The 21 Club opened on New Year’s Eve 1930 at 21 West 52nd Street as a speakeasy and restaurant. Legend has it that when powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell was banned from the club, he ran an item wondering why the 21 Club had not yet been raided by Prohibition agents. (Winchell, of course, was the inspiration for the character of J.J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success, which features several scenes at 21.) The next day 21 was raided and, soon after, the owners installed a secret wine cellar located behind a camouflaged door opening into the neighboring building, 19 West 52nd. The cellar remains behind that 2 ½ ton door to this day, where tasting menus are offered near the booth supposedly favored by Mayor Jimmy Walker.
Though always a default for celebrities and the midtown business crowd, the food had begun to flirt with ossification until 2006, when Chef John Greeley took the reins and brought 21’s menu up to speed without perturbing the essence of the classics. Writing favorably for the Daily News, Danyelle Freeman praised Greeley’s improvements and cautioned that “regulars who get their ‘usual’ are missing out on splendidly tweaked classics as well as distinctly haute additions.” Diners on a budget might be interested in giving the midtown institution a try during Restaurant Week, which ends Friday. And 21 also offers a nightly $40 dinner prix fixe menu in the deliriously decorated Bar Room, where the ceiling and walls are festooned with decades of memorabilia donated from 21’s endless list of celebrity patrons.
So how does restaurant week affect you? It’s a boost in business because generally here in midtown, right after the holiday season, the numbers dip. In December we were doing upwards of 700 covers for lunch, dinner and à la carte, down to about half that. So restaurant week is a boost and it also gives anyone who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford to come here to actually see what we do on a smaller scale.
Some say restaurant week is a bad time to visit a restaurant; the service can be indifferent and there are theories that chefs use it as a time to dump their least interesting dishes on people who supposedly have a less refined palate. True? I’ve heard that too, that people get cranked in and out of a place. But that’s not how we operate because we’re a high volume restaurant; we’re accustomed to volume. What we try to do is take what we’re doing here and simplify it for restaurant week. So right now we’re doing the salmon with the bacon and farro. The farro aspect of it is a component of a dish on the winter menu but we do it with a more cost effective fish, we don’t put as many sauces on it, and it won’t be as intricate. It’s more of a simpler, lighter approach to the à la carte menu.
What restaurants are you into these days? I like WD-50 just to see some new stuff – stuff I can’t really do here.
Why not? Well, certain things just wouldn’t fly here. I can’t do smoked eel with chocolate sauce. It won’t work here; our clientele will send that back to me. And I have an art background so I enjoy WD-50 for the avant-garde aspect. I usually go to the really high end places like Le Bernadin, Per Se or Daniel once a year, but I’m more into the ingredient aspect of it, vegetable sauces and stuff like that. And then I eat tacos all the time. Big fan of Mexican food.
What’s the biggest misconception that people have about 21? You always hear from people that it’s a stuffy, snobby institution or that it’s a private club. I hear people outside the place sometimes saying you have to be a member to get in. But once people get in here they see this place is all about having a good time. The food shows this; we’re doing French fries, we’re doing burgers, we’re doing antelope, we’re doing game, we’re doing seafood from Hawaii to Alaska over to the east coast. We’re doing everything here. Yeah, you have to wear a coat and tie but if you go in that dining room you see people having more of a blast than if they’re sitting in the dining room at Le Bernadin, where it’s a little more reserved.
What are the most popular dishes at 21 these days? On the à la carte menu I’d say our most popular dishes are obviously the classics like the Caesar salad, our burger, steak tartar, chicken hash. On the other part of the menu, which is seasonal, the mix grill is really popular, our lamb dish is really popular. At lunch people tend to eat more fish and our bass dish is really popular
The lump crab meat salad is delicious. What sets it apart? Most places wouldn’t go as far for the quality of crab meat that we do. I specifically source out a specific crab meat that I can’t identify because I don’t want other people competing for it. But it’s all we will use for that dish. If I can’t get that crab meat, which happens a couple times a year because I buy so much from this company, I just 86 it for the day. I won’t substitute it for something else.
The quality of the lump crab they’re doing is gargantuan. They pressure cook their crabs and pick only the gargantuan lumps out of the blue crab. And that’s what we get and all we use. It’s a really simple dish: fresh lime juice, good olive oil from Spain, some jicama, baby arugula, peppercress. There’s an avocado puree we spice up with a little jalapeño tabasco in it. But it has to be such an exceptional crab meat because it’s a really simple dish and there’s nowhere to hide on that.
You worked at 21 for over a decade before becoming head chef. You must really love the place. I do. I’d worked at a lot of places before starting at 21 as a line cook. What I liked about here is that there’s so much going on, there’s so many facets to the place. We have a lunch and dinner service and à la carte, we have a private wine cellar we do tasting menus in. We have three floors of private dining, we have a lounge menu, and a tasting menu that’s different from the wine cellar tasting menu. I’ve never been bored here; there was always something going on. We’d have visiting chefs several times a year so it was a great learning experience working with all these different chefs.
What are some of the changes you’ve implemented since you took over? I really looked at what the customers were eating and what they weren’t eating, really in order to keep the classics that won’t change here and make sure they’re done correctly without changing them too much.
Were there some things that you thought had gone down in quality? Yeah, I would say I upgraded the quality in everything. And I really tried to change the à la carte menu into more of a market-driven menu.
Are there any changes you’re still planning on making? Yes, we’re going to be making a lot of changes in the private dining sector of the restaurant. Again, there are eleven menus in the place that change seasonally here so that’s 44-plus menus a year I’m dealing with. So there’s always something going on with that.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received as a chef? When I’m in the kitchen I watch all the plates coming back and, personally, the best compliment is when I see the plates come back clean.
What’s the biggest meltdown you’ve ever witnessed in the kitchen? I’ve seen people break down and cry, mainly from the stress. I had one person come to me years ago in tears; they were crying in the walk-in actually, and this person was upset because this person loved to cook but had realized that the business was too difficult. It was a wrenching moment, you know?
You must have seen a lot of celebrities pass through during your time there, right? Years ago when I was first hired as one of the cooks here, Whoopi Goldberg came in and she wanted to learn how to make Pommes Soufflées. Michael Lomonaco was the chef back then and he brought her back into the kitchen and had me show her how to make Pommes Soufflées. So to do that in my first year working here was pretty exciting for me.
To get to the wine cellar you have to go through the kitchen, so we see plenty of celebrities pass through; George Clooney came through the other day. And one time Don Rickles came through, cracking jokes, and on his way back from the wine cellar he noticed me expediting and asks me, “Are you the chef?” And I said, “Oh, no.” So he looked at one of the grill guys and said, “You should make him the chef!” That was a highlight.
Nearly every U.S. President since FDR has visited 21 but not Bush. Is that going to happen or what? I would hope so. I’ve heard through the grape vine that President Bush is a burger fan so I’m actually quite surprised he hasn’t made it in due to the fact that we have the best burger.