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The Good Life

The '21' Club, New York City

By Gordon Mott | From Premier Issue, Autumn 92

The '21' Club in New York City is an American institution. A doorman stands out on the curb, opening the highly polished brass doors and whistling for cabs, or just helping regulars into their limousines. A mâitre d' waits inside the doors, greeting customers and asking for their reservations. There's a coat-check girl, men's and ladies' room attendants and, at the gift counter, a saleswoman sells private label '21' cigars. From the '21' woven into the wall-to-wall carpeting, to the warm wood paneling and soft leather chairs in the lounge, to the green glow of the financial services screen, the restaurant nearly shouts its devotion to the high-powered and influential.

Ken Aretsky, the chairman of The '21' Club, says that the club "still has the sensibility of the era of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers." But he's quick to add that there's a whole new generation of clients who see the restaurant as a place to lunch and dine regularly. Aretsky says the extras, like the doormen and greeters, help the restaurant stand out from the competition. And, he says, out-of-towners use the building as a home, a place to eat every time they are in New York. But like many other old-line New York restaurants, '2l' draws big names from publishing, finance and the theater.

The food also has been restored to a top-quality level. Chef Michael Lomonaco has revitalized the club's old standards--hamburgers, chicken hash, steak tartare--and restored their place as outstanding '21' Club meals. Some of Lomonaco's additions, such as the peppered tuna steak or grilled quail salad with honey walnuts, get consistently high marks. Nothing comes cheap. The hamburger costs $21.50, the chicken hash $23 and no sandwich is less than $17.50. Entrées range from $21 for a traditional sunset salad to $37 for the black Angus steak. The trademark scrambled eggs with caviar are $40. "It is a very expensive restaurant," says Aretsky. "But we give great value." Lunch for two can easily exceed $100.

The restaurant's wine cellar has always been outstanding. It includes rarities such as a double magnum of Château Mouton Rothschild 1961 for $2,750, a 1949 Château Latour for $650, and a 1966 La Tâche from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti for $490. There's a full range of less expensive white and red Burgundies as well as the top Bordeaux châteaux. California cabernet sauvignon listings include the 1975 Joseph Phelps Insignia at $110, the 1986 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill at $80 and the 1987 Caymus Special Selection at $135. The list also includes German and Italian selections and a Wines of the World section with choices from Switzerland, Argentina, Chile and New York State. In addition, there are two pages of wines by the half bottle. The restaurant has received a Best of Award of Excellence from The Wine Spectator.

But The '21' Club sets itself apart from most other American restaurants with its liberal policy toward cigar smokers. In the smoking section of the bar dining room, cigar smokers may light up at their tables. "As long as you set the rules, there's no problem," says Aretsky. He swears he has never had a complaint. "We openly sell our cigars. We're proud of it," says Aretsky. While the restaurant only offers the private label '21' cigar, Aretsky keeps cigars in a humidor for his regular customers.

The combination of attentive service plus the extras has added up to a renaissance for The '21' Club. When Marshall Kogan, a financier, bought the club in 1986, it was headed downhill. Most of its customers were in their 70s, and the restaurant had failed to attract a new generation. An early attempt to bring in chefs Anne Rosenzweig of Arcadia and Alain Sailhac of the French Culinary Institute failed because they tried to tamper with the restaurant's traditional fare. But today, with Lomonaco at the stoves, the restaurant is jammed.

The '21' Club is a place where good, simple food is joined with a good feeling. One customer comes in on rainy days and usually orders the same meal: a Caesar's salad, a hamburger and mashed potatoes with onions and washes it down with a bottle of Château Mouton-Rothschild followed by a pre-Castro Cuban cigar. And who said the good life is gone?

-- Gordon Mott

The '21' Club
21 West 52nd Street
New York, N.Y.
Phone: (212) 582-7200
Lunch & Dinner: (per person) $40 and up
Private rooms available.

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