The Canter family originally opened up a delicatessen in Jersey City in 1924. They came west along with many Jews from the northeastern United States in the early 1940s, and opened a delicatessen in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, which at that time had a substantial Jewish population. After World War II, the Jewish population of Boyle Heights left en masse for the Fairfax District, West Hollywood, and other West Side neighborhoods (as well as the San Fernando Valley) and Canter's followed the influx of Jewish businesses west, converting a movie theater which had previously shown Yiddish-language films to a delicatessen much larger than its previous spaces.
Canter's quickly became a hangout for show business personalities, given its location and its late hours. It has remained such ever since. In the 1960s, Canter's became a late night hang out for hippies, rock musicians, and other countercultural types, partially for the same reasons. Also, many rock musicians had grown up in Fairfax and West Hollywood, and the Sunset Strip was only half a mile away. Canter's has remained a favorite of rock musicians to the present day, and is still open 24 hours as always. Canter's is open every day of the year except for the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The bar in Canter's, called the Kibitz Room, has its own history and has been a favorite of music personalities. Even though the restaurant is open 24 hours, the Kibitz Room closes at 2 am. They have live music every night, and were the launch pad for plenty of bands, most notably the Wallflowers, Fiona Apple, and Rick Rubin's new project, the Vacation. The Big jam has had plenty of "A List" musicians sit in, including Phil Everly, Jackson Browne, Melissa Ethridge, and Marc Canter's high school friend Slash. Marc Canter, now the restaurant's owner, recently published a book about the early days of Guns N' Roses.
The restaurant has been featured in several movies and television shows, including HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm in the episode "The Blind Date". In 2007, Adam Stein, finalist on the fox tv show "On the Lot," filmed Dough: The Musical at Canter's.
Canter's is also prominently featured in Ann Patchett's novel, The Magician's Assistant.