As far as traps go, tourist traps are not the most hidden. The lure is obvious, but just as displayed are the tines: long lines, jacked-up prices, warnings in every guidebook from here to hullabaloo. Take, for example, New York City’s own Katz’s Delicatessen, that all-day nearly all-through-the-night send-your-boy-a-salami pastrami tourist trap deluxe.
Today Katz’s, with its neon-pink—literal pink neon—sign and awkward grouping of its apostrophe, has become as a light is to a moth to the touristic hordes. They line up on the south side of Houston Street, stretching westerly from the door, past ugly green plywood construction walls, nearly all the way to the empty shell of American Apparel. Once inside, it’s hard to walk out—impossible really without a ticket—without getting dinged for a $21.95 sandwich, which, anywhere else, would be pure larceny. At nearly every table, there’s a Sally wannabe fake-cumming. But none look at all even a little like Meg Ryan and few even like Billy Crystal. It is, in short, a nightmare. And yet . . . yet . . . to Katz’s we go.
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To Katz’s and to Barney Greengrass and to Balthazar in New York City, to Jim’s and to Pat’s and to Geno’s and Reading Terminal Market in Philly, to Café Du Monde and Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, and to countless other restaurants in cities around the country (and the world), we join the wide-eyed tourists to eat at the altar of the known. For we, too, despite our pretensions of being worldly, are wide-eyed.
Not all tourist traps are worth it. Heartland Brewery, for sure, and Tavern on the Green are the yawning maws into which tourists tumble, and there are many like them across the country. Behind the large spinning guitar of every single Hard Rock Cafe around the globe, there is a body snare poised to dangle tourists like unfortunate coyotes. But a surprising amount of so-called tourist traps—hell, a surprising amount of actual tourist traps—are worth it.
Photo: Courtesy of Cafe du Monde
What inoculates a tourist trap from shlockiness? Back to Katz’s. Though there are no waiters at the delicatessen, interactions with the Katz’s staff are as important as the thick, moist pieces of pastrami piled high on rye. Saliently, the line of white-coated cutters behind the glass, above the meat, long knives in hand, treat all who stand before them with the same gruff solicitude. They aren’t rude, exactly, but there is no faux chumminess either. They are strictly business. In short order, a cutter ascertains which kind of sandwich, which kind of meat (lean or, better, moist) and whether it’s "for here or to go." Then there are pickles and, perhaps, a slight nod to the tip jar, and then you cease to exist before them. Doesn’t matter if you’re from Lubbock, Texas, or Ludlow Street. The sandwich makers are like Lady Justice: blind. Behavior they don’t like—dithering, fickleness, inadequate preparation (as if you hadn’t thought about whether you want a pastrami Reuben or a corned beef sandwich until the very moment they ask), impecunity—isn’t based on point of origin. Locals can be buffoons, too.
In Philadelphia, at places like Jim’s Steaks on South Street or the dueling Pat’s and Geno’s, the dynamic is similar. From behind a counter comes the famous quo vadis: "wit or witout?" (That is, would one like chopped onions with one’s cheesesteak?) And if you say, “Whiz wit,” which indicates a desire for both onions and Cheez Whiz (as opposed to provolone), in a split second the counterman will ascertain if this is something you read on Urban Dictionary or a guidebook, or whether the words come naturally to you. Either way, he will remain impassive. Too busy over a flattop grill, steaming with mounds of meat.
Photo: Courtesy of Reading Terminal Market
As in the queue at Jim’s, the aisles of Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia are clogged with slowly perambulating tourists. Many spill over from the nearby Convention Center. Cheerleaders on their breaks and pharmaceutical reps in need of a snack. Many go because they feel like they must. So one could be forgiven—I suppose—for dismissing the market as just another tourist trap. But they do so at their peril. For the market, and markets like D.C.’s Eastern Market, and Pike Place in Seattle, and West Side in Cleveland, like Katz’s Deli, coexist in this double light as tourist trap and totally legit.
From fresh pretzels gracefully knotted by bonneted Amish girls and brushed with butter at Miller’s Twist to a moist roast pork sandwich crowned with broccoli greens at DiNic’s, there can be no quibbling with the quality of the food at Reading Terminal. And this, perhaps more than any other factor, is what redeems these places. Unlike, say, the Empire State Building, certainly a tourist trap, restaurants and markets are constantly renewed. When the food is good, each order from the kitchen or the counter breaks the chrysalis of a true tourist trap. (When the food is bad, the prices high and the lines are still there, a trap trebles in its cupidity.) The long lines snaking from Café Du Monde, and that, yes, many New Orleanians prefer Morning Call for the beignets, matters less when the pillow of powdered sugar-covered warmth arrives after brisk inquiry. They are too good to be bad.
Properly speaking, the lure of the tourist trap isn’t the food. It’s that the food, and the entire enterprise really, captures something innately of the place the tourists have come to visit. Think of Katz’s again, which on a block now exploded and being rebuilt as luxury condos is one of the last buttons of what the Lower East Side was. What but buffoonish snobbery could convince anyone not to revere its place and not to wait patiently in line for the chance to order a pastrami sandwich? Does it matter with whom you wait? Sure, there are tourists, but the trap is only your mind.
Pack your passport—and an appetite—as we hit the world's hottest culinary destinations on and off the grid all month long. Now Boarding: your next trip to paradise.
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