Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dinner at '21'

For a fortunate few of us over the age of forty, the three words “Dinner at ‘21’” produce a frisson of anticipation and excitement like no other.

The entrance to the '21' Club
Image courtesy of same

I first heard of the '21' Club, the fabled Manhattan restaurant, as a boy from my parents, who went there for the first time shortly after they were married.  My mother referred to '21' as being a Mount Olympus of glamorous and expensive dining, and she and my father returned there from time to time when they visited New York over the ensuing decades.  She said that she would never forget the first time she crossed its threshold in the 1940s as a newlywed.  She felt a bit out of her element that night, wearing a Peck & Peck cocktail suit and a demure pearl necklace while the other women dining there were wearing what appeared to her to be the “latest French fashions” and “real jewels.”  But that added to the magic of the place, she thought.

Grace Kelly serving Jimmy Stewart dinner from '21' in Rear Window

I also remember being wildly impressed as a boy one afternoon watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window on the black-and-white television in my parent’s study when Grace Kelly, in a cloud of couture chiffon, arrived at Jimmy Stewart’s Greenwich Village apartment with a waiter from '21' in tow, wheeling a cart containing dinner for the two of them from the restaurant.  Talk about glamorous!

'21' Club facade
Image courtesy of same

The first time I went to '21' was as an undergraduate.  I spent a weekend visiting a classmate in New York, and his parents took us there for dinner.  I was beside myself with excitement when I found out where we were going (and that they were paying for it), and I felt incredibly grown up and swell dining in its swank rooms.  We ate in the Bar Room, an inspired fantasy of dark paneling, low light, and red-and-white checked table cloths, and noteworthy for the huge collection--hanging from the ceiling--of toy trucks, ships, and airplanes emblazoned with the names of major corporations, along with sports memorabilia and other mementos.  All of these had been given to the restaurant by its regulars culled from the top ranks of industry, entertainment, and sports. That evening Arlene Dahl (or was it Audrey Meadows?) was settled into one of the banquettes holding court with four men, and the room was packed with what appeared to this young man as an impossibly grown-up and sophisticated crowd.

The Bar Room at '21'
Image courtesy of same

After college I would occasionally meet friends for cocktails at '21', but would never have dinner there because I couldn’t afford it on my junior banker’s salary.  At that time '21' attracted a big after-work crowd of suit-wearing men who packed the bar, drinking martinis, Manhattans, and the like.  It was a manly-man kind of place, the air full of cigarette smoke and testosterone.  My friends and I would get thoroughly soused while eating as much of the bar’s free peanuts and crackers as possible, and then repair to a nearby Irish bar to drunkenly wolf down a dinner from its far-more economically priced steam-table offerings.

A view of the banquettes in the Bar Room at '21'
Image courtesy of same

Over the intervening years I was only a sometime visitor to '21', mostly for work-related dinners with clients, bond roadshows, or big closing dinners for deals I had worked on.  One time I met the mother of a young man I was seeing there for a drink, when she was in town to attend an auction where one of her father’s paintings, a minor Van Gogh, was being sold.  But mostly I didn’t go to '21' that much, since I preferred to spend my evenings with friends my age in younger and racier watering holes.

Yet another view of the bar at '21'
Image courtesy of same

A number of years ago Boy and I decided to take his best friend from college and his (then) wife out to dinner to celebrate his friend’s fortieth birthday.  We decided that '21' would be a suitably grown-up place to honor such a milestone, and so I booked a table for the four of us in the Bar Room, which to me epitomizes the restaurant unlike any of the other rooms available there.  I arrived at the restaurant early, ahead of my dinner companions, and decided to wait for them at the bar.  Given my memories of what the bar at '21' had been like after working hours when I was younger, I was surprised to see that there was almost no one there that evening, with the Bar Room virtually empty of patrons.  According to the barman I spoke with, the crowd of manly-men I remembered clogging the bar after work had mostly dispersed over the years, and was pretty much killed off altogether when the city instituted its no-smoking laws earlier that year.  Contributing to the sparse attendance that evening was the fact it was high summer, one of the slowest times of year for New York’s restaurants.

We had a very good, albeit expensive, dinner with our friends that night, and I was glad to see that the Bar Room’s tables filled up over the evening.  My fears that '21' was in its death-throes appeared to have been unfounded.

