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Carnegie Deli's Muriel Caraballo Hazes Tourists But Won't Eat Meat

Muriel Caraballo.Photo: Melissa Hom

The Carnegie Deli is known for its crabby waiters, but when we spoke to Muriel Caraballo about her patrons ("Thank God for the tourists!"), the famously cramped seating, and all those rules on the menu, she was sweeter than cheesecake. Just don't order your pastrami with mayo.

How have things changed over your fifteen years there?
Years ago, the waiters were very rude and obnoxious. Fifteen years ago, the management changed; the son-in-law [of owner Milton Parker, Sandy Levine] runs it much nicer. It's more like home. You have to be abrupt, but you can't be rude or you'd find yourself standing on Seventh Avenue looking in.

Is there still a feud between the Carnegie and the nearby Stage Deli?
Hands down, the Carnegie won. It's funny because my nurse said, "I went into the Stage a couple of weeks ago trying to find the Carnegie and nobody could tell me where it was." Even though it's right up the block!

What percentage of your customers orders the pastrami or corned beef?
Ninety percent. Oh, my God … I just wonder where they get all the cows! I'm a vegetarian myself — you can sell it, but you don't have to eat it.

What's it like serving a clientele that's 95 percent tourists?
It's like they come in off Walton's Mountain. They'll be ordering, and they'll say, "Do you know we're tourists?" and we'll laugh and say, "Just because you have that southern accent and you're ordering sweet tea?"

How do they react to the cramped seating?
They can't believe you're going to seat them with a stranger facing them. I always tell them we make sure we're not going to put a mass murderer in front of you.

Do they ever get to sit with celebrities?
Two weeks ago, I had three people who were really testy [about the seating]. Joe Pesci happened to be one of the people they didn't want to sit with, and he took off his sunglasses and said, "What's the matter? You don't want to look at my face?" They recognized him; he just laughed at them, and they sat and talked.

Years ago, Lloyd Bentsen caused a stir by eating a sandwich with a knife and fork. Are there any other taboos?
We really shun down to people who put mayo on corn beef and pastrami. I say, "Oh, my God, you want mayonnaise?"

What do you say to people who vow never to return because the service is so rude?
We have a sharing policy and minimums. We don't enforce the minimums, but we do enforce the sharing. People don't like it, and when they don't get what they like, it's because you're rude. But those are the rules.

Daniel Maurer

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