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Club 21 - The World's Classiest Saloon

Click to Enlarge - Photo by Harvey Frommer

Many were the times that we walked down West 52nd Street and stopped to admire the row of 32 jockeys in jaunty stance and colorful riding habit lining the staircase and wrought iron balcony of the townhouse with the number 21 emblazoned on its marquee. Intrigued we may have been, yet never once did we venture inside. Isn't that the place where President Nixon used to dine whenever he came to town, we always thought, where Hemingway and Dali and Bogie hung out, where people like George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump still come to escape public gaze? Isn't 21 a private club, a men's club at that, whose doors are closed to all but select movers and shakers?

Not so, we discovered after taking a friend’s recommendation and booking a table for lunch. 21 may still be a celebrity destination, it may still be the place where the big deal is consummated. But you no longer need to know someone to get in. 21 is open to the public and warmly welcoming to all guests, illustrious or not.

Settling into a booth in the "Bar Room," we took a look around. So this is the legendary 21. Very traditional -- wood floors, dark paneled walls, muted light from little lanterns, red and white checkered tablecloths and big bottles of Pellegrino on small tables, a busy elongated bar and comfortable lounge directly ahead, a buoyant, bustling lunch-time crowd of well dressed people all in animated conversation, and dozens of model airplanes, toy trucks and railroad cars, miniature helmets and sports memorabilia hanging from the ceiling.

"These are gifts from corporate executives and athletes," says 21's captain Eddie Cordero who comes from from Santiago Chile but has been at 21 for 22 years. Longevity is typical among the staff he tells us and clientele  as well. He's seen generations of the same family at the restaurant; parents come with kids, they grow up and bring their own kids. But now there's a real effort to reach out to new clients. The place looks pretty much the way it always has, he says, but the menu has been modernized, especially since it was acquired by the Orient Express chain in 1995.

Eddie Cordero, captain at 21 for 22 years - Photo by Harvey Frommer
Eddie Cordero, captain at 21 for 22 years - Photo by Harvey Frommer

As we each have a glass of Perrier Jouet champagne, Eddie hands us hefty menus with expansive selections.  The one among us who consistently craves oysters and clams as starters turns to the regular offerings and quickly settles on a main course of sea scallops accompanied by grilled fennel and chanterelles. But the other focuses on the eminently reasonable price fixed lunch for $29 and selects a Caesar salad followed by grilled chicken. Such ordinary-sounding dishes turned out to be so exceptional, we prevailed upon Eddie to introduce us to 21's Executive Chef: Erik Blauberg.

Low-keyed and soft-spoken, Erik was born in New York City but as an army brat, grew up all over the place.  He smiled modestly when told his was the best Caesar salad we ever tasted.  “What’s its secret?” we asked.

"For one thing," he told us, "the anchovy paste that we make ourselves from anchovy fillets. Then for the dressing, we blend olive oil with vegetable oil because the salad is hearty enough with all the cheese. That gives it a nice balance. And we use Parmesan from the Rugiano region. We bring in the whole 70-80 pound wheel and grind it up by hand so it has a certain consistency."

As for the chicken, it is pounded thin, brushed with a little oil, seasoned with rosemary and thyme and grilled. "Then we place it on a plate, top it with goat cheese that's browned just a bit, arugla, thin slices of oven dried tomatoes, and a toss of pine nuts. To that we add a touch of balsamic vinegar. Of course," he added, "there's the added ingredient of a little bit of love."

We had asked Eddie to surprise us for dessert. And he did with a chocolate caked baked with a little Irish whiskey and caramel ice cream, and an unexpected nostalgic favorite: a burnt marshmallow that was neither at the end of a twig nor sandwiched between two graham crackers but set on an attractive dessert plate beside a semifredo, a mousse-like concoction that combines pastry cream with Italian meringue that is frozen and then slightly defrosted. Crunchy ground chestnuts were added to the blend of this truly "to-die-for" dessert, the creation of 21's Dublin-born pastry chef, Paul Nolan.

Erik, who trained in Europe and worked closely with the renowned Lyon chef Paul Bocuse, was chef and co-owner of American Renaissance in SoHo and consulting at Disney's Celebration when the opportunity at 21 came up. "At first I turned it down because they needed someone right away and I was committed to Disney for the next three months," he said. "But they said they would wait for me, so I decided to make the move."

One of the first things Erik did when he came to 21was to bring along Amy Falbaum whom he had hired as general manager at American Renaissance. Close professional proximity led to love, and about a year and a half ago, the two chefs married  at, appropriately enough, the James Beard House. People always ask us how we work together. Now we asked this question of Erik.