I had not returned to '21' since that dinner, more than five years ago, but did so for the first time several months back when I booked a table for a pre-theater dinner on the evening that Boy and I had such an unpleasant experience attending A Little Night Music, which I wrote about in an earlier posting.  I was curious to see what I would find.  In the meantime '21' had received a flurry of publicity when it became the last restaurant in Manhattan to relax its requirement that men must wear a jacket and tie for admittance.  Today it remains one of the few that still requires men to wear jackets, and “encourages” them to wear ties, at least for dinner.  In other words, it’s still a grown-up kind of place, holding on to customs that in other parts have gone the way of the dinosaur.  When I arrived, a handful of tables in the Bar Room were occupied with pre-theater diners, and there were perhaps half a dozen patrons standing at the bar, all middle-aged men . . . like me.

Individual cocktail mixing spoons from the bar at '21'
Given to me by Tara, the martini goddess

Since I was the first of my party to arrive, I sidled up to the bar and ordered a martini from the woman working behind it, expertly mixing cocktails.  I fell in to a conversation with her, and learned that her name was Tara and that she broke the sex barrier at the club when she became its first female bartender several years earlier, much to the initial consternation of the guys, all of whom have come around in the meantime.  If there is one restaurant in New York that I would expect to serve a perfect martini, it would be '21' (along with the Four Seasons, the other leading contender, in my view).  I am pleased to report that Tara gave me the most perfectly made martini that I can recall being the happy recipient of. Off to a good start!  While she went about her duties I listened in on several of the conversations that my fellow companions standing at the bar were having and heard more than one of them say “I remember the first time I came to ‘21’, it was when I was still in college . . .” and I realized yet again that Reggie’s life experience is but a mere repetition of the many, many thousands that have trod a similar path before him.

As my fellow blogger Lindaraxa wrote in her charming reminiscence of '21', one doesn’t go to '21' for the food, really.  It’s more for the experience of the place.  While the food is perfectly good, and quite tasty, it is not particularly memorable. But then it needn’t be, in my view, because the pleasure I take in dining at '21' (and I have been there several more times since Boy and I ate there two months ago), is the sheer joy of being there, experiencing it, and seeing the place in action.

'21' is a very well-run establishment that caters to a well-heeled crowd of appreciative regulars.  There is a clear hierarchy among the staff, starting from the suit-wearing men and women who greet you as you enter the restaurant.  They are solicitous and formal, and address you by name.  They hand you off to a tuxedo-wearing waiter who shows you to your table and attends to your needs for the rest of the evening.  The waiters are, in turn, supported by an army of assistants wearing white jackets and black bowties.  When the restaurant is full, which it has been the times I’ve been there, and the staff is in full throttle, there is electricity in the air.  '21' is still a manly kind of place after all these years, catering to manly-men and the ladies who like ’em that way.

Adding to the pleasure of dining at '21' is the presence of the bold-face names you sometimes see there, such as a retired big-time ball player, or a tycoon, or . . . Henry Kissinger, who made a spectacular entrance to much hubbub the night Boy and I had dinner there earlier this week.

All in all, it’s a really good show.

'21' Club
21 West 52nd Street
New York, New York 10019
(212) 582-7200


  1. 21, I haven't been there since the 1980s. I used to love going there and to The Four Seasons whenever I visted NY. Thanks for this great post.

  2. Sounds so exciting, glad you had a great time!

  3. I'm sad to learn that the 21 Club has bent to the will of the uncivilized masses by relaxing its dress code. There are few establishments remaining which one can rely upon for formality and tradition. Is it really that inconvenient to be required to wear a tie? It reminds me of The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island which prohibited denim and casual attire, even for a stroll on their massive porch, many years ago. They have since relaxed their regulations and yet, as a woman, I never find myself troubled by wearing a sundress while touring the grounds.


  4. Reggia-

    Wonderful insights and telling details.

    I wish you would write a post on 'jacket and tie'. Are ties really so horrible for men to wear, so uncomfortable, that in life they would rather tear them off, and wear them only with great hesitation and profound distaste? Or a jacket...are they secretly so distasteful for men to wear--that they would rather go somewhere other than 21 so they don't have to bend to the will...of forcefully wearing a jacket.
    I am puzzled. I personally love to wear a jacket--or necklaces and certainly earrings--and would not rather NOT wear them...
    your insight?
    cheers to you--

  5. My grandmother introduced me to "Rear Window" when I was 13 and a raging tomboy. I can still remember lying on the sofa with her, eating Pinwheels and drinking Coke (out of the bottle, of course, and our little secret). When Grace Kelly glides into the room with waiter in tow, I decided that right then and there that there might be something fun in being a girl. I have been to New York many times, however never to "21"....I'm afraid my fantasy bubble might get popped. Excellent Post. K

  6. Such a wonderful post! I agree that the glories of 21 are definitely enhanced by the the buzz of a martini and a deep appreciation for its glorious past. I'm always grateful to be able to visit restaurants which are Of The Moment with superb food and service. But I admit a deeper fondness for those rare establishments that make me feel as though I've stepped through the looking glass into a glamorous era I miss without ever having lived in it. For example, The Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I promise once you've finished your first martini, if you squint your eyes a bit - Bogie and Bacall will be sitting next to you at the bar waving at Judy Garland who's being seated at a banquette. Sublime.

