by Ron Kenner
American Reporter Correspondent
June 22, 2007
FAMOUS LANGER'S DELI SURVIVES CHANGING TIMES, TOUGH CUSTOMERS IN DOWNTOWN L.A.
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- In early May, at MacArthur Park, after Los Angeles police officers battled demonstrators marching for worker and immigrant rights, the walking wounded probably had the same destination: Langer's Delicatessen Restaurant, the noted corner deli across the street from MacArthur Park famed for making "the finest hot pastrami sandwich in America."
Eyebrows were raised at the immense cost more than a decade ago, when the city's subway was put in, amid complaints that the bus system (which carries far more passengers) was being shortchanged, as it probably was. And when the subway reached 7th St. and Alvarado then, completing the first 4.4-mile segment and a stop across the street from Langer's, transit gadfly John Walsh of Hollywood offered this unforgettable assessment: "We spent a billion dollars to get a corned beef sandwich."
But even that controversy wasn't the battle - this one was personal! - that came to mind on my seeing the headline about Langer's.
If anything, Langer's has long been a highly positive force in the community. Dennis Zine, a former LAPD officer, union head and now City Councilman who is a longtime fan of Langer's was quoted in the Times saying abouit the depressed area in which it is an anchor, "This place never gave up on the community.' And as Times staff writer Bob Poole wrote, there were some "wry" moments on the podium at the anniversary occasion.
Many had wondered for years back whether Langer's days were numbered. We'd already long ago lost the famously congenial Johnny's Steak House on Alvarado, just across the park, and many other places I can't remember anymore, but Langer's was hanging on, and clearly the subway helped. As Times staffer Pool noted, the restaurant was "outlasting a Jewish customer base that long ago moved out and an unfortunate drug-dealing culture that moved in."
The once-tony neighborhood of swank hotels, posh department stores and fancy restaurants had filled up with poor people, as had much of the Wilshire Corridor between downtown and La Cienega Avenue. The hotels became semi-dilapidated apartment buildings, the department stores closed or moved West to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, and the resttaurants were huing out to dry. But Langer's was the kind of place where people would travel for miles for a deli special, and despite major changes in the area, remained much the same.
Later, there'd be some upgrading around MacArthur Park, mostly near the subway stops, and new places catering to fast-food addicts came in while places you knew and went to for years were disappearing. But Langer's is still around.
City Council President Eric Garcetti, who represents Hollywood, has announced that the street corner will be renamed Langer Square on its founder's 95th birthday next January 23.
The park's name will remain unchanged, of course, but a shift in emphasis from MacArthur Park to Langer's Square might be welcome. After all, as the old general put it, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."
My own personal battle occurred at the deli itself on not one of its better days, sometime around it's 50th anniversary. The place was still usually crowded for lunch and the waitresses sometimes a little tired from rushing around.
It was not like when I saw Jack Nicholson, with a pretty girl, sitting one day in Musso Frank's in Hollywood, an establishment that is older than Langer's, where the New York-type waiters are never obsequious and sometimes plainly ignore you even when the place is almost empty (and they are also capable of great service, as The American Reporter experienced one day when we brought a famous Marilyn Monroe lookalike to dine there with eight Middle Eastern newspaper and television correspondents).
I was highly amused to observe just how long it took Nicholson to capture the waiter's attention for a coffee refill. Nicholson basically sat there and took it like a wimp - no complaint at all - and this is the guy whose character in Five Easy Piece verbally ripped some poor waitress apart. I was there with a client, and she could back me up about what a gentleman (or wimp) Nicholson was in that real restaurant scene.
At Langer's, I was no movie star but I was no wimp, either. I was alone. I'd stopped in and ordered a lox, cream cheese and onion on a toasted bagel, as I'd done many times before there, and always to high satisfaction; only, this time, the bagel came back barely toasted, and before I could even muster up a few words, the waitress was gone.
