This is 30: On how the Red Line revived my business

Norm Langer at the office. Photo by Aurelia Ventura

Earlier this year, Metro celebrated the Red (B) Line’s 30th birthday, prompting memories of its early days. The debut of LA’s first modern subway had a huge impact on Angelenos –– it created thousands of jobs, spurred the construction of dozens of mixed-use developments, and played a major hand in the revitalization of Downtown. One of the Red Line’s most delicious beneficiaries was Langer’s Deli, LA’s beloved temple of pastrami, located less than one block from the Westlake / MacArthur Park Station. The Red Line drove business to the deli, and the deli returned the love. When the Red Line welcomed its millionth rider three months after it opened, Metro honored her with a year of free rides … and a $100 gift certificate to Langer’s.

Langer’s has earned a lot of press over its 76-year history, but I wanted to learn more about the impact of Metro Rail, so I recently decided to pop over on the Red Line. When I arrived at the tail end of lunch hour, the deli was still hopping––I saw office workers digging into hunks of corned beef, families noshing on pickles and matzo ball soup, and regulars browsing the newspaper over coffee and kugel. Norm Langer and I found a free booth, I ordered a #19, and in between bites of pastrami, Norm described the early days of the Red Line. This is what he told me.

By Norm Langer

In the early 1990s, my restaurant was struggling. This bustling Jewish neighborhood where my father had opened the deli had become much more difficult. There was a lot of gang activity. The ‘92 Uprising was still fresh in peoples’ minds, and a lot of my old regulars who used to bring their families didn’t feel safe driving out here. Sales lagged despite cutting hours and starting curbside service (yes, we delivered curbside decades before other restaurants adopted it during the Covid pandemic). We are a little more expensive than nearby places, so we can’t rely on foot traffic alone. We weren’t doing enough business to warrant staying here.

I had thought about moving a couple of times. But it would be impossible to open a second restaurant. This is what I believe: this place is thriving because I’m here. Part of that is ego. My dad brought me up and trained me to believe that if we provide the same product today that we did when we opened, we’ll never have a problem. You can’t do that at two locations. You can’t run two places the way I want to run one. They say, “When the cat’s away, the mice come out to play.” You can make more money running multiple locations, but it isn’t all about money.

“My dad brought me up and trained me to believe that if we provide the same product today that we did when we opened, we’ll never have a problem.” — Norm Langer

I first heard about the new train during the 1980s. But it took a very long time –– longer than anticipated –– to build. Workers requested to use my parking lot since we were so close to the Westlake / Macarthur Park station construction site. (But they asked nicely and repaved it when they were done.)

Toward the end of 1992, when the RTD started running test rides of the new subway, a friend of mine rode in one. When the train neared the last stop, the captain made an announcement:

“We are now arriving at the Langer’s Delicatessen Station.”

That’s right; we were the biggest attraction at the end of the line. After that moment, things began to change.

The Red Line opened on a Saturday. Those first few days, the rides were all free, and thousands of people rode. My employees all wore Red Line t-shirts; that’s how important it was. Four days later –– a Tuesday –– I checked our waiting list during lunchtime. There were 500 names on it.

My restaurant only has 135 seats.

A reporter asked me what I thought about the new subway and I didn’t hesitate in my answer. “I would like to thank Mayor Tom Bradley,” I told him, “for spending 1.2 billion dollars to rejuvenate my business.” And I meant it. We even considered paying the return fares of diners who came to us on the Red Line.

The train brought new customers to the restaurant—so many more than would have fit in my small parking lot. Days after the Red Line opened, I started seeing judges, lawyers, and people in power suits come in for lunch from Downtown. In 1999, when Metro completed the extension to Hollywood and Vine, I started seeing doctors and nurses from East Hollywood facilities, producers, writers, and other industry types.

This depiction of Norm and his father is part of Sonia Romero’s ‘Urban Oasis,’ a series of 13 artworks documenting her observations of MacArthur Park.

Jonathan Gold wrote his first review of my restaurant in 1991. This was important to me. Jonathan wrote reviews not only for the big people but for the people. As his career took off, he continued to sing our praises––he thought we were the cat’s meow, and he wanted everyone in Los Angeles to know. In 2001 and 2020, we won the James Beard Foundation’s “America’s Regional Classics” award. Jonathan Gold might have been the biggest boost in terms of giving us an audience, but the Red Line was how many of our new patrons reached our door.

We don’t rely on the Red Line today quite as we used to. People come to Langer’s from all over. But the train is still essential. If you go into Westlake / MacArthur Park station today, you can find a large red and white mosaic tile on the south wall at the mezzanine level. The tile depicts my father and I sitting in one of the booths talking over a pastrami sandwich.

The Red Line was my light at the end of the tunnel.

Got a cool story about taking transit in LA? We want to hear from you! 



Categories: Transportation News

Tagged as: ,

8 replies

  1. I worked as an RTD Police Officer when the Redline opened. To this day, that was and is the best Pastrami sandwich I’ve ever had. I think it’s was the #1 on the menu. We knew when we worked that station, we were always in for a treat when we went there to eat. Huge sandwich also! Thank you for those memories!

  2. Great story, Norm. Continued success from one pastrami and matzo ball soup lover to another.

  3. My husband’s grandfather was a conductor on the earlier transit line. Langers has or had hanging on their wall a picture of his grandfather standing next to the streetcar in the early 50s.

  4. I remember those days working Downtown when the Red Line cost 25 cents and only went as far west as this station (MacArthur Park). When the extension to Western opened in 96, they raised the cost to $1.25 I believe and Al Langer was pretty upset about that as he thought it was going to kill his business. Luckily, that didn’t happen. Hopefully, we’ll be able to ride the subway from the Westside to Langer’s in the not too distant future.

  5. I find it interesting that the MTA hasn’t built a mixed use project at the MacArthur Park station although this area is in need of Affordable Housing. Vermont has Affordable Housing,Western has Affordable Housing, Santa Monica is getting Affordable Housing, Hollywood and Western has Affordable Housing, even Hollywood and Vine has Affordable Housing. Only Beverly Bl. and Sunset Bl. lack housing. It seems stations with high latino populace have been ignored. My only guess is the bribes, political contributions, are lacking near each of these stations.

    • I find it odd that it falls to Metro (or at least in your view) to build affordable housing. That should be the purview of a different part of government.

  6. When it was open the first segment of the Redline, most of us working at the MTA would go to Langer for fantastic and the best Pastrami sandwitches, almost everyday.