The first thing you should know about the 21 Club is that it's not a club. Anyone with cash or credit to burn can walk in off the street, and as of last year you don't even need to wear a tie. (Jacket is still required "for gentlemen," thankfully.) The famous restaurant and bar, which survived numerous FBI raids during Prohibition thanks to a thick fake wall in the basement (we'll get to that) is bending over backwards these days to make sure youths like you know its not some stuffy private club. To that end, they transformed the front entrance into a bar and lounge serving a limited food menu and cocktails that, while expensive, are stiff. A Manhattan may cost you $15, but it packs the weight of two drinks served in most other pricey bars.
21 still excels as a convivial time warp in which to tie one on, even if the menu doesn't always match its steep price point. In October, the New York Times re-reviewed the old dame, which opened at its current location in a townhouse at 21 West 52nd Street in 1930. (It now fills two townhouses.) Critic Pete Wells describes chef John Greeley's food as "classic, unsuspenseful and solidly prepared" but goes on to say:
To judge “21” as a restaurant is to miss the point of the place. Like Galatoire’s in New Orleans, “21” is at its best when you treat the food as a solid foundation for the liquid entertainment. Take note of the first question you are asked at the table. It is not an offer of still or sparkling, as if you had gone out to dinner because you were tired of the bottled-water selection at home. No, servers at “21” lead off the way they should at all restaurants: “Can I get you something to drink?”
On a good night, everybody who works at “21” behaves like a bartender, and the meal sails along on a river of alcohol and high spirits. The wine director, Phil Pratt, has a practiced theatricality and patter more often heard above the splash of gin than the gentle swirl of old Bordeaux. To feel out a customer’s budget, he might ask “How ... painful do you want it to be?”
We recently took a top-to-bottom tour of 21 with General Manager Bryan McGuire and Avery Fletcher, Marketing Manager. McGuire, a walking encyclopedia on all things 21, talked us through the history and the recent changes—this year they completed an ambitious renovation of the main upstairs banquet room, going so far as to lower the floor 2 1/2 feet, nearly restoring the original townhouse ceiling heights of 14 feet, the way it was in the early 1930s. Here's an excerpt from our conversation; click through on the photos to explore:
"21 was founded by two cousins and college classmates, Jack Kreindler and Charlie Burns and it traces back to Prohibition," McGuire began. "They owned three other establishments (one in Greenwich Village, one nearby on 6th Avenue) and before coming to West 52nd Street they had a place on West 49th Street called The Puncheon Grotto. They lost the lease when Punch and Grotto was going to be torn down to pave the way for what is now Rockefeller Center. In 1929, they threw a black tie party for their best customers—they were one of the only ones that could get their hands on real authentic champagne, wine or bootleg liquor from France or Europe. They did that by bringing it through Canada.
"On December 31st 1929, they picked up the Punch and Grotto tables, chairs and spirits and as they were leaving they took the gates as well, and those are the gates that are outside 21 as of today. This building goes back 140 years this December. 21 was a speakeasy during the first three or four years until Prohibition ended in 1933. Jack and Charlie were never raided by the government until one day when Daily Mirror gossip columnist Walter Winchell had a falling out with them. He went back to write an article about 21 not being raided, and wondering why it hadn't.
"Soon after that, 21 was raided and some of the illegal stash was taken. Jack and Charlie decided that business was too good and they made too much money to give up so easily, and they had to find a way to fool the government. So they went out and hired an architect to plan a secret wine cellar, in the neighbor's cellar (under 19 West 52nd Street). To open the door you would need to insert an 18 inch meat skewer into a hole in the wall (like a key). Even though they were never raided again, the door is still a secret today, and there is still a wow factor when people come and visit and ask for a tour of the wine cellar.
"21 is on our 3rd set of owners right now. First set was the Burns and Kreindler family, from 1932 - 1985. In 1985 it was sold to Marshall Cogan, who was a Wall Street financier and wanted a place close to his office where he could grab a sandwich quickly (all for $21 million). He owned it up until 1995. Cogan invested a great deal of capital into the infrastructure and basically rebuilt 21 from the inside out. Since November 1995, 21 has been owned by Orient Express Hotels. This is a hotel company that has 50 properties in 5 continents and it's been a really good run for us for the past 16 years."
Can you talk about the change in dress code, was that something you were on board with? "I was responsible for it. In 1996 we looked at our business and our clientele and we noticed that there was a bit of a fall-off, which had to do with corporate America allowing not only casual Fridays but basically casual Monday to Friday. All the associates in the firms and companies were now walking around in tan pants and blue shirts. It might not have been much of a change for corporate America but for us it meant everything, because now if people wanted to come to us for lunch they couldn't because we required jackets and ties. It really shut us out as being available to them so we decided we would finally take the plunge and we would take away the tie requirement at lunch and just made it jackets only. Some years only we took away the tie requirement at dinner.
"It was a new thing for us and it seemed as if the press was having more fun with it than we were, and a lot of people who didn't come here seemed to gasp. A year or so passed by and then no one noticed. We were probably the last restaurant to do away with the tie requirement. We did it at dinnertime too, and so today we're most like everyone else. It still is jackets only, no jeans or sneakers, whatever. We still think of it as dining and sophisticated fun for ladies and gentlemen. People want to go to a restaurant with people that are dressed nicely and dressed well, but if someone doesn't have a tie on, it's not as Earth-shattering and it would've been."