Wednesday, December 15, 2010

'21' Club

The inches thick secret door to the semi-private and historic wine cellar, essential for a speakeasy.

'21' Club
by Carol Joynt

Whatever you want to call it—hot, trendy, of the moment, the hot spot, the it place, in vogue, happening—there’s always a restaurant to fit the order. But rack up all the shimmering newbies and how many will be here 80 years from now, or even eight, or eight months? When the quest is firmament, a need to connect with New York, and the lore of great restaurants, plus some social cultural history, there’s only one place to go: the '21' Club. It's been a hot spot longer than hot was used to describe spots.

For fans of the cable television hits “Mad Men” on AMC and “Boardwalk Empire” on HBO—both just nominated for Golden Globes—there’s no watering hole more au courant. Both shows, each rich with period texture, pulled from this restaurant that was a product of Prohibition and had a defining moment in the sexy, groovy 60s.

“Mad Men” sent production designers to study its details for recreation on the back lot in Los Angeles. The creators of “Boardwalk Empire” wanted to learn more about the vibe of Prohibition.
An American icon, the the '21' Club, dressed for the holidays. The jockeys out front represent some of the best known stables in American thoroughbred racing.
The brass railing that leads down to the front door.
Through these doors -- have walked just about every notable person in New York and beyond. The beautiful brass door handles.
The warm red lobby looks more like the comfortable lounge of a men's club than a swanky restaurant (for a reason).
A snug nook in the lounge.
Patrons have been known to nap here, but we're not saying who.
Of the three main floor dining areas, this is the middle section. Table number '21' is on the left at the banquette.
The row of power tables in the first section of the dining room. On the left is President Richard Nixon's table, marked with a brass plaque.
This plaque says, "Richard Milhous Nixon, The President's Table, 18 September 1969," which was in the first year of his presidency.
Bob Considine was a well-known journalist, author and '21' regular. A native of Washington, DC, over his table hangs a Washington Redskins helmet.
Robert Benchley didn't have just a table at '21', he had a whole corner.
Fred Trump and Dick Flanagan shared a table.
The ceiling at '21'' is a Smithsonian-worthy collection of the toys of capitalism.
From the floor, looking up at the ceiling. The planes, trains, trucks and sports memorabilia were all donated by patrons.
Walk into its storied rooms today and it’s entirely possible to conjure Don Draper and Roger Sterling staring into martinis at the bar (yes, you can stand at the bar) and Nucky Thompson holding court on a banquette. In various stages of age and demeanor, real life versions of these fictional characters are at every other table.

Without doing a retread of the '21' history (Prohibition, the Kriendler family, Charlie Berns, every notable person on planet earth) it comes to this: when the holidays are upon us there are few finer places to spend a couple of hours. This is not only because the restaurant is beautifully decorated for the holidays, but also because at various lunches and dinners they invite in the Salvation Army band to lead the dining room (a choir of baritones) in Christmas Carols.
One of the patriarchs. Rezart Gorencavic, Executive Sous Chef.
I was fortunate this week to be welcomed in before the luncheon service, which allowed me to look more closely at some of the details. The '21' Club is all about the details, whether it’s the boys’ toys that fill the ceiling, the little brass plaques that denote who sat where, the secret wine cellar, or the myriad of private rooms upstairs. Who can’t help but love the room that is filled with cartoons and artwork from patrons who used their creations to pay off a tab? Or the “stein” room, or the “Remington Room.” The private rooms are rich with the history of the former speakeasy.

And then there’s the food. My first meal at '21' was in the early 70s. I had Sole Veronique and Rice Pudding. The sole dish is a thing of the past, but the Rice Pudding remains a rewarding classic. That’s not to say they don’t still have fresh Dover Sole. They do, served grilled or sautéed, and beautifully presented with baby vegetables.
Some close-ups of the ceiling: the toys of grown up boys ...
Former President Bill Clinton, a regular, contributed this replica of Air Force One.
How many restaurants have a chain saw hanging from the ceiling? In New York at least, probably only the '21' Club.
A skate from Olympic champion Katarina Witt.
And from Dorothy Hamill.
Bartender Tara Wright points to the pool cue Jackie Gleason used in his performance as Minnesota Fats in "The Hustler." Nearby items include an Arnold Palmer golf club and a John McEnroe tennis racket.
Tara Wright shows off the enduring splendor of '21''s back bar, pointing out it's still a bar where a customer can stand and have a drink.
The wall in the first dining section with framed dollar bills signed by a success of Treasury secretaries.
A wall of treasured photos among the upstairs dining rooms.
A dollar bill, number '21' of the 1985 Federal Reserve series, signed by then Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III. In 1976, Treasury Secretary William Simon sent '21' a signed two dollar bill to commemorate the nation's Bicentennial.
Once upon a time there was smoking: Cuban cigars from '21''s heyday.
A Leroy Neiman view of the '21' Cub.
Some of the beer steins collected by the late Peter Kriendler, one of '21''s founders. A whole room is adorned with them.
Jack Kriendler loved the wild west and so there is a "Remington Room," too.
Even after all these years its tough to adjust to '21' without the late and legendary Walter Weiss anchoring the door, reducing some fairly powerful individuals to supplicants as he dictated the seating. Or, standing nearby, orchestrating the overall flow, the elegant Bruce Snyder, who retired in 2005.

Still, '21' rolls on, as warm and buffed as ever.
Some of the "private stock" of wines held for special customers, including Elizabeth Taylor, Chelsea Clinton and Lorraine Bracco.
This little nook in the wine cellar was once Jimmy Walker's booth, where the New York mayor hid out during police raids upstairs.
The kitchen manager's office.
Detail of the dining table in the wine cellar.
Down in the basement, the business of getting ready to open for lunch.
The day's specials and a reminder: Smile, Be Happy!
If wine buckets could tell a story; the silver plates soldiers lined up for service in the '21' Club's basement
I’m here to share some pictures of the details, and the good lunch that was enjoyed with a dear friend and former colleague, Tom Mazzarelli of CBS News. While I had sole he had scallops. We shared some steak tartare. We were seated at table '21'. Remember that number for your next visit. It’s the banquette where Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis perched themselves and dished mercilessly in “Sweet Smell of Success.” Directly behind Number '21' is the banquette where Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen sat to film a memorable scene in the first “Wall Street.”

Settle into Gordon Gekko’s seat, gaze at the entrance to the dining room, and imagine all the sweeping or show stopping entrances that have happened at that spot. Sip a martini and eat well.
Men at lunch.
Today at the '21' Club the ladies who lunch generally come from and return to the office.
The bread basket is packed with an assortment of contrasting and delicious items.
Veuve Cliquot; perfectly chilled and bursting with bubbles. A menu packed with traditions.
Delicate and delicious steak tartare.
Caesar Salad with just the right amount of freshly shaved parmesan.
Dense with big lumps of backfin, the '21' Club crabcake is also encrusted in cornmeal.
The Pommes Souffle. Pancetta Crusted Sea Scallops with White and Golden Cauliflower Risotto.
Dover Sole, grilled and served with Baby Vegetables and Brown Butter Emulsion. Profiteroles a la '21' Club.
Classic Rice Pudding with a side of whipped cream.
A plate of cookies finishes off the meal.
The height of the lunch hours; no one dines at the '21' Club in under an hour.
'21' Club
21 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 582-7200
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