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'We won’t let it happen again': Canter's restaurant vows to clean up its act after health violations

'We won’t let it happen again': Canter's restaurant vows to clean up its act after health violations
Canter's restaurant on Fairfax Avenue closed for three days earlier this month after an unfavorable Health Department inspection. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

At a time when Jewish delicatessens are becoming as rare as Borscht Belt comics, Los Angeles noshers are being served another heaping helping of bad news.

Canter's — the famed Fairfax Avenue deli and late-night hangout — was ordered closed this month for the first time in 20 years due to health code violations.

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When it reopened three days later, the Los Angeles County Health Department had bestowed the restaurant with a less-than-stellar C grade.

Food is again being served at Canter's.
Food is again being served at Canter's. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The developments have prompted an outpouring of sadness from deli lovers.

"There is no god," writer and comic John McKay said on Instagram. The 32-year-old West Hollywood resident said he and his friends had just eaten there a week before.

"A C grade? You've got to be kidding me," said Bruce Elliot, a 66-year-old San Fernando Valley native. "Who gave it a C? They ought to be ashamed of themselves."

Meanwhile, Canter's owners vowed to clean up their act.

"We are just having some growing pains as we evolve," part-owner Dena Stein told The Times on Thursday. "We won't let it happen again."

A health inspector visited the establishment Aug. 7, and while the bakery and deli received A grades, the restaurant did not.

Among other things, inspectors observed more than 10 cockroaches and 20 rodent droppings in restaurant storage areas, and more than 20 flies in the food preparation area, according to the health department. The inspector noted a total of 11 violations.

The health department describes vermin as a "major critical violation" that can lead to food-borne illness.

Because of that, the department ordered the Fairfax Avenue restaurant to close immediately.

The 24-hour restaurant reopened three days later on Aug. 10, after two follow-up inspections.

Although the bakery and deli earned A grades — those ratings are posted at Canter's front door — the restaurant was given a score of 72.

Stein said the violations were found mostly in the basement and that they have all been corrected. "The entire Canter's family, which has owned this business for over four generations, takes this rating very seriously. We apologize to our customers for any inconvenience," she said.

Two weeks after the health department delivered its verdict, customers were bellying up to the restaurant's polished wooden counters and booths as usual on Thursday.

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"To me it's still an A," said Phil Zelznick, 68.

Canter's Deli and the bakery both received A grades; the restaurant got a C.
Canter's Deli and the bakery both received A grades; the restaurant got a C. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Zelznick has been coming to Canter's about once a month for more than 30 years, a tradition he's continued even after moving to Adelanto. He orders the corned beef or the smoked fish and usually takes a bag of bagels, pastries and more fish home to tide him over until the next trip.

He said he was unaware of the restaurant's C grade, displayed as it was Wednesday at the entrance at the far end of the restaurant. But even if he had known, he wouldn't stop coming, he said. His father came here, and so did his cousin Harold, his aunt Eva and his uncle Mike. He says there are too few places like Canter's left. He wants to help keep it alive.

"It's a traditional Jewish deli. I was raised on this kind of food, but my kids don't come to places like this. Now these kind of places are closing all over," Zelznick said.

Fellow diner and friend Lance Kolin said he wasn't bothered by the temporary downgrade.

"At 68, it's too late to be worried about that kind of thing," Kolin said.

Traditional Jewish delicatessens have been struggling to stay afloat as their clientele ages and younger patrons seek out trendier food options. A surge in rental rates and food costs also forced some delis owners to rethink their business models.

In 2012, two longtime Southern California institutions — Junior's Deli in West Los Angeles and Jerry's Famous Deli in Costa Mesa — shut down following disputes over rent.

Canter's has revamped its menu, added a food truck and stepped up its delivery service. But for the most part, the restaurant, founded in the 1930s, tries to offer the experience that Zelznick and others recall from their childhoods. At lunch Thursday, white-haired customers noshed on pastrami and read newspapers in the honeyed glow of illuminated ceiling tiles.

Carmen Davenport, 69, said she's been coming since she was 16. She gets the Danish and the potato salad and sometimes the corned beef. She heard about the C grade on the news, but she was undeterred.

"I can't stop coming here," she said. "I love this place."

She said the restaurant's food has marked nearly every major event in her life. She was raised in the Fairfax District and remembers getting lunch at Canter's when she worked as a hospice nurse nearby. She's celebrated birthdays with her son and anniversaries with her husband here. A former waitress was her neighbor and their sons became friends.

"I saw the C and thought, well I'll just give it a chance. Everybody needs a second chance."

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