Remains of L.A.

Traces of L.A.'s past can still be found, in the kitsch of '50s diners and the decayed glamour of '40s hotspots… and sometimes the food is good, and there are nice people.

(1947) Langer’s Deli, downtown L.A.


ylangerssign03It’s been an insanely long time since I last posted. Sorry about that, all sorts of other things going on, stuff kept getting in the way. I walked the length of Wilshire Blvd, and then got really into Instagram for a while, and there was the Summer of Doing Things, and this fall I went to London for two weeks, plus all the various projects I’ve been working on. Somehow I kept never updating this blog, even though I love it so much.  But now! Here we are. I’ll try to make sure you don’t have to wait so long for the next one.

I actually first went to Langer’s Delicatessen back in April, and then never wrote it up. When I sat down to work on it, way too much time had passed and I couldn’t remember it all that well. So I went there again, last week, and it was just as great as the other time, and sort of different because the first time it was quiet and I sat in a booth, and the second time it was extremely busy and I sat at the counter.
I was worried it would be confusing, having notes from two different visits, but I’m putting the April ones first and the January ones second and it should be easy enough to follow.
The first time I went, I took the metro downtown to the Pershing Square station and walked the mile-and-a-half or so to the deli. There was a station much closer, but I wanted to walk through downtown. It was a perfect day and the buildings along 7th are magnificent. The second time, I drove, and got a parking spot at a meter right around the corner from the deli which was remarkably lucky.

yszlangersinside01-A large, airy restaurant with a deli take-away counter and lunch counter to the left, and long rows of booths filling the rest of the space. Brown booths and tables, and brown chairs at the counter, black and white speckled linoleum, brown chandeliers hanging from drop ceilings, saved from being at all drab by the murals on the back wall and the huge, colorful pictures of deli items over the deli counter, hung on a wall of brown, red, and yellow tiles. “Huge and colorful” doesn’t begin to describe it, honestly. They make the whole place seem bright and cheery. Also the false drop ceiling that seems like it should be ugly but something about the straight lines and square shapes is very pleasing.

-In April, I got the pastrami sandwich with french fries. I’d hoped to get fruit on the side, but there was no fruit cup, just a fruit plate, and the waitress assured me the fries were good. They were; big and thick and crinkle cut, which are not how I usually like them but cooked just right. The sandwich was huge, on the kind of rye bread all rye bread should be, and the pastrami was incredible. I don’t feel personally qualified to say whether it’s the best in the world, but am willing to listen to people who say it is.
In January, I got the half sandwich and soup; lovely vegetable soup and another perfect pastrami sandwich. 

-The waitress walked me to my booth but didn’t give me a menu and by the time I realized I was embarrassed to ask for one, which is ridiculous, but luckily I saw that the menus are kept tucked away in cute little slots between the booths, and was able to grab one with no trouble.

– A man and woman sat down in the booth next to me. They were coworkers, or possibly she was his boss, and they were discussing the man’s promotion. They wanted to get food to go, but the waitress said that they’d have to go to the take-away counter and for some reason this did not suit them. Instead they sat down, ordered off the regular menu, and asked for boxes for the leftovers, which was probably going to be the whole meal. While they waited, they talked about how a manager at their work who was really rude and talked down to everyone had just gotten fired. She kept saying she shouldn’t be giving him so much insider info, but it was obvious she was super happy to be sharing gossip. 

– A guy near me got the pastrami chili cheese fries and exclaimed in astonishment over how much they looked like the picture. Not sure why this is so surprising. He kept going on about it. They did look delicious though. 

ylangerscounter02– The waitress asked how I was doing and patted me on the shoulder and got me more water. It’s remarkable how good some people are at making people feel cared for. 

– The coworkers next to me finished talking about the fired manager and started talking about a place called Rodeo Grill, which apparently brings chips and salsa to the table while you wait for your food. I strongly suspected it was not so much that they were truly excited about the chips and salsa as that they were trying hard to find things to talk about. 

-Two other people in a booth right behind me were discussing incredibly private things. Like, weird sex things. Why why why do people do this? I was not trying to eavesdrop; they were right there. It wasn’t fun weird sex things, either.

– Across the street from the deli is an old yellow building; the first floor is a drugstore, and the second floor has tall windows and fancy molding. It currently seems to be dentists’ offices, but I am pretty much completely positive that in the ‘40s a private detective had his offices up there.

– A man was sitting in a booth with his legs sticking far out into the aisle, practically sitting sideways. I had to walk past him to get to the stairs up to the restrooms. I thought he might move them when I walked by, but he didn’t. It was okay; he was only blocking half the aisle, not the whole thing. It was fine. 

– A guy came in and sat down near me and explained to the waitress that he wanted a pastrami sandwich, but first he wanted to be very sure that they cut the pastrami in flat slices, and not… some other way I guess it’s possible to cut pastrami?

– The restrooms have painted signs on the doors. A little boy on one, a little girl on the other, both naked, with their backs to the viewer, the girl sitting on a potty, the boy standing in front of a potty. A thing I have been startled to find, on my tour of old restaurants, is how very many restaurateurs think it’s perfectly acceptable to hang signs with pictures of people engaging in private bathroom behavior.

– I went to pay and left my sandwich at the table. When I came back the waitress said, “Don’t forget your sandwich!! You’d be so disappointed!” She was absolutely correct and I appreciated her concern.

ylangersinside15-I always get sort of nervous when it comes time to pick a seat at a lunch counter, but this time it was easy because there were three empty seats in a row and I was able to just take the middle one. The worst is when there are only two empty seats and you have to decide which stranger to sit next to based entirely on their backs.

