Cantor’s Deli Fairfax and my Toddler’s first Dill Pickle

After moving from Jersey City, New Jersey in 1931, the Cantor family opened a delicatessen in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. They chose the area because of a substantial Jewish population. After World War II, the family followed many of the area’s Jewish residents to the Westside of Los Angeles and opened the first Fairfax District location in 1948. In 1953 they moved to their current location in the former Esquire Theater. They expanded again in 1959 and added a cocktail lounge in 1961. The bar has to close at 2:00a.m., but the restaurant is open for 24 hours.

The Boyle Heights location closed in the 1970’s as the neighborhood changed and no longer supported the deli business as it had.

My first visit to the Fairfax location came in the early 1980’s when I visited Los Angeles with a college girlfriend. That means that I have only been enjoying their food for 35 years or so. Their pastrami sandwiches and potato knishes have been particular favorites for the entire time. The in house bakery serves amazing pastries, cheesecakes, and breads that often find their way into shopping bags for the ride home. According to Wikipedia, they serve 1,200 pounds of pastrami, 1,500 gallons of chicken soup, and 4,000 knishes per week.

At some point when I was doing school photography, I noticed the name Cantor on the envelope of a preschooler in the Westside. I commented on the name and his mother told me he was the grandson of the Cantor’s Deli founders. The conversation took an odd left turn to computers, and she told me that Fry’s had 540mb hard drives on sale for $249. It was such an amazing deal that I bought one the next day. Today, a one terabyte drive can be had for just $56.00.

A recent visit brought back the memory of my son’s first exposure when he was still in diapers. After working in various restaurants over the years and having to experience crying babies in the dining room, we did not want to cause the disruption so restaurant visits did not start until we hoped he could deal it. One of the first outings was to Cantor’s when he was probably a year or so old.

We got a booth in the main room and put him in a high chair. The place is always busy and his little round head was on a swivel as he took it all in. After we ordered, he started to get a bit fussy and we considered taking our food to go when a plate of pickles was delivered to the table. He already had some crackers, but for some reason one of us offered him one of the sour garlicky house cured pickles. In his little hands it was like a short baseball bat. When he first stuck it into his mouth, his eyes closed tight and his lips puckered as his head shook from side to side. We were waiting for the shriek of an unhappy baby but that is not what happened.

Putting it back in his mouth and puckering again, he tried to get a good grip and some sort of bite from his one or two teeth. He sat there quiet and occupied with that garlic dill pickle for the entire meal. It made him a happy little camper. Various waiters and even other diners stopped to look at him going to town. He became the star of the dining room and we were able to finish our pastrami sandwiches in relative peace.

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