As far as we can tell, the Sailor sandwich may very well be Richmond, Virginia’s most well-known food item. You can find it on numerous restaurant menus in the area but not too many places outside of Central Virginia.
The origin of the Sailor is an enigma. It is unofficially said to have been concocted during WWII at the New York Deli in the Carytown shopping district, perhaps as a blue plate special that just stuck around. According to local lore, Naval seamen in the V-12 Training Program at the University of Richmond would frequent the restaurant, ordering the mystery sandwich to such a degree it became synonymous with them.
We were inspired to recreate this at home because we think the Sailor deserves far wider recognition.
What exactly is a Sailor sandwich ?
The traditional Sailor Sandwich is comprised of:
- Deli beef pastrami
- Melted Swiss cheese
- Split grilled knockwurst
- Spicy brown deli mustard
- All piled on buttered rye bread and grilled!
Interestingly, the knockwurst bears a vague resemblance to a submarine, navigating through a sea of pastrami and swiss. Whether its creator intended this is up for debate.
Where to get a Sailor Sandwich if you’re visiting RVA (That’s local shorthand for Richmond, VA)
Our top picks
- Perly’s : The Jewish Sailor is by far the most inventive version we’ve encountered. It features extra ingredients like purple pickled cabbage and chicken liver schmear. Located downtown.
- New York Deli : This is where it all began. Located in Carytown.
Other good options
- Chiocca’s: Located in the Fan District.
- O’Toole’s: Located in Southside, Westover Hills neighborhood.
- Padow’s: Multiple locations.
Ships ahoy: Making a Sailor Sandwich
How NOT to sink your Sailor
- To get the best melt on the cheese and warm everything thoroughly, this is best grilled in parts (described below) on a cast iron griddle. In this demo, we used a Lodge griddle pan because of its low rim.
- Alternatively, you can use a large skillet; however, you risk burning your hand on the lip when flipping. The sandwich is weighty once assembled. A griddle lets you get level with the bottom slice to slide right under your Sailor.
- If you don’t have one, we highly recommend getting a metal burger flipper. It’s pretty versatile and can get under anything thanks to its beveled edge. Plus, it can be used for all kinds of grilled sandwiches, flipping pancakes or serving pizza.
Grilling the filling
Start by buttering two slices of the rye bread on one side. We used seedless here, but it tastes great with the caraway seed kind too. Flip one slice over and set aside.
Next, split the knockwurst in half, but don’t cut all the way though so that it folds open like a book. It’s going to lay flat on the sandwich so it doesn’t roll off.
Set the griddle over medium heat and grill the flat side of the knockwurst until browned. Flip and grill the other side until the casing blisters slightly. Set aside on a plate.
Then, place the pile of pastrami on the griddle over medium-high heat and grill first side for about a minute. It’s okay if gets slightly browned.
Flip the pastrami over and place two slices of the cheese on top. Cover with another frying pan, a heat proof bowl or tent with foil for about a minute. The trapped moisture will steam melt the cheese.
Building the sandwich
Once melted, slide the flipper under the pile and lift onto the slice of bread with its non-buttered side up.
Lay the grilled knockwurst flat side up onto cheese. Squeeze the desired amount of mustard on the knockwurst and place the other bread slice, with its buttered side up, on top.
Grilling the sandwich
Reduce heat back to medium and lift the assembled sandwich onto the griddle and toast until both sides of bread are golden brown, 1-2 minutes per side.
Slice the sandwich in half and serve with kettle potato chips, fries or potato salad. If you have it available, we also recommend a can of Dr. Brown’s soda.Print
The Sailor Sandwich: A Richmond, Virginia Original
This sandwich is a Richmond, VA favorite, piled high with pastrami, knockwurst and Swiss cheese on rye bread.
- Prep Time: 5
- Cook Time: 10
- Total Time: 15 minutes
- Yield: 1 Sandwich 1x
- Category: Sandwich
- Method: Grill
- Cuisine: American
- 2 slices rye bread
- unsalted butter
- 4 oz pastrami (or more if you want a heartier sandwich!)
- 1 knockwurst
- 2 slices Swiss cheese
- Brown Deli Mustard
- Start by buttering two slices of the rye bread on one side. Flip the slice over and smear mustard on one slice. Set aside.
- Split the knockwurst in half, but don’t cut all the way though, so that it folds open like a book. It’s going to lay flat on the sandwich so it doesn’t roll off.
- Set the griddle over medium heat and grill the flat side of the knockwurst until browned. Then flip and grill the other side until the casing blisters slightly. Remove from griddle and set aside.
- Place pile of pastrami on griddle over medium-high heat and grill first side for about a minute, until slightly browned. This will warm up the bottom to help in melting the cheese.
- Flip the pastrami over and place two slices of the cheese on top. Cover with another frying pan or tent with foil for about a minute. The trapped moisture will steam melt the cheese.
- Reduce heat to medium. Assemble the sandwich, placing the pastrami and cheese on the first slice of bread and then topping it with the grilled knockwurst.
- Lift assembled sandwich onto griddle and grill until bread is toasted and golden brown, 1-2 minutes.
- Flip sandwich and repeat on opposite side until golden brown.
- Remove and slice sandwich in half. Serve with kettle potato chips.
*We recommend using a pan or a griddle with a low rim to make it easier to flip the sandwich.
Keywords: sandwich, pastrami, knockwurst, Sailor sandwich, deli
Thank you so much for this!
When our whole family went to the NY Deli for Sailors back in the 60s – the thing we asked for (and I think most people did) was a schmear of tomato paste. The server would ASK – so it was a thing. It really “made” the sandwich! Just an extra richness and layer of flavor. Plus Dr Brown’s Cream Soda to go with and a side of the Deli’s excellent potato salad. Mmmmmmm.
Seasoned Cooks says
That’s awesome Cyndi, glad you liked! We’ll have to try that addition next time for some added flavor complexity.
The best sailor sandwich will have Naval or Brisket pastrami, not Beef Round. The Knockwurst should also be a “skin on” variety.