Canter's Deli: The Story of An L.A. Icon

Classic comfort food on Fairfax 24/7

Canter's Deli at night
Canter's Deli | Photo courtesy of Toby Hancock, Discover Los Angeles Flickr Pool

"You can almost tell what time it is by the crowd," says Terri Bloomgarden, co-owner of the landmark Canter's Deli on Fairfax Avenue. The 24-hour deli is a Los Angeles staple, welcoming people from all over the city at all hours of the day. Plenty of celebrities have eaten here - even former President Barack Obama has stopped by the deli - but it's also a place where you can stop by day or night and grab a table.

There are regulars who eat multiple meals at Canter's every day, multi-generational families that come here to dine together, and party people who show up in the wee hours of the morning for a bite after last call. That's not to mention the people who roll in for a quick stop at the bakery, sometimes heading there straight from the airport to pick up some sweet treats.

Canter Brothers Delicatessen in Boyle Heights
Canter Brothers Delicatessen in Boyle Heights (1939) | Photo courtesy of Canter's Deli

Canter's has been family run since its inception. Bloomgarden's grandfather, Ben Canter, took the train to Los Angeles with his two brothers in 1929 and a couple of years later, opened Canter Brothers Delicatessen in Boyle Heights, east of Downtown L.A. "They were what I call strong, Russian stock, so if they had to sell watermelons from place to place or do whatever they had to do, they did it," she says, noting that while they say that Canter's opened in 1931, "it is possible that there was a restaurant before that."

You can see photos of the original restaurant on the walls of Canter's today. The much smaller space was located at 2323 Brooklyn Ave. (now Cesar Chavez Avenue) in what was then a heavily Jewish neighborhood. By the 1940s, people in the community were leaving Boyle Heights and moving near Fairfax Avenue - so too did Canter's. Bloomgarden's parents brought the deli to a spot not far from the current location. Meanwhile, Bloomgarden's grandfather had intended to retire, but that didn't happen as planned. He ended up buying the Esquire Theatre, which became the main dining area of today's Canter's.

Canter's Deli dining room
Canter's Deli dining room | Instagram by @samuelryde

The bustling restaurant is divided into three sections. The bakery and primary dining area opened in the early 1950s. Near the end of the decade, Canter bought the next-door deli, and that became the second dining area.

While Canter's added salads to the ample menu a decade or so ago, they still have all the deli staples, like pastrami sandwiches and matzo ball soup, that remain popular.

President Obama at Canter's Deli in July 2014
President Obama at Canter's Deli | Photo by @petesouza @petesouza

Celebrities have noshed at Canter's for generations. The famous faces include Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Mel Brooks, Tommy Lasorda, Gene Simmons, Jimmy Kimmel, Adam Sandler, Taylor Swift and Seth Rogen. The "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," Rodney Bingenheimer is a regular at Canter's and has a booth named for him. Nancy Sinatra dedicated the booth and a commemorative plaque hangs on the wall above the booth.

Bloomgarden has seen the neighborhood change since she was a kid taking ballet lessons across from the restaurant. Back then, she recalls, there was an open-air market, a shoe repair shop and other spots for people to take care of their day-to-day needs. "It was quite Jewish then," she says. "Holidays, people observed them, even if they were not kosher." She notes that, while there are still Jewish-owned businesses in the neighborhood, today, there are more restaurants bringing in the foodie crowd. Plus, she adds, Fairfax has become a hub for sneaker shops, where high-end, limited edition kicks can draw lines of collectors.

Don Draper and Pete Campbell at Canter's Deli in the "Mad Men" Season 7 premiere
Don Draper and Pete Campbell at Canter's Deli | Photo courtesy of "Mad Men," Facebook

Some things, though, don't change. While Canter's has undergone some slight alterations over the decades, its decor stays true to its 1950s self. There are sputnik lights in the restaurant and a room divider between the two dining areas covered in brightly colored circles.

With its mid-century interior, Canter's has made numerous film and TV appearances, including Neil Simon's I Ought to Be in Pictures, the Tony Scott thriller Enemy of the State, and episodes of Mad Men, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, NCIS Los Angeles and Private Practice.

Guns N' Roses at Canter's Deli in 1985
Guns N' Roses at Canter's in 1985 | Photo courtesy of Canter's Deli, Facebook

Adjacent to Canter's is the famed Kibitz Room, which opened in 1961. Located in a space that was once a candy store, the small bar is open daily from 10:30 a.m. until 1:40 a.m. and features nightly entertainment that ranges from open mic nights to Wednesday night's resident jazz singer, Tina Stevens.

Over the years, rising and established artists have played in the Kibitz Room, including Lenny Kravitz, Slash, Haim, The Kooks, Red Hot Chili Peppers and more. Check out the photos of Guns N' Roses on the wall; co-owner Marc Canter shot the band early in their career and you might find his book, Reckless Road, in the restaurant near the cash register.

Matzo ball soup at Canter's Deli
Matzo ball soup at Canter's Deli | Instagram by @wileydailey

Bloomgarden estimates that about half of the 175 employees have been with Canter's for 10 or more years, and about 20 of them have been around for at least two decades. Bloomgarden says that consistency has likely helped Canter's thrive for as long as it has. "We try to keep the quality as high as we can and the prices as reasonable as we can," she says. "I think people depend upon that."

Canter's Deli
419 N. Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles
323.651.2030
www.cantersdeli.com