– The farthest-left seat at the counter had “Al Langer” on the back in cursive. Didn’t occur to me the guy sitting in it might be THE Al Langer until a server behind the counter walked up and said, “I didn’t think you actually existed” and they fist bumped, and then after he’d eaten the guy who was possibly Al Langer went behind the counter to bus his own dishes so I guessed it was him. But upon reading the history of the restaurant, I realized that no, this was probably Al’s son Norm. Either way, it was the owner of the restaurant.

– A waiter — not mine –went up to the guy next to me and said he was going on a break and Sheila (I think? Maybe?) would take care of him. The guy said solemnly, “Thank you sir; enjoy your break.” The way he said it was very old-fashioned and nice somehow; he reminded me a little bit of Sam Elliot

– The owner and manager were standing near me talking about something in low voices and I was utterly unable to hear what they were saying and it was very frustrating.

– To the right of me, where the booths were, there was an older couple in matching ski parkas sitting on the same side of a booth. She was snuggled up to him with her face almost in his neck, looking sad, and he had his arm around her and was speaking to her softly. It was incredibly sweet and made me want to look away. When I glanced back a few moments later, they had moved apart and were eating their food and appeared to be bickering. From the looks on their faces you wouldn’t know they liked each other or that she had ever felt sad in her life. It was the same couple; they had on those ski parkas.

– The guy sitting next to me, one empty chair between us, dropped his bag as he got up and I sort of automatically tried to get it for him but it was too far from me, under the chair, and then he couldn’t really reach it either and it was all very awkward. Counter seats can be like that.

– A sign on the take-away counter says “marble or coffee cake $9.95/lb” and I know it means marble cake or coffee cake but the formatting makes it look like your choices are coffee cake or a marble. 

– Norm Langer, or at least the man I assumed was Norm Langer, came across like a gruff but amiable New York sort, like the taxi driver who you’re a little scared of but also feel super safe with, but he can’t be a New Yorker; he must have grown up here, right?

ylangersmural01– One of the women who works here, possibly a manager maybe, who had seemed extremely taciturn and professional, suddenly stuck her tongue out at one of the counter guys as she walked by. It was super subtle and she snapped back to deadpan immediately. It made me absurdly happy. The employees all seem to really like each other. There were sometimes lots of people moving in the narrow space behind the counter and they moved around each other like a dance. 

– I wonder how many crimes have been solved by private detectives as they sat in the very seat I sat in? At least seven I’d say. I considered ordering a glass of milk in honor of Archie Goodwin who always gets milk at lunch counters (yes, he was New York but he did come to LA at least once) but a girl has her limits. Milk is one of mine. 

– A man behind the counter, back by the meats, had a large knife that I guess needed sharpening because he was sharpening it, very slowly and carefully. That never doesn’t look scary. 

ylangersjan03– An older guy dressed in what I believe is generally called “resort wear” came and sat at the counter and picked up a menu and looked at it and all but shouted, “30 dollars for corned beef and cabbage?!” He kind of said it to me so I smiled in that nervous way you do when strangers are trying to get you to join in on their rudeness, and said, “But there’s a lot of it, and it’s delicious!” I was going to add that there were other things on the menu, but he’d already stormed out. 

-They have jars of pickles for sale for $9.95 and I wondered if I should buy one for the friend I was picking up at the airport later, but what if he didn’t want it and insisted I keep it? What am I going to do with a jar of pickles?

– The waitress went to take away my plate that still had crusts and bits of pastrami on it, and I came very close to screaming in horror and throwing myself across the plate to protect it. Rye bread crusts with bits of pastrami are one of the best parts of a pastrami sandwich. It was fine, though; she realized in time that I was still eating.

What I Ate: Pastrami sandwich on rye with mustard, french fries, vegetable soup

What I Read While I Ate:  In April, “An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles” by Robert Winter, which I first checked out of the library and then bought as an ebook so I can have it with me at all times.
In January, “Johnny Zed,” by John Gregory Betancourt, one of my favorite science fiction books back in the early ’90s, and the epitome of all that was the cyberpunk genre.

What Sort of Ghost I’d Expect to Find if I Believed in Ghosts Which I do Not: A man who’d produced plays in New York and had come to L.A. to produce movies. He was good at it, and successful, but he hated it. He didn’t want to admit to anyone that he was horribly homesick. He started to go for long walks, downtown. It wasn’t much like New York, but it was more like New York there than anywhere else in L.A., anyway. One day he turned a corner and saw Langer’s. He scoffed at the idea of good deli within two thousand miles of Hollywood, but then the door opened and the smell of pastrami hit him and next thing he knew, a waitress was pouring him another cup of coffee and chuckling over how quickly he’d finished his sandwich. He was at Langer’s as often as possible after that, insisted on having business lunches there, knew all the waiters and waitress by name. It made L.A. bearable, and the comfort of it let him notice all the other things in L.A. he liked. Because of Langer’s, L.A. could slowly become home. Now he sits at the counter, smelling the pastrami and still knowing the names of all the waiters and waitresses.

704 S Alvarado St, Los Angeles, CA 90057


3 thoughts on “(1947) Langer’s Deli, downtown L.A.

  1. Terrific post. I always enjoy your detailed observations about the places you visit. 🙂


  2. seeing this in my inbox, and loved your Thank You note!d so welcome, and yes, Malika said she had a meal with you, made me happy!!! xoxoxoa/m



  3. I’ve missed your blog! Rodeo Grill really is a nice place. Great chili relleno burritos and fresh OJ by the carafe. Funny about 1940s detectives and the (recently painted) yellow building across the street: it has wonderful carved owls in the coursework and I always try to get a photo when we pass on our Raymond Chandler bus tours. Chandler spent a lot of time in the neighborhood.


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