The Last of the Great New York Joints
Our recent trip to New York City included New Year’s Eve at the famous 21 Club. This was the second year in a row that we dined at 21 on New Year’s Eve, and I guess if you had to choose a place to have your last meal (for the year, anyway), you couldn’t find a better spot. I’m a sucker for historic restaurants and bars, and they just don’t get any more historic than 21.
The place was started during the prohibition years as a speak-easy and was actually raided by the feds at least twice. A secret wine cellar was built to hide the contraband booze in case of raids. That hidden room is still used today as a private dining room. The building itself is in a townhouse (21 W. 52nd St.) which was built in 1872, part of an entire street of townhouses.
I never had authentic Dover Sole in my life, so last New Year’s I saw it on their menu and asked my waiter about it. He said, “If you’re ever going to try it, this is the place to do it.” I did, and it was absolutely the best tasting fish I have ever eaten! Since then, I have ordered Dover Sole at another restaurant — a very good place too — but it wasn’t the same. That Dover Sole at 21 is something special. This time around, I ordered their famous 21 Chicken Hash, which was not as spectacular as the sole, but very good in its own way.
The whole thing about the 21 Club is, not only is the food really good, but the place has a sexy history and reeks of old New York society. All the famous big shots from every walk of life have been to 21. Every President since FDR (with the exception of the last two) has dined there. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had their first date there. Alfred Hitchcock had a long-standing connection with the place. (I happen to know that one of his favorite meals was that of Dover Sole, so I’m sure he must have ordered it at 21 from time to time.)
For the most part, people dining at 21 know exactly where they are and understand what it is all about. They know they’re eating at one of the last great New York hangouts and they dress for the part. People come dressed for dinner at 21, believe it or not. It really makes for a total experience. Dinner at 21 should feel special and it does. I always feel great walking in dressed in my suit; it feels right — it makes me feel like a mentsh.
The 21 Club is New York as far as I’m concerned. It’s the oldest restaurant in NYC named for its own address, by the way. I never got to the Stork Club, Toots Shor’s or the Copacabana, unfortunately. They were all good ol’ New York joints, places I undoubtedly would have loved. Thank goodness 21 is still around for throwbacks like me to enjoy. It would be a boring world if the only places left to go to were places like the Olive Garden and Applebee’s. Even the expensive celebrity chains which offer high quality food just don’t do it for me. A chain restaurant is a chain restaurant.
As you might imagine there are millions of stories about 21 and its famous patrons. One of my favorites concerns Frank Sinatra. According to legend, Frank Sinatra and Brooklyn Dodger manager Leo Durocher were dining at 21, and Sinatra was handing out $100 bills as tips to every worker in sight. They went to the men’s room, and the attendant could hardly wait for his $100, but Leo said, “Frank, you have been taking care of everything all evening, let me take care of this,“ and, as Sinatra reluctantly acceded to that plea, Durocher reached into his pocket, fished out $1 and handed it to the attendant with a word of thanks.
I have other favorite New York restaurants, but none of them has the cachet, history and character of The 21 Club. Also, it is the place I will always remember as the special 50th birthday present from my wife. She had arranged with the management to give me a private guided tour of the infamous wine cellar which included the secret hidden door to the room they hid the liquor in, and an up-close look at the private stock of wines held for celebrity patrons, both living and dead. Shelves upon shelves of bottles with famous people’s names on them — held in reserve just for them. Did I feel like someone very special that night? You bet I did. And I still do whenever I return to The 21 Club.