Canter's has always been an up-all-night spot, the place to end a party in the gentle company of waitresses who call you "dearie" and matzo balls the size of grapefruit. It's a family place, where three or four Canters are on duty at any of the 24 hours it's open.
In the last few years, the bar--the Kibitz Room--has become a thriving music venue thanks to a waiter's inspiration. "About six years ago, one of our waiters, Eric Gold, asked if his jazz band could play in the Kibitz Room on Monday nights," says Marc Canter, whose grandparents founded the delicatessen. "We said sure."
Gold has been waiting tables at Canter's for 10 years. He is an unassuming fellow--the name tag on his brown apron says, "Yo, Waiter!" The original plan was modest. "When we started, the idea was to come off Monday Night Football and hold the bar crowd," Gold says. "It didn't turn out quite like that."
"A lot of local musicians came in to listen, hang out, and drink $1.30 beers," Canter says. "It was a 22-, 23-year-old crowd, a lot of people who grew up in the neighborhood, like Rami Jaffee and Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers. Some of them asked if they could come in on a Tuesday to play.
"That first Tuesday night, a hundred people showed up. There were no fights and everyone had a good time. The crowd was the kind of guys who wear chains on their wallets--biker types, but mellow. Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers came and Lenny Kravitz." The Tuesday Jam Session now takes over the bar and adjacent dining room, with 300 to 400 people in attendance. Joe Simon, Tuesday night's music director, says: "I invite people I like, from street musicians to Slash from Guns N' Roses."
The crowd is welcome here. "A third of the people who come don't spend a dime. We don't care, because they make the scene what it is," Canter says. Now there is something going on in the Kibitz every night of the week. Wednesday through Sunday may be the nights when the mood best approaches that of the good old days the neighborhood boys remember.
"It's a living-room atmosphere," Canter says. "Every night turns into a jam session by 1 a.m."
Cabaret singer Tina Stevens presides on Wednesdays with jazz and pop tunes. Keyboard musician Joe Simon is "trying to establish a beachhead for jazz, acid jazz, blues, all that" on Fridays, Canter says.
"I refuse to play with a band," Simon says. "That idea of 'this is the drummer, this is the singer'--let those old structures go. When five people get together and throw what they've got into the pot and something new comes out--that's the future of music, and we have to move on into the future."
Simon laughs. "Listen to me. And here I am playing be-bop. But 'round about midnight, I mutate like crazy."
'Round about 11:30, Simon and assembled company are midway through a Herbie Hancock number when Eric Gold comes in from the dining room and dashes off a few Schoenberg-inspired 12-tone riffs on the tenor sax before hurrying back to deliver platters of brisket and gefilte fish to customers.
"This will last forever," Marc Canter says, "because nothing ever changes here. Look around--it's Canter's. Something new may go up, but nothing old ever comes down."
Where: Canter's Kibitz Room Lounge, 419 Fairfax Ave.; (213) 651-2030.
When: 9:30 p.m. nightly.
Cost: Beer $1.50. Matzo ball soup $2.25. Sandwiches $6.10 and up. Full menu and bar.