Canter’s Deli’s queen of pastrami on wry

Stop in to the iconic round-the-clock Canter’s Deli most nights during the 7 p.m.-to-4 a.m. shift, and you’re likely to encounter another icon — a short, solid woman in her 70s with auburn hair who wears a white waitress uniform with metal snaps, a black sweater and sports a youthful twinkle in her eye. This is Bella Haig, who started waiting tables at the deli 47 years ago and who now serves as manager and unofficial queen of Canter’s.

Raised in Boyle Heights, around the corner from the original Canter’s, she was an early patron. “We were poor; I was the oldest of five kids. My mother didn’t have much money, but she liked to take us out to eat. She’d take us to Canter’s, and we’d sit at the counter. They’d wait on us last,” Haig remembers, “because Mom was not a good tipper.” Haig began working early. “I worked all through high school, Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at a clothing store, Lerner’s,” she said. She married early as well, at 18.

The year that Haig started working at Canter’s, 1965, Lyndon
Baines Johnson gave his “Great Society” State of the Union Address, and the Beatles song “Yesterday” reached No. 1 on the charts, where it stayed for four weeks. Haig always chose to work the night shift.

“My kids were 2 and 7. My husband worked all day, and I wanted to supplement our income. I figured if I worked nights and he worked days, we wouldn’t have to have a babysitter. Now, I’m used to these hours. I prefer the night; it’s not boring.” Especially in the restaurant’s adjoining bar, she says.

“Our bar closes at 2 a.m., but customers find all sorts of sneaky ways to keep drinking,” she says. “They hide drinks between their legs, or pour them into their water glass.” Which is fairly tame compared to some of the shenanigans Haig has witnessed from the young rockers who stop in after the clubs close. A favorite trick? “I look at the stall and see two feet on the floor, and two feet not on floor. I usually just bang on the door and say, ‘It’s over. Get a motel. I’m gonna give you two minutes, then I’m gonna open the door.’ ”

These days, working 47 consecutive years in any job is remarkable enough — add to that the fact that Haig has never missed a single day of work. What has kept her going for so long?

“When they hired me as manager, they told me, ‘Pretend it’s your own place and run it the way you want to,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing.” Which means she takes things very personally. Such as when people try to skip out without paying the check. On numerous occasions she has put her life on the line, chasing customers more than four blocks down the street from the restaurant. She’s demanded expensive rings, watches and gold chains as collateral, and if someone is reluctant to part with their personal items, Haig doesn’t hesitate to enlist the police’s help. As for the actual running, Bella explains, “I could shop all day and work all night; my legs are good.”

Her vision is good, too. Nothing escapes her. Her two main responsibilities are keeping the diners happy and making sure the
waiters and waitresses do their jobs, and she confides that her staff regards her “with a mixture of friendship and fear.”

“They know I’m not gonna put up with any nonsense. And that I have the power to terminate them. That’s fire them,” she clarifies, “not kill them. But they also realize I’m gonna be fair and nice with them. If they’re slacking off, I don’t yell; I discipline. I take them to the back room and say, ‘What’s going on? Your customers need something, and what are you doing? I don’t see you working.’ I’ve had to let some go. Some take advantage or just don’t do their job.”

Haig relishes the celebrity customers, though they’re treated just like anyone else. “I waited on Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Rock Hudson, Van Halen, Anna Nicole Smith,” she says, listing just a few.

Rodney Dangerfield, she says, “was a pain in the neck. He used to try to sneak in beer. He’d put a menu in front of him — like nobody could see the beer. He’d come in every weekend and would want to try tastes of everything before making up his mind. I didn’t want to say no, because he was already not getting very much respect.”