"I’m going to London for two weeks to do the Ritz," he said.  "Then I'm off to go truffle hunting in Italy and to see the new techniques of storing truffles. But Amy will be here to take over.  She's exceptional in front of the house, and a great chef as well. I work on creating the food and training the staff. Amy makes it happen. She's the organizer, the scheduler, the expediter.  That’s the deal we have here.  But at home she does all the cooking, and she’s a fabulous cook.

"Although both of us knew 21 was a world famous place, we had never been

here," Erik said. "The first time I walked in, it looked like a saloon to me. I was used to grander interiors. 'Can't we get rid of the toys?' I asked. But then I got to understand what was going on, how the history of the place is respected."

His first two weeks on the job, Erik observed what people were eating and what came back. "I had some archives to consult, menus that dated back to 1929," he told us. "It was interesting to see what dishes were served then, what the accompaniments were and how they changed. I decided to reinvent some of the classics like chicken hash. When I arrived here, it was served with a veloute sauce. The waiters told me the old timers always ordered it like that, but what really was happening was they were creating their own dishes, asking for creamed spinach, pureed spinach, creamed corn, kernel corn  to go along with the dish. I said 'We have to figure this out.'

"I discovered that on the 1929 menu, chicken hash was served with mornay sauce. Since I have a very good classical background, I went back to the original but inserted my own recipes and methods. They had been boiling the chicken for hours and then chopping it real fine. It tasted like sawdust. I grilled it instead, cut it up into nicer pieces and added the mornay sauce. All of a sudden, the fifty different side dishes disappeared, and I knew that it was a home run. That's basically what I have done with all the dishes. The burger, I discovered, was originally served with green beans, roasted tomatoes, and sautéed onions. I went back to that. It's very popular, especially at lunch."

Erik Blauberg, 21’s worldly, world-class chef - Photo by Harvey Frommer
Erik Blauberg, 21’s worldly, world-class chef - Photo by Harvey Frommer

Not too many New York restaurants do the Escoffier-inspired classic dishes any longer, but Erik does. "That's the heavier stuff on the bottom of the menu," he says. "The upper part of the menu, which we change seasonally, is the more cutting edge stuff. It's for the customers who are not into the heavy butters and creams. It’s lighter and newer."

21 has come into the 21st century, but echoes of its spirited past still resonate throughout the ground level Bar Room and the private dining rooms on the first, second and third floors above, but most especially in the wine cellar and banquet room deep in the subterranean level where its most interesting history took place. The restaurant opened New Year's Eve, 1929 after owners Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns had to move from their previous locale to make way for Rockefeller Center which was getting underway. They found a townhouse on West 52nd Street, the "wettest block in town,” and named their new place for its building number. An elegant restaurant upstairs, and a speakeasy on the ground level, it swiftly became the premier hangout for New York City's glitterati.

After a police raid in 1930, however, the base of operations moved below ground to secret chambers which we got to see. We easily imagined ourselves back in the heady days of Prohibition as we walked through the kitchen, said hello to the charming Amy, and then descended two steep levels to a long corridor that ran along the building's brick foundation wall.  At a certain point, our guide, Xavier Arisa, stopped and inserted a hanger-like wire into an invisible hole in the wall. Eureka - the wall opened and we found ourselves stepping into a vast wine cellar with a banquet room beyond. These are the basements of the two townhouses next door, numbers 19 and 17 where the fine vintages and bootlegged liquor were stored, where Mayor Jimmy Walker had his own private table. At the merest sign of danger, shelves collapsed and bottles were hurled down a chute and out of sight.

The secret door that opened into 21’s Speakeasy - Photo by Harvey Frommer
The secret door that opened into 21’s Speakeasy - Photo by Harvey Frommer
Today this subterranean suite holds one of the greatest wine collections in the country, more than 23,000 bottles from all over the world including the private stock of wines and champagnes belonging to companies and also individuals who sometimes buy a particular vintage, store it for special events, even cite it in their wills.

In the nearly seventy years since Prohibition ended, 21 has reinvented itself. No longer exclusionary, it's warm and inviting. Once thought of as a people-place first and food-place second, it has an enormous menu guided by an outstanding world-class chef. Yet its Jazz Age mystique lingers. There's still the aura of the place where you had to knock on the door and make yourself known before being admitted. As one old timer put it, "21 has changed a lot, but it's still a saloon -- the world’s classiest saloon."

21 Club
21 West 52 Street
New York, NY 10019

Phone: 212 582-7200

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

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


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