is, a fellow Jew from the same region or town in the old country) joined the partnership in April 1917, and the three men ran the restaurant until the 1970s. During the construction of the nearby subway line in the 1930s, the business was moved to the other side of Ludlow Street to its present location. The current storefront on Houston Street, which until World War II had been vacant lot where Katz's stored barrels of meat and pickles, was added between 1946 and 49.

The widely-accepted founding date of 1888 would put Katz’s very early in the chronology of New York delicatessens and in the history of American pastrami, but there’s just one problem. It doesn’t seem to have actually been founded that year. The general structure of that history seems to be correct, but the historical record from the period seems shows that the chronology is off by almost two decades.

Let’s start with the Iceland brothers, Morris and Hyman. There’s not much information on Morris Iceland’s early years in the United States, but later census records indicates he arrived in this country in 1902. There’s quite a bit more available about his brother Hyman, who, according to Ellis Island records and later census entries, also immigrated to New York in 1902.

Though Hyman anglicized his last name to “Iceland,” his brother Morris spelled his Eisland for the rest of his life. There’s no record I could find that the two men ever ran a delicatessen together, and even if they had it’s highly unlikely that they did so back in 1888. Morris would have been around eleven years old and his brother Hyman around six at that time.

Hyman Iceland married his wife, Hannah, in 1907, and by 1910 he was working at an eating house at 220 Wooster St., which is near Houston Street and about 15 blocks west of where Katz’s restaurant is today. The following year, 1911, Iceland seems to have opened his own establishment, for the city directory lists “Iceland Hyman delicatessen” at 207 E. Houston, which is precisely on the opposite side of the Ludlow St. intersection from where Katz’s is today.

Either from the very beginning or not long after he opened his delicatessen, Hyman Iceland took on as a partner a young Russian Jewish immigrant named William Katz, who had arrived in the United States as a teenager in 1905 and was around 21 years in 1911. The Trow Copartnership and Corporation Directory of New York City for that year lists “Iceland & Katz (Hyman Iceland & William Katz) 207 E. Houston,” and the City Directory for the following year also lists “Iceland & Katz delicatessen 207 E Houston.”

Hyman Iceland remained a partner in Iceland & Katz until at least 1916, but he appears to have left the business sometime after that. By 1918 he was working in a lunchroom at 146 Liberty Street, and the following year he left the food business and went into real estate, first as the treasurer of the Joralemon Realty Company and later as president of the St. Paul Apartment Corporation.

Harry Tarowsky, also an immigrant from Russia, was on the scene by at least 1917. That year, he completed a draft registration card indicating that we was currently employed as a “delicatessen clerk” by “William Katz, 207 East Houston St.” It isn’t clear when Willy Katz’s cousin Benny joined the firm, but by 1925 the triple partnership was in place. The City Directory that year lists “Katz W & B & Tarkowsky (Wm & Benj Katz Harry Tarkowsky) delicatessen 207 E. Houston,” and the three men together would grow the business into a world-famous institution.

In my mind, none of these details in any way tarnishes the legacy of Katz’s Deli, which remains a classic New York institution and is one of my favorite places to eat anywhere in the country. After all, even if we do adjust the chronology so that the restaurant is founded in 1911, it’s still more than a century old!

But that adjusted timing does move Katz’s out of the early days of Lower East Side delicatessens to the period when they were a flourishing feature of New York life. Of particular relevance to the history of pastrami, it means that by the time Iceland and Katz’s was founded, pastrami was already being sold and enjoyed all across the United States.


About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.