Remembering Alan Canter and the daily trip to his deli

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I grew up in LA, in Silver Lake, and whenever Mom and I wanted deli we drove to Canter’s. At first, for Mom, it was Fairfax, a Jewish center of gravity a few blocks long that felt like home. But over the decades we created our own traditions and found comfort there. And we were not alone. Alan Canter, the owner of the famed deli, who just died at the age of 82, created an enviable institution whose embrace was wide.

There were folks like my mom for whom it was a daily anchor. For 20 years my mom walked through the doors at Canter’s to start her day with a burnt bagel with cream cheese and a cup of black coffee. Her relationship with Jeannie, who had been waitressing for at least 50 years, was as important as the meal that kicked off every working day. We developed a routine of feasting on generous smoked fish plates for any occasion, but especially on Christmas Day. And if one of us was feeling poorly the other would stop by for chicken or barley bean soup to-go. If we felt lazy we got a few pints and pounds of deli meat for sandwich making, always looking for the bargain bags of sliced rye that had gone wrong in the slicer that would occasionally appear on the deli counter. And yes, Mom revered Mr. Canter’s famed fruit cups.  

But really what Canter’s was about for us, and still is for me, is that it’s a place to be reminded of what a wonderful place Los Angeles is. That wide embrace makes being in the space wonderfully entertaining. I recently wrote in the LA Times.

Every day, a parade of people of all ages and type walks through the front doors. Goths, punks, hipsters, grandchildren in quantity, Supreme heads, hippies, middle-aged writers still waiting for their first break, seniors eking out a day’s meal on Social Security…kids in their early 20s, accompanied by their bewildered visiting parents.

So thanks from my heart to Alan Canter, a man who created a place where waiters and deli men never want to move on and where regulars come to stay and new ones are minted every day. That kind of generosity of spirit is rare in today’s restaurant world. We need more of it.

-Evan Kleiman