The history of Richmond’s sailor sandwich

Delve into the meaty history of this Richmond culinary invention.


New York Deli claims to be the birthplace of the sailor sandwich.

Photo by RICtoday

Table of Contents

“It’s just a darn good sandwich!”

That’s how Reader Burke W. responded when we asked what inspired his love of the sailor — a Richmond-born deli favorite with a passionate local fanbase. We dove into the history of the dish and its enduring status as a must-have on River City menus.

🥪 What’s in a sailor?

It’s definitely carnivore-friendly. The traditional sailor sandwich has pastrami, grilled knackwurst, Swiss cheese, and hot mustard on rye bread. Oftentimes, it is served open-face.

With some variations — Burke tells us they serve kielbasa instead of knackwurst at The Continental Westhamptoneach sailor is different, depending on where you sample it.

🥪 The history

New York Deli claims the title of the birthplace of the sailor sandwich. The story goes that from 1943-1945, naval officers undergoing a training program at UR would eat lunch at the deli. When the filling dish became popular amongst the trainees, the owner’s wife began shouting to the kitchen for “another sandwich for the sailors.”

The official inventor or namer of the sandwich has never been revealed.

Reader J.J. M. told us his love of the sandwich stretches back to when he started eating them at New York Deli in the 1960s.

“Went with my grandmother every other Wednesday,” J.J. said. “She would get her hair done at Irvin’s while I cruised Carytown; then we would have lunch.”

While the sailor hasn’t been adopted in many places beyond the 804, its influence has reached around VA. Reader Lisa M. told us about going to lunch with her mother in Sandston.

“She always got liver and onions (yeck!) or the sailor sandwich,” Lisa said. “[...] My love for that sandwich has carried me far and wide to duplicate those emotions.”

A sailor sandwich on a plate with fries and a limeade on a white table

We picked up a sailor and a limeade from The Continental Westhampton. | Photo by RICtoday

Photo by RICtoday

🥪 Where to try it

Following the suggestion of Burke and Reader Louise L., we picked up a sailor from The Continental Westhampton. It was late afternoon, and we were hungry — which is basically a requirement to be in the right mindset to tackle this sandwich.

We gathered reader suggestions for where to try a sailor if you’re a knackwurst newbie. Here’s where it was recommended:

  • New York Deli, 2920 W. Cary St. | If you want the historic sailor experience, you may want to head to its original home in Carytown.
  • Perly’s, 111 E. Grace St. | Perly’s “Jewish Sailor” has pickled red cabbage, red onion, and a schmear of chopped chicken liver in addition to the classic ingredients.
  • Dot’s Back Inn, 4030 MacArthur Ave. | Readers Lisa M., Lindsay M., and Mayor of Flavortown Guy Fieri all love Dot’s Back Inn.
  • Coppola’s Deli, 2900 W. Cary St. | Another Carytown favorite, recommended by Reader Burke W.
  • O’Toole’s, 4800 Forest Hill Ave. and 13919 Midlothian Tpke. | Reader Lisa M. recommends this Southside restaurant dating back to 1966.
  • Melito’s, 8815 Three Chopt Rd. | It’s just down the road from UR + is endorsed by Reader Louise L.
  • Chiocca’s, 425 N. Belmont Ave. | Richmond Magazine added the sailor at this Museum District favorite to its 2015 list of Iconic Eats.
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