An intrepid writer holes up at Fairfax’s 87-year-old Canter’s Deli overnight.
When I opted to spend an entire night inside Fairfax’s famous Canter’s Deli, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. After all, as Frank Lloyd Wright put it, “Tip the world over on its side, and everything loose will land in Los Angeles”—and the dinette has been slinging midnight latkes since 1931 to jetlagged tourists, teens pushing curfew, post-concert rock stars, industry heavyweights and every Angeleno in between. Who craves gefilte fish at four in the morning? How does the staff handle the long, dark night shift? And, most pressingly, when and how does a 24/7 restaurant get cleaned? I coaxed a night owl dining companion to join me and, over the course of seven hours, find out what it’s like overnight at Canter’s.
At 11pm on a Friday night, Canter’s is busy with millennial couples snapping photos of each others’ onion rings, aging rocker types with leather jackets slung over the backs of their chairs and a demographic I dub “the dad crowd”—lovers of baseball caps and pastrami sandwiches, who arrive with families of four and don’t need to look at the deli’s multi-page menu before ordering. A few dads come in pairs, ostensibly for late-night industry meetings. Over the course of the evening, I become more and more sure that Canter’s is the perfect place to write that screenplay you’ve been putting off: it’s comfortable, steeped in L.A. culture and thus inspiring, and, I’d soon learn, graveyard quiet after three.
Upon learning that my friend and I wouldn’t leave until sunrise, my server Douglas shrugs and asks if we’d like a plate of dill pickles. Canter’s is the only deli that makes their pickles in-house, he adds, and he turns out to be an expert—he’d worked at nearly every L.A. deli (“except Nate & Al’s”) before landing at Canter’s. The fact that I’m low-key living in his booth does not affect Douglas’ service in the slightest—he’s efficient and just the right amount of attentive, and he tops off my coffee cup no fewer than fourteen times. (I attribute every bit of this assignment’s success to Douglas, and to free refills.)
By midnight, the families with younger kids have settled their tabs, the dads are gone and only a few tables remain filled. A twentysomething couple holds hands over a vanilla cupcake with a single birthday candle as two adult children take their elderly parents out for midnight bagels. The vibe is locals-only, in that way that only Angelenos love staying up late to do something very relaxing and chill (see also: Wi Spa). Most of the high-energy weekend action is contained to the diner’s adjoining bar, the Kibitz Room. Canter’s servers—laid-back and convivial, chatting while they pour coffee—have decidedly more energy than the patrons.
Around 1:30am, the spot becomes relatively busy again. A family of tourists wearing Disney swag comes in for midnight breakfast. Inebriated concert-goers trickle in after a show at the El Rey, including a pair of girls wobbily leading each other to the precariously situated upstairs bathroom, carrying their heels and stopping often to lean against each other. “I just wanted pancakes,” one laments. Last call comes and goes at the Kibbitz Room, sending a smattering of OG regulars, all white-haired punks, into the adjoining banquet room to commiserate over steaming bowls of matzo ball soup.
By 2am, I’m feeling the sleepy, mellow energy of the other patrons, until an ingenious staff member starts blasting oldies. The servers hum along to doo-wop and Fleetwood Mac while they clear their tables. To return to the question of cleaning, Canter’s apparently undergoes a thorough clean at 3:15am every night, when the establishment is empty but for the occasional insomniac Time Out journalist. Books are balanced in a back booth, while Douglas mounts a ladder to painstakingly wipe down the overhead lamps above the banquet seating. He occasionally looks our way to ensure my coffee cup is at least half full, but I’m left to my own devices in the empty diner; I feel as if I’ve earned a place as part of the deli scenery, the way nature photographers dress like birds and hang out in swamps for months to get their perfect shot.
Uninhibited, the kitchen staff comes out to joke with the waitresses while everyone cleans and organizes. Cups are stacked into towers with gentle clicks; mustards and sugar packets are neatly arranged across shiny wood-printed laminate tabletops. It’s like this for hours—not a soul in the restaurant besides the hardworking staff, me and my friend, who stretches out in our booth and dozes off. Seventies glam rock plays as servers-cum-cleaners mop and sweep offering me a top-off of coffee or Canter’s trivia whenever they pas my table.
I don’t know what I was expecting at Canter’s at 4am—brawls? Beyoncé?— but it wasn’t a scene reminiscent of Cinderella’s mice jovially doing their chores. It’s cheery and intimate, and while not what I had anticipated, it’s a surprisingly pleasant way to spend the wee hours of a Saturday morning.
The peaceful monotony is broken when the first official Saturday customer arrives around 5:30am: a lone older gentleman who slides into a booth with his newspaper. Without missing a beat, the Canter’s staff sashays back into the choreography of hospitality, filling the new patron’s water glass and taking down the details of his bagel order. I’ve been inside this deli for six and a half hours. I gaze at my pickle plate, reduced to half a spear, and wonder how it could possibly still be crunchy when I feel so soggy and wilted. I walk over to the bakery and stand, flanked by babka and black and white cookies, and watch the sunrise. A handful of people trickle in between five and six: solo patrons and senior couples order tea and omelets. Douglas explains that they’re regulars, here to see their favorite servers who get on at six. He ads that the real rush starts around 8:30am, but that was after my shift was up; I’d made it to morning, and I was ready to go home. I get my last cup of coffee to go—plus a rugelach for the road—prod my companion awake and thank Douglas profusely for his time. He shrugs it off, turning to refill my napkin holder for a new table, a new day.