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Why I love quirky and wonderful Canter's Deli

Why I love quirky and wonderful Canter's Deli
Canter's on Fairfax Avenue has been a family-owned business for four generations. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In this age of highly curated artisanal food and free-range Scandinavian design, it’s easy to pick apart an institution like Canter’s. But I’ve been eating there since forever and I love it.

Canter’s provides the same level of comfort as lying around on the couch in your pj’s. It feels like home — if home is the dynamic L.A. life set in a slice of well- loved vintage.

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A colleague from Northern California recently asked me if Canter’s makes its own gefilte fish, and I burst out laughing. That’s not the point of Canter’s. It’s for when you want a wide swath of deli menu items but you want to put on zero airs. You can practically show up in your night clothes and no one blinks. For me, that lack of pretense is exactly the point. I know what I’m going to get — and what I’m not going to get.

The deli’s appeal is its consistency and its embrace of all who come. Every day, a parade of people of all ages and type walks through the front doors. Goths, punks, hipsters, grandchildren in quantity, Supreme heads, hippies, middle-aged writers still waiting for their first break, seniors eking out a day’s meal on Social Security.

Then there are my faves to watch: kids in their early 20s, accompanied by their bewildered visiting parents. For a moment, I see the place through their eyes, the freewheeling mix of the clientele that makes Canter’s what it is. It delights me that I live in a town where there is still a place for strange.

Oh, the waitresses and waiters are the best, beloved to the “regulahs” — as some call us. When my mom had her needlepoint store, Petit Point Junction on Robertson Boulevard, she would start everyday at Canter’s. Jeannie, who worked there for more than 50 years, would greet her with a “Hi, hon.” “How ya doing, babe?” my mom would respond. This went on for more than 20 years.

When the ceiling collapsed after a severe rainstorm, Jeannie was on the sidewalk making sure no one got hurt walking through construction debris. When the new ceiling turned out to be a fake stained glass evocation of fall in New England, it added yet another layer of weirdness to an already quirky place.

Everyone is greeted like they are family and handed a menu that requires two hands and considerable focus to wade through. But we regulahs know what we want before we hit the door, and what a comfort that is.

Weekday lunch, it’s a tuna melt with fries. Monday early dinner, a bowl of barley bean soup. Leisurely breakfast, the lox and bagel plate. Sure, it’s not the double-smoked lox at Wexler’s, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s Canter’s. It’s more than what’s on the plate.

Kleiman ran Angeli Caffe for 27 years. She’s the longtime host of KCRW-FM’s “Good Food” and a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.

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