  7. What a delight to come back from the weekend and see this great post. Glad to see the old place is still intact, albeit a few missing characters. That's what we need nowadays, characters with real style, the ones who frequented "21" a few decades ago. Now we are stuck with the likes of P.Didi, Lady Gaga (I like her music, surprise!)the Kardashians and the "Real Housewives of Everycity USA" UGH!I think Mrs. Astor, Babe Paley, Slim Hawkes and the like had so much more to offer!

  8. BdeV: '21' and the FS remain the pinnacle of old school power dining here in NYC, well worth a visit when you are next in the city.

    MT and DDS: Stay tuned for Reggie's upcoming post on what he thinks it means to dress like an adult...

    Kathy: What a marvelous granny you had, lucky you!

    Anon 11:29: Agreed! The Polo Lounge at the BHH is a favorite of mine when in Los Angeles, it reverberates!

    Lindaraxa: I am happy that we both not only have '21' in common, but Lady Gaga, too. Like you, I'm a fan of both!

  9. I have two memories of 21 indelibly marked in my mind-

    My parents were very social in the '60's and early 1970's when I was still young enough to rue their evenings out. I always knew when they had been to 21 because my mother always came into our room to check on us when they came home, and she would leave a handful of "21" candy on the bedroom mantlepiece- they were hard candys wrapped in cellophane with a white cover and the "21" logo in black. Sadly, I think those candys have gone the way of the Dodo bird.

    I was taken to 21 for the first time on my 16th birthday. Hank Greenberg, the baseball player, was a dear, old family friend, and he and his wife joined my parents and my siblings. We were given the "best table in the house" (the table directly to the left as you walk in). Immediately, there was a flurry of activity, and, without being asked, waiters replaced the regular chair at one end of the table with a much larger one for Hank Greenberg who was clearly a "regular". Hank Greenberg turned to me (I am 6'5", and was almost that tall at 16), and told me that I should always demand the "big chair" when I ate there. I have been back many times in the intervening decades, and have even been given that same table, but I have never had the nerve to demand the "big chair".

    And, by the way, their Pommes Souffle (once a standard of French Haute cusine, now virtually unknown)are sublime

  10. Magnus: Great story! Thanks for commenting, do come by often, please.

  11. Oh, I loved the 21 Club! We used to go after the horse show at MSG when we were kids, courtesy of an aunt who had an in, from booking many, many dinners there for her boss.

    I still have the spinner coins they'd give you to determine who paid the check!

  12. What a wonderful piece on '21'. In NYC last week for work, I brought my best friend with me. A devoted fan of shows like Top Chef, she made us lunch reservations at Le Bernardin and dinner at Daniel the following evening. I confess - despite the beauty of Daniel and the expectedly attentive service at both, I had frequent moments I can only liken to a sort of fugue state in which I thought longingly of dinner at La Grenouille last summer and wished we had managed to squeeze in a visit to "21" - which alas, is still on my list of legendary NYC landmarks to experience . . . I have come to the realization that for me, pricey meals are not really about the food and only truly satisfy me when they include a hefty side of historic significance . . . I'll wager Grace would never have brought Jimmy dinner from either Daniel or Le Bernardin . . .

  13. Hello Harlean: Thank you for your comment. While I have had magical lunches and dinners at Le Bernadin, the few times I dined at Danel left me less than underwhelmed. Seemed like so much fancified hotel food to me there. Do give '21' a whirl, and be sure to sit in the Bar Room. Their famous '21' burger is worth the ticket.

  14. Yes, I've been intrigued by the mystique of "21" since Grace Kelly mentioned it in the movie. In collecting vintage clothing and textiles I learned that they gave out a "21" scarf annually to favoured clients. Interesting post. Thank you.
    Square with Flair

  15. Wonderful post Reggie! I feel like I have been there after reading your reminisces. I have one remaining question: How exactly would you define a minor Van Gogh?


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