1940s Archive

Spécialités de la Maison: The Club 21

Originally Published May 1945

A few blocks to the south and a few doors off the Avenue, is located one of the most famous and, by far, one of the most entertaining restaurants in New York. It goes by various names which, depending on the one you use, indicate to the cognoscenti for how long you have known the place. If you refer to it as “Jack and Charlie’s,” you will, in all probability, have been a habitué and devotee before the restaurant acquired its more recent name, “21,” or “Club 21,” that is derived from its address. The number “21” is that over the door, and the street is West 52nd Street—as if you didn’t know.

As you probably also know—because almost everybody does—the names Jack and Charlie are the first names of the owners and founders of this modern Mecca. Jack’s last name is Kriendler, and Charlie’s is Berns. And now that we have settled the introductions, let us proceed to the business at hand.

As I have said before, this is by far the most entertaining restaurant in New York. Don’t be deluded, however, by the thought that Jack and Charlie’s features entertainment in the usual meaning of the word. The patrons provide the amusement. This is how it works.

The place, in the main, falls into two sections: the bar and the upstairs dining rooms. The bar is an extremely comfortable room large enough to accommodate tables where many people lunch or dine—that is, under certain circumstances. Sometimes it is essential to be seen upstairs. For instance, George Jean Nathan, the great dissenter, usually can be found sitting in the bar way over in the southeast corner, either in pulchritudinous company or engaged in discussion with his equals. But when important matters are on the agenda—big business as it is called—even George finds it imperative to dine upstairs under the eagle-eyed and courteous attention of Philip, the overlord of the upstairs domain. Or one may find Orson Welles in the bar when he is busy merely telephoning or gathering notes and bits for his “Cooking Hints” column, but if for him, it is an affair of state, i.e., a business talk with a Hollywood tycoon, only upstairs will do for dinner.

This protocol is, of course, not enforced by Messrs. Kriendler and Berns; it is a code that has developed by itself and is rigidly adhered to by the denizens of Broadway, as well as those of Park Avenue. For “21” is not only the favorite restaurant of the luminaries of stage, screen, radio, and the writing fraternity, it also enjoys equal popularity among the 400 or 4000, or whatever the official count is at the moment. The reason is simple, and one visit to the place will demonstrate it most clearly. For one, Kriendler, the ubiquitous overseer of the restaurant, still manages to supply miraculously punctilious service. And although the service flag in the center of the bar shows how many of his employees are in the services—including two of his brothers—the place, as ever, renders service of gumshoe perfection.

Nothing would please me more if I could at this juncture cite some of the culinary masterpieces that have made “21” one of the world’s most renowned restaurants, but alas! who knows from day to day what the chef will have to work with? There is a section of the menu, however, that is not hampered by the insecurity of supply and can give an inkling of what was once its grandeur. The shining example is the hors d’oeuvre department, where one finds not only a mouth-watering collection of cold marine offerings—the crab meat Ravigote is particularly recommended—but also items rarely encountered elsewhere. The smoked turkey, for instance, is unusually good—I hope to be able, some day, to part from Jack Kriendler his secret of who supplies these birds—and I found the wild boar ham a delightful change, particularly when served with a fresh, juicy pear.

The wine carte is a carefully composed document that mirrors a fine knowledge of American as well as of imported wines—which is no wonder, since Kriendler and Berns are also the guiding lights of “21 Brands,” one of the country’s best-known wine and liquor dealers.

That “21” is no inexpensive little side-street restaurant should go without saying, for although the prices may keep the average mortal from dining and lunching there daily, it is most decidedly a place to keep in mind for a festive occasion. And I’m sure that when you go there you will agree that no matter what the check may amount to, it is well worth it. (Open daily. A la carte only.)

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