Club 21 - The World's
|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
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
Eddie Cordero, captain at 21 for 22 years - Photo
by Harvey Frommer
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
both of us knew 21 was a world famous place, we had never been
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."
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.'
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
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.
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
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
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 West 52 Street
New York, NY 10019
Phone: 212 582-7200
Photos by Harvey
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights