Thirty years after a poodle-haired, pre-trout pout Meg Ryan faked cinema’s most famous orgasm in a New York City deli, customers are still following her lead, writes Steve ‘Big O’ Pafford.
Sexually charged gasps and moans fill Katz Delicatessen “at least a couple times a month,” says co-owner Fred Austin, who’s in the process of transferring management of the 131-year-old Lower East Side establishment. to his nephew, the appropriately named Jake Dell.
However, Fred’s reluctant to admit they’re staged.
“A lot of people have an orgasmic reaction to our food,” he says, entirely unconvincingly.
He’s having what he normally has: breakfast in the kosher-style deli at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in July 2019—one of the few times there’s no line stretching out the door. During my final week of two climactic months coursing through the United States, I’ve come to ask him about the iconic When Harry Met Sally scene, though he insists it’s a rather short story.
Director Rob Reiner and his film crew approached Katz’s, then celebrating its centenary, in late 1988, mere months after Austin bought the store with his father-in-law, Martin Dell, and brother-in-law, Alan. The whole shoot took just one day in early 1989, with the movie going on general release on July 21.
“They just said, ‘We need to do a scene. We’ll need to rent the store for a day.’ Of course we had no idea how big it was going to be. It was our first time closing the restaurant for a special function.”
The orgasm in question lasts about a minute on-screen, but it took hours for the film crew to capture it. Meg Ryan, who declined to be interviewed for this story, reportedly spent hours trying to get it right. Shame her plastic surgeon isn’t such a perfectionist.
“I lost count—must have been at least a dozen times,” Austin says. “It was a tough scene for her. She would retreat to the safety of her motor coach in between scenes. But Billy Crystal was amazing. Even though he had to take a bite for continuity every scene, he ran over and had hot dogs and sour tomatoes in between.”
Austin watched from the sidelines (all deli staffers were replaced with extras), but because of his noted resemblance to Rob Reiner, “people were coming up to him and asking him deli questions and coming up to me and asking me directorial questions.” He didn’t see the pinnacle scene until it appeared in theatres—and only years later realised it had become one of the most famous moments in romcom history.
Back then, Katz’s was struggling. Construction on the Williamsburg Bridge slowed business, which didn’t recover until the early 1990s. The walk to Houston Street from Union Square or Alphabet City wasn’t particularly safe at night. There were no luxury high-rises within spitting distance of the deli.
Today there’s a sign affixed above the infamous table. “Where Harry Met Sally…Hope You Have What She Had!” it reads. (“We had the table tent on the table, but people kept stealing it,” Austin says.)
But customers looking to re-enact the notorious scene do so from any of the dozens of tables lining the place. However, that wasn’t quite good enough for me. Despite the queue out the door, during my first visit to Katz’s in April 2015, I had to wait all of five minutes to bag the actual cinematic table… once I told an elderly Italian couple in no uncertain terms they weren’t having what Meg had had.
It had the Pafford name on, see, for all of 20 minutes, and we (my Kips Bay hosts for that week: take a bow Andy Tomlinson, Ecem Karaharman and Michael Wei) were the perfect re-enactors (see what I did there?).
A fitting apex for the cut and thrust of NYC then. Oh, how we laughed.
Lower East Side story: Blondie’s New York City Blues is here