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Ken Aretsky: The Proprietor of Patroon

What’s a boy from the Lower East Side doing running a swanky Midtown restaurant that combines a clubby Edwardian ambience with the streamlined modernism of a 1930’s supper club? Ask Ken Aretsky, proprietor of  Patroon, the East 46th Street eatery that’s been drawing a crowd of the well dressed, well heeled, and well known since it opened four years ago.

“My father supplied restaurants, bars and hotels with soda and soda equipment, tanks of gas and seltzer, and I would go along with him when he made his deliveries,” says the affable Aretsky whose good humor and youthful demeanor still betray the kid who lived in Apartment 3D in the Amalgamated Dwellings on Grand Street. “But I was always more interested in what was going on inside, in being around people instead of just dropping things off and moving on.”

And so in 1972, at the age of 31, he began his career as restaurateur. Truman in Roslyn, Long Island was an instant success. Still Aretsky dreamed of having a Manhattan place, and six years later, having moved back to Manhattan, albeit the Upper instead of the Lower East Side, he opened Oren and Aretsky on Third Avenue and 84th Street together with a high school pal Steve Orenstein. “It was the best sports bar New York has ever had,” he says. “We had a 19-inch television in the corner of the big bar, no color, no sound, and all the athletes. They lived here.”

When its time seemed to pass, Aretsky moved to posh Madison Avenue and 62nd and with Anne Rosenzweig, a star of the new generation of celebrity chefs, ushered in the beautiful and immensely popular three-star Arcadia that closed only when the partners lost the lease. 

In 1986, Aretsky received the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. “The guy who bought the 21 Club decided one day that I should run it,” he told us. “I had never eaten there because I thought they would have never let me in.

“21 had started as a speakeasy in a townhouse on 49th off Fifth,” he added. “When Rockefeller was accumulating all the property for Rockefeller Center, they had to get out. So they found a place at 21 West 52nd Street which is how they got their name.

“The clientele was wealthy, substantial people. But its golden age was the 1930’s through the 1950’s.  By the time I got there it had become very stuffy.  They were losing money.”  Although Aretsky succeeded in turning 21 around, he ran into problems with the new owner and after nine years was summarily fired. By the next year, however, he had opened Butterfield 81, an Upper East Side bistro that is still going strong.

While working at 21, Aretsky was befriended by Peter Kriendler, one of the original owners. “He is my hero, my mentor,” Aretsky says. “If Peter is considered a saloon keeper and you’re including me in his company, I’m a happy guy.”

Ken Aretsky can be considered a saloon keeper of sorts, albeit one of a dying breed, for what he and his partners have created in Patroon is a luxurious, contemporary restaurant that, at the same time, has the feel of an intimate men’s club of a bygone day, especially up in its second floor where a contended diner can sink deep into a tawny leather chair, sip a cognac, and select a cigar from a three-page cigar menu. “We wanted to build the 21 Club of this age,” he says, “and we have succeeded.  Our business is mostly repeat clientele although new people come all the time.

 “When we decided to open this place, we were looking for a name that related to New York,” he adds, “‘Empire,’ ‘Gotham’ had been used.  Then my partner came up with ‘Patroon’ which is a word the Dutch used back when New York was New Amsterdam.  It means landowner, and since we bought the entire building, it seemed right.”

The restaurant takes up the entire two story building that previously was Christ Cella, a venerable steakhouse that closed in 1995. Below ground is the well stocked wine cellar. At street level is the woodsy bar and dining room lined with plush velvet banquettes and u-shaped booths in chocolate brown.  And up on the second floor are private party rooms and smoking lounges separated by wood framed glass partitions that are hung with horizontal wooden blinds. A fabulous collection of  mid-century photos of sporting and New York City scenes decorate the walls.

Dining at Patroon is a leisurely, comfortable experience. Tables are spaced far enough apart for ample privacy. Service is professional and at the same time personal, as one would expect in a familiar club, a reflection of Aretsky who, when we were there, went from table to table greeting guests, many of whom clearly were regulars. The food is American: fresh fish, first-rate substantial steaks and chops.  We dined on excellent oysters, a melt-in-the-mouth Dover Sole, and wood grilled salmon, a trademark of chef Craig Cupani whom Arestky brought along from 21 to Butterfield 81 and on to Patroon.

Not content to rest on his laurels, the restaurateur/saloon keeper has his next venture in the works: an American brasserie on 92nd and Madison, scheduled to open early in 2001.  But Patroon is a firm fixture on his horizon.  “I don’t see this place as being a trend,” he says, “I expect it to be here for a long time.”

Patroon
160 E. 46th Street
New York, N.Y. 10017 

Phone: 212-883-7373
Fax: 212-883-1118

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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