REVIEW #81

21 Club

In the swanky, dapper days before we had SeamlessWeb, one would commandeer Grace Kelly to bring you a bottle of Montrachet and a meal from the 21 Club whenever you happened to be wheelchair-ridden or otherwise in need of delivery service. That, in any case, was the lucky fate of Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window. Not quite the same as Gordon Gekko telling Bud “Try the steak tartare. It’s off the menu but Louis’ll make it for you” before proceeding to hand over a check for half a million dollars, but an entire generation had elapsed between those two scenes. Throughout that time, the 21 Club has remained a NYC institution with a storied history that stretches back to its days a prohibition-era speakeasy known as Jack and Charlie’s Puncheon Club. It is now one of the last bastions of old-school traditionalism in the city. Gentlemen are still required to wear jackets, although the longstanding necktie requirement has been relaxed. But the strictures of formality are still well in place, notwithstanding the self-assured whimsicalness exhibited by the collection of antique toys and sports memorabilia hanging from the ceiling of the Bar Room and the red and white-checkered tablecloths. It’s an odd juxtaposition, this mixture of carefree, unstuffy design and clubby formality with old-world service – the kind, masterful raconteur Lorenzo Robinson, also known as the Rev (he holds two divinity degrees), held sentry as the gentlemen’s bathroom attendant for over two decades, a post his father, uncle and nephew also held at the 21 Club.

In actuality, much of the restaurant's decoration is patron-donated: Early on, horse breeders began donating the statute jockeys that line the outside entryway as symbols of their private horse farms and many of the hanging toys in the bar room were donated by professional athletes, sports teams and corporations. There are football helmets that belonged to Frank Gifford and John Riggins, a golf club belonging to Jack Nicklaus and baseball bats belonging to Willie Mays and Joe Morgan.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this with this sort of pedigree, the food must be lousy. Actually, it’s quite good. We commend Gordon Gekko’s example to you in this one limited respect, and suggest you try the steak tartare, now on the menu. Both the casual and more elegant fare is delicious, from the famed “21” Burger to the Dover Sole. You can also dine upstairs in the appropriately named “Upstairs at 21”, an intimate and romantic salon-like dining room with murals of New York landmarks set in the 1930s.

Any review of the 21 Club that didn’t touch on alcohol would be like a biography of Casanova that neglected to mention his proclivity for amorous dalliances. This is, after all, the place where a “teetotaling” Hemingway famously waved off the bartender’s offer of a Papa Double, the double frozen Daiquiri made to his particular specifications that he grew to adore in Cuba, by announcing “Since I'm not drinking, I'll just have a tequila.” In its early days, whenever there was a police raid, a system of levers tipped the shelves of the bar, sweeping incriminating liquor bottles into a chute that deposited into the city’s sewer systems. The bar’s legendary wine cellar, which was hidden in the basement behind a camouflaged 2 ½ ton door obscured by smoked hams hanging from the ceiling and a shelved wall filled with can goods, has doubled as the private storage facility for a coterie of luminaries: Gerald Ford, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Hugh Carey, Ernest Hemingway, Ivan Boevsky, Frank Sinatra, Gloria Vanderbilt, Sophia Loren, Mae West, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Aristotle Onassis, Gene Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Marilyn Monroe. The restaurant’s legendary martini is still one of the finest in the city.

The 21 Club is one of the quintessential NYC dining experiences. It will still be there a generation from now, charming diners with its class, history, pedigree, tradition and, of course, its delicious food and drink.

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INFORMATION

Midtown West
21 W. 52nd St.
New York (nr. Fifth Ave.)
(212) 582-7200
Mon, 5:30pm-10pm; Tues-Thurs, noon-2:30pm, 5:30pm-10pm; Fri, noon-2:30pm, 5:30pm-11pm; Sat, 5:30pm-11pm
    John Greeley, Executive Chef
    Phil Pratt, Wine Director

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    RECOMMENDED DISHES See All

    • “Speakeasy” Steak Tartare, mesclun greens with champagne vinaigrette, rye toast, prepared to your request
    • Pan-seared foie gras with English peas and black truffles
    • ‘21’ Caesar Salad, romaine, aged parmesan, garlic croutons
    • ’21’ Burger, toasted parker house bun, frisée, preserved tomatoes, sautéed onions, haricots verts, French fries
    • Sautéed Halibut, morel mushrooms and wild ramp risotto, brown butter, preserved tomato
    • Dover Sole, grilled or sautéed, golden cauliflower, carrots, turnips, brown butter sauce
    • Crispy black sea bass with champagne sauce.