Men no longer have to wear a tie for dinner at the 21 Club (the rule was relaxed after Labor Day in 2009), but they still can’t go sans blazer. “Let me help you with that sir, we don’t want you to get chilly,” offers a man-mountain of a waiter as someone attempts to slip their jacket off. At the next table: Joan Collins in a fedora. Next to her: the table at which Humphrey Bogart proposed to Lauren Bacall.
In the 1939 guide book that we snapped up some time ago on eBay – New York Behind the Scenes: Uncensored! – the 21 appears in the chapter headed “Celebrities” as the lunchtime hot spot of “actors, actresses, movie folks, writers, society and glamour girls”. Situated at 21 West 52nd Street, it was at the very heart of so-called “Swing Street”, the epicentre of happening, buzzing, decadent New York. It might now attract tourists by the dozen every evening, and the neighbourhood is far from being on the boil, but the 21 has never lost its daytime cachet. We think it’s still the Most New York Restaurant there is. It’s where Holly Golightly is spotted in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Celeste Holm had lunch with Bette Davis in All About Eve and where Michael Douglas taught Charlie Sheen about steak tartare and fine tailoring in Wall Street. Grace Kelly ordered take out from the 21 for James Stewart in Rear Window. It’s appeared on screen and on the page and remains something of a staff canteen for the most celebrated inhabitants of the theatre district.
We may have lunched at the 21 more times than just about any other restaurant in New York City, and certainly more times than anywhere in midtown. The appeal is obvious. No matter whatever the weather outside, the windowless, temperature-controlled, dark wood, leather and red check rear dining room always has the soft glow of old New York about it. When they push back the table, tucking you in, ready to peruse the menu, there’s something so wonderfully comforting about it. The 21 is a place with huge presence. We’ve thought long and hard about it, and only Annabel’s in London comes a close second for the ambience. In fact, there’s one member of the Civilianteam – a member of Mark Birley’s old club in Mayfair – who always spends December in New York and has Christmas lunch at the 21 purely because of the similarity. The 21 is delightfully… clubby.
The 21 is all about three-martini grill room dining, executed in that absolutely American haute way: playful, but just stuffy and old fashioned enough to give it the right frisson of event. There’s a laidback sports bar somewhere in its DNA (and certainly in the thousands of toys hanging from the ceiling), but there’s also a sense of heavyweight power. The private dining room – the legendary Prohibition-era hidden wine cellar – remains a favourite hire venue for the White House as much as for Broadway. Ask nicely, and the staff will show it to you, leading you through the kitchens, down the back stairs and through the trick door made of brick at the back of an unremarkable alcove. The private stock wine labels it houses are one of New York’s behind-closed-doors treasures: the names of President Nixon, Liz Taylor, Chelsea Clinton and Jocelyn Wildenstein all appear on the base of bottles.
We’ve never had a bad meal at the 21 but then we always seem to order the same thing: Clayton’s Jumbo Lump Crabmeat followed by the Dover Sole or 21 Burger. Occasionally we’ll have the filet mignon, and always with an order of pommes soufflés, which are puffed out wafer thin French fries. We understand from a variety of waiters that they’re excruciating to prepare, and it still mystifies us as to how the science works, but they’re utterly delicious. We’re also delighted that there’s a substantial “$60 and under” section on the Bible-heavy leather-bound wine list which is – let’s face it – very useful when you might be ordering the first of what will be several bottles for the table. And a lunch at 21 is something we love to take our time over.
The 21 Club, 21 West 52nd Street, New York NY 10019, USA
(212) 582 7200; 21club.com