Prices were up, but I'd been looking forward to that sandwich. I'd been to the place many times, especially after we'd taken my mom to the doctor nearby on Wilshire. I wasn't a well-known customer, but it was hardly my first bagel there; and this time - maybe you recognize the powerful, heroic emotion that overtakes you - no way was I going to be some milquetoast kind of guy who'd accept a less than toasted bagel.
The waitress was not only busy but had that special talent, developed to a high art, for not seeing you. It have a theory about certain occasions when nobody comes near you, especially waiters and waitresses. We've all experienced them moving around from point A to point B without ever coming into contact with the customer in-between.
Finally, the waitress appeared and I told her about my bagel, which she simply registered as not particularly interesting nor useful information. She had customers waiting and disappeared before I could request an "upgrade." Eventually I got her attention again. I'd already taken a few more nibbles on the bagel and pretty soon, at that rate, there'd be nothing left to return.
"Well, what do you want me to do about it?" she whined. Obviously, you can't easily shove a made-up bagel, lox and cream cheese into a toaster. But I'd ordered and expected a toasted bagel and it's just not the same without that. Trying to be understanding, I suggested politely, "Well, why don't you take it back to the cook and see what h e says." She carried the plate to the long, high counter and I saw her talking to the cook and he said something back. The sandwich came back to me unaltered.
"He says it is toasted."
"Oh," I said. "Well, take it back and tell him I said it's not toasted."
"He's very busy. He can't do anything about it!" she shot back, exasperated.
I pushed the plate a little further away from me. She stared.
"You don't want that? You're through?"
What could I say? I half-nodded and she took the plate away - just left me sitting there with my ice water, as she wrote out the check and dropped it on the table.
Finally - it took awhile - I got her attention again.
"What do you want?"
"I'd like to speak to the manager."
"You'd like to speak to the manager?" She was incredulous.
"It's lunchtime. He's very busy. He hasn't time to talk to you now."
"I'm sure he'll find time," I said, "when he hears I'm not paying this check."
Now she runs over to the manager. who comes over right away and asks me politely what the problem is.
Noting that I'd been a periodic customer for years and that this was probably the first time I'd ever complained there, I explained. When I ordered a toasted bagel I'd hoped to receive a toasted bagel.
"So where is it?"
Now he's got to see for himself (as if I wouldn't know a toasted bagel when I saw one). The waitress had taken it away but I figured it the bagel still there, half way down the long aisle and behind the screen.
"Excuse me a minute," he said, and went over, disappeared behind the screen and came back out holding a plate.
He said something to the waitress, who nodded.
This wasn't Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq. Just a small personal battle, though principles do count, don't they? So I'm watching, with great interest.
Suddenly, from maybe half-a-dozen feet, the middle-aged manager, too old for some battles but not this one, took that plate and flung it. It went flying, sailing like a frisbee, skipped on and off the counter as the airborne bagel and lox and onions landed somewhere (maybe Jack Nicholson's lap) nearby.
"Give the man a toasted bagel!" the manager roared. I'm sure everyone heard him, even a good distance away.
So they must be doing something right at Langer's. That manager's somewhat stunning and very human response saved me as a customer - for another 10 years now.
If it hadn't been for his action, there was no way I'd be going back to that restaurant, no matter how many other delis have closed down. We have our principles. Right?
In the big adventure story there's always that double climax; the next time I went back to Langer's there was, indeed, a reversal, turning my bagel scenario into a pyrrhic victory. It was midday and the place was closed. Oh, no, I thought, not another deli gone!
But places do what they can to survive. At Langer's, the hours had changed. Now the place, with no evening shift and fewer employees, was serving only breakfast and lunch and closes at four o'clock - another adjustment to the times. But it's is still hanging on, and a good thing, too. And I'm wishing it many more years at Langer's Square.
Editor's Note: The founder of Langer's Deli, Albert J. Langer, passed away of the complications of old age at 94, in Agoura, Calif., just two after this article appeared. He will be buried at 11 p.m. Thursday at Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills, Calif.
Ron Kenner is former LA Times Metro reporter and book editor based in Hollywood. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org..