Turning the Top Tables
How the legendary New York restaurateur Ken Aretsky built a fabled résumé of fine dining by turning setbacks into life-affirming experiences.
From the Print Edition:
The Blues Brothers, Jan/Feb 2008
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While Arcadia was thriving, one restaurant that had fallen on difficult times was the historic '21' Club, which opened in the 1920s, became a speakeasy during Prohibition and was a legendary hangout for celebrities and socialites during the '50s and '60s. By the 1980s, however, '21' was falling into disrepair and losing much of its core business. It was sold to wealthy businessmen Stephen Swid and Marshall Cogan in early 1985, and the following year, over the July 4th weekend, Cogan paid Aretsky a visit and offered him a position as president, chairman and manager.
"Cogan had no idea what he was doing and somehow he thought that I could run it," say Aretsky, who, like many people, had been intimidated by the place, not knowing for sure if it was a club or if anyone could get in. "I thought it was a challenge and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The restaurant had 400 seats and I had never done banquets before. It was an extraordinary experience and I learned so much."
After a renovation and restoration–and rededication to the quality of its food menu–Aretsky quickly had '21' back on its feet and regaining the notoriety it once enjoyed. It was also cigar-friendly. Patrons could smoke freely and Aretsky kept a private humidor for regulars. He even cohosted a charity cigar dinner in the early days of Cigar Aficionado with Marvin R. Shanken, the publication's editor and publisher. "It took a while," says Aretsky, "but we did very, very well and I was proud of that. It also got me out there even more than I had been, and made the circle of people I knew that much bigger. It was an honor to run it and it was a wonderful achievement to turn the place around."
When rock bands inexplicably break up, the reason often cited is that generic term "creative differences." When Aretsky was fired from '21' Club in 1995, the term may have been fitting, but in truth, he doesn't know why he was fired. What Aretsky does know is that it set the stage for his next venture: Patroon.
Aretsky has enjoyed the pleasures of great cigars since he was a young man. Over the decades, he's become an avid lover of the leaf, with a taste for Cuban cigars. Today, he places Padrón among his favorite brands. "I like the sensibility of cigars," he says. "Smoking a cigar is relaxing, but it's the whole act more than anything else." It's little surprise then that, after parting ways with '21' Club, Aretsky wanted to create a haven for upscale diners and cigar lovers. When Patroon opened its East 46th Street doors in 1997, that's exactly what it was.
"I built Patroon as if it was going to be my '21' Club," Aretsky says. "It was going to be my place." In a 1995 auction, Aretsky bought the building where Christ Cella, once one of New York's top-rated steak houses, had stood. His renovation included building banquet rooms upstairs, each with its own ventilation system, to complement the main dining room and bar. He also built a walk-in humidor with cigar lockers and an extensive list of cigars for patrons to choose from, and a superb wine cellar. Patroon quickly garnered an excellent reputation for its New York dining experience and cigar-friendly atmosphere.
The new restaurant was going along sensationally well, when customers began inquiring about Cuban cigars. Pretty soon, Aretsky's humidor was stocked with brands from Montecristo and Cohiba to Romeo y Julieta and Bolivar. "From my perspective, it was very civilized," says Aretsky, but then came the arrest, the probation and community service, and finally, after several trying years, resolution.
Since then, Patroon has continued to evolve under Aretsky. "I'm constantly tweaking," he says. "I'm happy but never satisfied. Everything can always be better." Patroon's most noticeable alterations came courtesy of the New York City smoking ban, which Aretsky admits hurt his business. To counter, he made renovations, including the creation of a rooftop smoking area with a bar and lounge. Today, customers continue to come to Patroon to smoke cigars. "A Cognac and a cigar is a great finish," he says. "And if you try to tell me a cigar after a meal isn't a wonderful thing, I say baloney. It is."
Another notable moment in Patroon's evolution came in September 2006, when Aretsky amicably bought out his partners and became sole owner with his wife, Diana Lyne. "This is our business," he says. "This is how we provide a living for our children. And it's a serious business, but more importantly, I love it. I get to be in an arena every day that I love coming to."
While Aretsky is an almost constant presence at Patroon, when he does step away, you'll find him spending time with his family or fly-fishing the Delaware River or Beaverkill River with a cigar in his mouth. "There's nothing better than being in the middle of the river or sitting on the bank, smoking a cigar and watching the time go by," he says. "What is more beautiful than that?
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