The great New York delis, like their customers who've eaten a few too many pastrami sandwiches, are on the critical list. "The deli was a gathering place for a certain community, especially Eastern European Jews," says Ed Levine, author of New York Eats (More). "That's no longer true. When I was a kid, there was a local deli where everyone went - that was where they served the first dish I remember deciding on and ordering myself." The maniac deli men who kept the quality high - the Carnegies Leo Steiner, the 2nd Avenue Delis Abe Lebewohl - are mostly gone, too. So it's surprising that you can still get a decent deli meal at all. But you can, if you pick and choose your restaurant not by reputation or because of happy memories but by careful menu selection. If you want a pastrami sandwich, hand-cut, go to Katz's (205 East Houston Street; 254-2246). But wait: "You've gotta shtup the counterman," says Arthur Schwartz, former Daily News food guy, now a radio-talk-show host and director of www.foodmaven.com. "Give him a couple of bucks; otherwise it's not so good." A couple of Katz's garlicky grilled hot dogs are also the best cheap dinner in the East Village. The Carnegie Delicatessen (854 Seventh Avenue, at 55th Street; 757-2245) is uneven and the service is crummy, but the corned beef is still made in-house, and you can taste the difference. Expect to pay like a tourist, though. Sarge's (548 Third Avenue, near 36th Street; 679-0442) is underrated, especially its outsize bowls of chicken soup with huge kreplach. Surprisingly good burgers too. The real draw of Sarge's, though, is that it's open 24/7and delivers. "They were there for me when I was writing my book," says Schwartz fondly. "I gained a lot of weight."
And even though it's hardly undiscovered, the 2nd Avenue Deli (156 Second Avenue; 677-0606) still takes top prize. Mushroom-barley soup. Kasha varnishkes. Even really good French fries. It's the place to bring a first-time visitor to the city, or a lifelong citizen. The one catch: no cheesecake after dinner. Because its kosher.