Forty Years Later, Are These Philly Favorites Still the Best?
Famous 4th Street Deli
Then: Best Deli: “Where you can still get it while it’s hot. Fresh, not fatty. Corned beef is excellent. Your mouth could water driving by.”
Now: If you really want to see a young kid’s eyeballs pop out of his head, take him to the Famous, as it’s known, and order a sandwich, as I discovered on a visit with my seven-year-old son. What emerges from the deli counter is less a sandwich and more a towering tribute to gluttony and smoked meat.
“How are we supposed to eat this, Daddy?” was the question he asked after laughing his butt off at the sheer ridiculousness of the portion (and this was a regular sandwich … not the impossibly huge “zaftig” version). It’s a fair question, seeing as a human being is physically unable to consume a Famous sandwich in the normal fashion—i.e., by biting into it head-on.
One of my first visits to the deli—actually, to the newer 19th Street outpost—was with D. Herbert Lipson, chairman of this magazine, who was also at the helm back in 1974 when we gave the award to the original 4th and Bainbridge location, which is still there. Lipson showed me how to do it: You order one sandwich to split between two people and get a couple of extra orders of thinly sliced bread on the side. The servers don’t seem to mind a bit that you’re sharing food, and I’m guessing this must be the norm, given the size of things. (Plus, one regular sandwich will set you back $10 to $20. But when you split it, it feels, however nonsensically, like a bit of a deal. (And people always like a deal—then, now and forever.)
We’ve done this sandwich-splitting on a few occasions now, and after eating our fill, we always seem to leave with a box containing lunch for the next day. I’m not normally a big fan of restaurants where people walk away raving about the portions, since the quality of the food tends to be inversely proportionate to the amount they give you, but at the Famous, those two things are just about equal.