The tables were filled and the clock turned back at Canter's on Monday, as the landmark Fairfax deli lowered the price of a corned beef sandwich to 75 cents in honor of the restaurant's 75th anniversary.
Cashier Tom Gordon, who answered questions between fielding phone calls and ringing up tabs, said his crew expected to serve 10,000 corned beef sandwiches during the one-day, 24-hour promotion. That's about 5,000 pounds of corned beef, by his reckoning. But that's nothing compared to the restaurant's estimates of their cumulative servings of 2 million pounds of smoked salmon, 20 million bagels and 24 million bowls of chicken soup.
It's been 75 years since the Canter brothers moved west from Jersey City and opened a restaurant in Boyle Heights, east of downtown, in the center of what was then a bustling immigrant Jewish neighborhood. As the tribe migrated westward, Ben and Jenny Canter opened a second location at its current spot in 1953, eventually closing the original Eastside spot. The family also owns a restaurant in Las Vegas, which opened in 2003.
Some things at Canter's never seem to change. The pickles are still made onsite according to Ben's original recipe. And the few sugar-free baked goods are overwhelmed by the markedly sinful display of sweets that you must pass as you enter. But the updated and ever-gargantuan menu also includes Mexican-style offerings and healthier plates like the Orange Almond Salad, which is what Wade Twitchell would have ordered if corned beef wasn't selling for 75 cents. Twitchell had brought along Brian Ewell, 13, who would have ordered coldcuts, but couldn't resist the 75-cents logic either. But Dawn Sharpe, originally a deli-goer in Dorchester, Mass., has been a pastrami/corned beef gal from the word go. She conceded, however, she might not have made the drive from Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley if the price hadn't been so right.
The line outside varied in length throughout the day, but it was never short. Still, it seemed to move fast -- a good thing since the appetite-maddening smell of corned beef wafted at least two blocks away.
The topsy-turvy prices had consequences up and down the street. For one thing, a street person in black boots and a knit cap was asking passersby for 75 cents, as though that were the going price. And it looked as though some familiar street denizens were actually in line for sandwiches. But things were not going well at the nearby Schwartz Bakery, where the line of Canter's customers effectively blocked the storefront.
"No one is breaking through the line to get to my store," complained the woman behind the counter. "It's been like this all day."
Reporter's Postscript: The situation was no better for me, a regular Canter's customer, after all, who was able to get close enough to photograph and takes notes on the corned beef, but lacked time to stand in line. Luckily, the poppyseed danish from Schwartz's was first-rate.