One might think the Second Avenue Deli is willfully isolating itself from its clientele by relocating to the nowheresville that is Third Avenue and 33rd Street. But, on second thought, the area is not uncharted territory, deli-wise. The famous Reuben's, of sandwich fame, lived out its life on Madison and 38th. And Murray Hill is still home to one of Manhattan longest-lived, though least sung, Jewish-style delis.
I'm talking about Sarge's. Never heard of it? I'm not surprised. Despite having been around since 1964, it doesn't get much press. When the papers and mags roll out their frequent New York Deli features, it's rarely mentioned alongside the Carnegie Deli, Stage Deli and Katz's. Not sure why. Maybe because of the out-of-the way location on Third Avenue near 37th. Maybe because the place lacks pizazz. Don't know. Until recently, I myself gave it a pass. But the recent loss of the Second Avenue Deli (it's coming back, of course, but in a real way it's still lost) and the rumors of Katz's possible demise made me check out this survivor for signs of worthiness.
The place has a fairly interesting heritage. As it's name suggest, it was founded by a cop, one Abe Katz (Katz!), who worked the Murray Hill beat for 25 years, and started the deli after he retired. He created a classic deli menu, with matzo ball soup, potato pancakes, stuffed derma, kugel and pastrami he cured himself. One of the restaurant's great virtues is its lack of vanity. It's not full of itself, like Carnegie and some others. It's a deli; not a deli museum. The decor is what you expect and want: a long meat counter up front; some tables, some booths, along the side and in the back; tacky, faux-Tiffany lamps. Waitresses are run off their feet. Diners are laid back and relaxed.
Trying to get a general feeling for the fare, I ordered a cup of chicken soup with kreplach, a side of corned beef hash, and a pastrami sandwich with fries on the side. The soup was good, the hash tasty if a bit overwhelming after a few bits, the fries crispy, greasy and fantastic, and the pastrami moist and flavorful. Was any of it the best such stuff I'd ever had in New York? No. But it was damn good. And the prices were much better than those at the more famous delis.
But I think the thing I like best about Sarge's is its insistence of being open 24 hours, seven days a week. Though New York is supposedly a city that doesn't sleep, that schedule is actually a real throwback. There are plenty of clubs and bars where you can hang out until the wee hours, sure, but Manhattan was once a place of all-night, all-day, Edward Hopperesque businesses. I remember in particular a pharmacy with a soda fountain near the Waldorf=Astoria that never closed. There's no reason why Murray Hill should need a hot blintz at morning, noon and night, but Sarge's does it anyway.
Maybe Katz worked the night shift.