By Pamela Jacobs
The history of the famed ‘21’ Club is so interwoven with that of New York City itself, that dining at this New York landmark is like being placed directly into a black and white photograph of the Manhattan skyline and becoming a part of that rich history. It’s like stepping back in time, and for lovers of great food, of New York, and of nostalgia, there couldn’t be a better place in all of NYC.
To fully appreciate the magic that is ’21,’ you first have to know the history and intrigue behind it. It was started as a speakeasy in 1922 during the age of Prohibition, and after moving several times, found its permanent home in 1929 in a townhouse at 21 West 52nd Street.
In order to remain under the radar and to avoid problems with gangsters and the police, an intricate and highly technical system was devised involving fake walls and stairways, whereby staff members could enter a hidden vault using a wire rod, and liquor bottles could be released from above, hurling into secrecy and protecting the establishment during a potential raid. Much of this intriguing and exciting history remains today, and it’s recommended that anyone dining there strike up a conversation with a server or manager, and if you’re lucky enough, take a tour and inspect the secret vault (now next to the kitchen), where you’ll find wine bottles labeled with the names of so many politicians and celebrities, you’ll wonder if this could possibly be real. Stepping through that cellar door—which is a bit like stepping through a time machine door—you’ll swear you see the ghosts of patrons past.
Today, the restaurant occupies three townhouses—numbers 17, 19, and 21—and in addition to the main dining room and cocktail lounge, holds 11 private dining rooms, including that history-filled cellar, which is available for private functions. The rooms vary greatly by size and design, and have names and themes, such as the Orchid Room and Upstairs at ‘21’, featuring paintings of NYC during the four seasons, each from the viewpoint of a famous statue.
The exterior is easily recognizable by the iron gate and the 35 jockeys standing in front of the building. In the dining room itself, more history, old New York, nostalgia, class, and a good dose of whimsy mingle to create a totally unique and absolutely phenomenal atmosphere; it’s no wonder every president since FDR has dined there. Hanging from the ceiling is a collection of paraphernalia marking the visits of so many professional giants: sports equipment, model trucks, planes, and trains, all with corporate logos, dangle above the tables. A model Air Force One airplane on the ceiling was a gift from President Clinton. Hanging over the bar is Jackie Gleason’s pool cue from “The Hustler” that he swapped for a model train he’d been lusting after. Look around and you’ll see the table where Bogart had his first date with Bacall, and then subsequently proposed; you’ll also find a plaque over President Nixon’s favorite table. It’s been said about the ‘21’ Club: “Sit at the bar long enough, and everyone in the world will pass by.”
When I recently dined there for the first time (but certainly not the last), I was seated at Frank Sinatra’s favorite table: a spacious corner booth with a view of the entire restaurant. If it was good enough for ol’ blue eyes, it was good enough for me. I perused their menu of classic American dishes and ‘21’specialties, which are underlined to stand out. The appetizer menu offers everything from the decadent—caviar and shellfish—to the exotic—chilled Senegalese soup—to the traditional—a classic crab cake, one of their specialties, and a contender for the prize of top crab cake in NY. The Asian-influenced Ahi tuna tartare was also delightful, with coconut, lime, hearts of palm, Thai chiles, and taro root chips.
The most difficult decision of the night, by far, was what to have for an entrée. Their underlined specialties include: Dover sole with a champagne sauce, the famous ‘21’ burger, “Speakeasy” steak tartare, and creamy chicken hash, a favorite of Joe DiMaggio. Daring carnivores love the mixed grill of game, and there’s a delicious-sounding vegetable tasting for vegetarians. I deliberated for what felt like hours (the gracious server waited patiently), but finally chose the ‘21’ burger, which was apparently much-loved by Aristotle Onassis. I chose to have the pommes soufflés on the side, and eagerly awaited the arrival of one of NY’s most famous, and favorite, burgers, wondering if the food would be as great as the atmosphere.
The burger was simply outstanding. It was juicy, flavorful, cooked to perfection, and of the highest quality. I finished every last bite, then licked my fingers. The “secret” Sauce Maison served alongside, a tangy red sauce invented as a hangover cure for journalist Heywood Broun, was also fantastic. And those pommes soufflées, amazingly decadent, crispy, puffy cousins of the French fry, were out of this world, and perhaps the best preparation of a potato I’ve ever tasted. My companion’s Dover sole was an outstanding, superb dish that rivaled some of the best seafood entrees I’ve ever eaten.
I ended the meal with a Grand Marnier soufflé, which was incredible—moist, rich, fluffy, and steaming sinful goodness. My guest’s chocolate soufflé was equally perfect. The food, we decided, did manage to match the atmosphere.
As a born-and-bred New Yorker, I have a special place in my heart for restaurants that are truly New York classics, ones that couldn’t exist anywhere else, and are authentically Big Apple. And as a person who suffers slightly from a nostalgia similar to Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, in “Midnight in Paris,” I enjoy nothing more than being able to time travel every once in a while and enjoy something truly, genuinely historical. Finally, as a foodie, I simply love a great meal. I’m not sure how it took me so long to dine at ‘21’ Club, a restaurant as New York as the Statue of Liberty herself, but better late than never. Something this good was well worth the wait.