Sixty-odd years ago, when Boyle Heights was a Jewish neighborhood and Canter's restaurant was on Brooklyn Avenue, Dean Zellman would stop in at the deli for his usual: a corned beef or pastrami sandwich and an egg cream. He would settle into one of the booths with his Uncle Al, or sometimes he would get a lunch to go for his father, who ran Zellman's Menswear across the street.
Today, of course, Canter's has long since moved to Fairfax Avenue and Zellman's is the last of the original Jewish stores in Boyle Heights. But that doesn't stop Dean Zellman from wishful thinking: "I could go for a corned beef sandwich right now on a Kaiser roll!"
Really, who couldn't?
When Canter's moved to the Fairfax area in 1948, transplanting those salty Eastside deli smells, it was joining a demographic shift that had begun a few years earlier. Fairfax Boulevard between Melrose Avenue and Beverly Boulevard was becoming the new Jewish hot spot. The history of Canter's can help explain how Los Angeles' Jewish community adopted Fairfax as home.
Alan Canter, son of one of the original Canter's owners, started as a pickle packer and delivery boy in the Fairfax store. Now 62, he remembers when small businesses lined the street and how a neighborhood developed, thanks to heavy pedestrian traffic.
Now, the Fairfax scene reveals bumper-to-bumper cars crawling past boarded-up businesses and fewer people on the street.
Where Ernesto Ramos, a cook for 39 years, used to get orders for such Eastern European favorites as gefilte fish, kreplach (meat- or cheese-filled ravioli) and kishka (sausage-like meat- and grain-filled cow intestines), a younger, eclectic, more health-conscious crowd now orders avocado omelets, unkosher crab salads and chicken and turkey dishes.
Corned beef and pastrami sandwiches remain tremendously popular. But people today are afraid of cholesterol and fat, Canter says.
Clearly, the old Fairfax of the 1940s had a different feel.
"It was an up-and-coming Jewish neighborhood, with plenty of room for expansion," says 79-year-old Harold Price, Canter's brother-in-law, who helped establish the eatery's Fairfax location.
At the time, the neighborhood boasted Fairfax High School and the Farmers Market, the Esquire theater and Billy Gray's Band Box, a flashy comedy club. Also: Cohen's deli, a bakery or two and the Fairfax theater on Beverly Boulevard, which attracted huge crowds.
In the late 1930s and '40s, the Fairfax Jewish community kept growing as families arrived from Boyle Heights and City Terrace, Los Angeles' Jewish centers since the early part of the century.
In 1931, before this population shift, Ben, Joe and Ruby Canter opened Canter Bros. Delicatessen on Brooklyn Avenue (now East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue), offering pickled herring and corned beef to the predominantly Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking neighborhood. Later, after a family dispute, Joe left to open the short-lived Canter and Son Delicatessen (with son Seymour) a few doors down.
William Gersh, 72, remembers meeting friends on Sundays in the original Canter's. "It was a gathering place for Jewish Eastern Europeans," he says.
The tradition continues. Now a Fairfax Canter's regular, Gersh meets 76-year-old Salomon Flatowicz for breakfast and a glass of seltzer water five days a week. They always sit in the same back booth and usually order a platter of lox, whitefish and smoked cod with cream cheese, bagels, lettuce, tomatoes and onions.
For the older generation of folks who had established businesses downtown, the streetcar system made commuting between the east and west ends of town easy. Lynn C. Kronzek, author of "Fairfax: A Home, a Community, a Way of Life," writes that it became increasingly possible to seek "upward, yet affordable, mobility."
So in 1948, Ben Canter and his best friend, Hymie Fisch, bought property on Fairfax Avenue: two connecting storefronts that became the new Canter's location. Their children ran the business--this time designed as a combination restaurant, deli and bakery--at 439 N. Fairfax, next door to where Schwartz Bakery stands today.
The original Canter's hung on in Boyle Heights until the early 1970s, but over the years, many of its Brooklyn Avenue neighbors, including Leader Barber Shop, moved to Fairfax too.
In 1953, Canter's moved into the Esquire theater building at 419 N. Fairfax and became a 24-hour restaurant, one of the first in the city. In 1959, it expanded north, buying out Cohen's deli next door. And in 1961, the Kibitz Room opened as a cocktail lounge that has attracted all sorts of scene makers through the years, from Jim Morrison to Courtney Love.
On a morning visit to Canter's, it's easy to see why customers keep returning and employees never seem to leave: It is a home away from home. The food may have changed a bit, the street may appear unkempt, more diners may show up with neon-colored hair, but Canter's still offers a comfortable dining environment.
Bruce Cooper, a 30-year-old motion picture writer, sits in his favorite booth twice a day, five days a week, for breakfast and lunch. Waitress Helga Fields knows he'll want toast and coffee to start, then maybe a fruit cup or Danish, a heel of rye or matzo ball soup. Usually, he'll stay for two or three hours while he writes. He says he likes to eat at Canter's because it's kept its older image.
In fact, that's what almost everyone says, from 82-year-old hostess Phyllis St. James to the kitchen help. It still has that warm haimish, or home-like, feel.
After celebrating its 50th anniversary on Fairfax last year, it seems to have finally found a permanent home.
"I think it would be almost impossible to duplicate," says Alan Canter. "It's too unique."