June 19, 1997
Photos by Ruth Stroud
Amid a blizzard of Spanish-language signs for passport photos, discount shoes and wedding gowns, Langer's Delicatessen & Restaurant sits proudly at the corner of Alvarado and 7th streets, the location it has occupied for the past 50 years. The hours are shorter -- 8 to 4, Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays -- and the price for a pastrami on rye is certainly higher -- $7.50, versus a quarter in 1947. The conversation emanating from the brown naugahyde booths is as often in Spanish as in English. And the Ramparts police substation across the street keeps a close watch on the multiethnic parade of humanity that mills about the busy intersection, once the hub of a lively Jewish neighborhood, second only to Boyle Heights.
The restaurant's founders, Al and Jean Langer, 84 and 82, respectively, and their son, Norm, 52, who runs the place (with a constant pipeline of advice from his parents), don't plan on closing up shop any time soon. In fact, they are celebrating the deli's 50th anniversary -- officially last Tuesday, June 17 -- with a month-long contest, culminating in a drawing for $7,000 in cash and other prizes on July 1. In Los Angeles, "there aren't a lot of restaurants and institutions that have survived that long and still have their doors open," Norm said.
The opening of the Red Line in 1993 was a lifesaver. For a token round-trip tab of 50 cents, the subway line's last stop was across the street from MacArthur Park, just a few steps from Langer's. "We were almost ready to close," Jean said. But the media blitz surrounding the MTA line helped entice crowds similar to those in the restaurant's heyday, in the '60s and '70s. (In those days, Philharmonic- and theatergoers and the bar crowd kept the place hopping until the wee hours.)
The Red Line's steep price hike to $2.70 round trip has been a bit prohibitive, the Langers said, and the bad press about crime in the area a few years back didn't help. "In 50 years, we've had some broken windows, but no holdups and robberies," Al said. The police have solved, or at least lessened, the crime problems tremendously, added Norm. "I'm not saying it's Beverly Hills, but it's been fantastic," he said.
During a typical lunch hour, Langer's bustles with activity. The booths fill with downtown lawyers and businessmen in suits and ties, as well as with more casually dressed residents of the nearby low-income apartments.
One morning before the rush begins in earnest, the Langers take some time to reminisce about their first 50 years. Actually, Al Langer begins his tale several decades before opening day, when he was a 12-year-old kid in Newark, N.J. To earn some money for his bar mitzvah, he went to work in a local delicatessen, later honing his talents in the Catskills and picking up an indispensable sandwich-making skill that he passed on to Norm.
"I don't know how to make a bowl of soup," says Al, spry and fit-looking in a salmon-colored polo shirt and dark pants and, obviously, still proud to call himself "a deli man." "But I can handle a knife. You can't be taught that."
In Los Angeles, where he moved to in 1937, Langer went to work at Lax's, a deli on Hollywood Boulevard, where he met Jean. A Chicago native, she had come out to Los Angeles a married woman and was working as a waitress at Lax's. "For a Jewish girl, to be a waitress in those days was a shonda [a shame]," she said. "I told everyone I was working as a cashier."
After Jean was widowed, she and Al were married on April 20, 1941. Two children, Norm in 1944 and Laurie in 1951, followed.
Following his discharge from the Army in 1943, Al borrowed $500 and opened a deli on 8th Street. Within two years, he walked away with $31,000 and invested it in English ceramic teapots. He lost all except $3,000, which he wisely put back in the deli business. He bought an 18-foot-long restaurant with three windows, at the corner of Alvarado and 7th. It had three booths, two tables and a counter -- 35 seats altogether. Jean handled cooking and the books, and Al took care of the rest.
"He said to me, 'The kitchen is yours,'" Jean said. "I said, 'You meshugenah! I've never cooked for anyone but you.' He said, 'You'll learn.'"
Langer's took over a liquor store, then a Crocker Citizens Bank, expanding to 140 seats by 1967. It had 50 employees on the payroll and stayed open until 3 in the morning on weekends, 1 a.m. during the week. Over the years, numbers of local and national celebrities and politicos have passed through the glass double doors: George Segal, Jack Lord, Buddy Hackett, Mayor Richard Riordan, Zev Yaroslavsky, Jackie Goldberg and Gil Garcetti have all been there. Shecky Greene used to come in. And somewhere in a scrapbook, Norm has a picture of his 5-foot-5 father standing next to the towering basketball great Wilt Chamberlain.
Langer's also used to cater weddings, Christmas parties, brises and other events. They still do funerals and parties for long-time clients, but not much else in the special-events department.
Norm, who began working at Langer's at age 17, remembers riding the swan boats at MacArthur Park, going to the movies next door and bowling down the street. Jean would take time out to sunbathe in the park. "I wouldn't set foot in there today," she said.
Still, Langer's is hanging in there. It was featured last week on KABC Talkradio, Fox TV, KTLA and in the Los Angeles Times in honor of its 50th. Neither Norm's two grown children nor his sister's two, pictured as tykes in photos hanging on the deli walls, are likely to go into the family business. But Norm isn't planning on leaving any time soon. And even though his parents don't work at the restaurant on a daily basis anymore, their son doesn't do anything without consulting them, and vice versa. That "100-percent communication" and respect has been the secret of survival for Langer's, Norm said. That, and the food, of course, which earned Zagat's rating as the No. 1 deli for seven consecutive years, including one rave review that said the pastrami "was worth risking your life over."
Well, worth a visit to Langer's Deli anyway.