Once It Was Jack and Charlie's and Now It's Ken and Anne's, but Is It Still the 21 Club?
As painstakingly as archaeologists dismantling and reassembling a pharaoh's tomb, the new owners of 21 Club have restored a fading institution, investing more than $7 million oh" its physical and spiritual renewal. For 21 always has been, at least to those recognized as regulars after 20 or 30 years of steadfast attendance, the most faithful and satisfying of eating establishments. Pete Kriendler, 81, one of several former owners who sold their interests but remain on the job, vows it will always stay that way. "While I'm here and the good Lord spares me, I'll fight to the bitter end," he says.
Yet there is the matter of the new horse. Where there never was a horse before there is now a very large antique wooden horse just inside the door. It's hard to miss. At one of the pre-opening private dinners, a gray-haired gentleman in a camel hair topcoat walked in, took one look at the horse and snapped, "What's the point of it?"
It's a statement, a modest but rather significant statement of independence, says the chairman of 21, Ken Aretsky, 46. The new owners, Knoll International Holdings Inc., have invested about $27 million in the purchase and restoration of their restaurant, and its survival depends both on preserving old customers and on attracting a newer and assuredly younger clientele with a different idea of what makes dining out a good time. It's sort of like inviting the Hatfields and the McCoys to come to the same dinner party. "Trying to run this operation," said a frazzled but remarkably cheerful Aretsky a few weeks before the May 11 opening, "is like trying to steer the Queen Elizabeth II up the Hudson."
In its final years under the old management, 21 was a magnificent relic of the 1940s miraculously projected into the 1980s. To many of its regulars, mostly businessmen, sportsmen, politicians and a splattering of movie stars, it was still Jack and Charlie's, a prohibition speakeasy that moved uptown from Greenwich Village in 1930. (Author Gay Talese hopes the club returns to its prohibition legacy by allowing after-dinner cigar smoking, even if New York law should forbid it.) It served old-fashioned food, like chicken hash and creamed chipped beef on toast that the regulars, who have included Harry Truman, Clark Gable, Ernest Hemingway, Armand Hammer, John Steinbeck and most of the Rockefellers, relished. The restaurant banished the unknown and the undesirable off to "Siberia"—the far side of the barroom or the remote second floor. "I hear upstairs is gorgeous now," says Eileen Ford of the Ford model agency, a regular, "but I don't eat upstairs."
Change was inevitable, for the old 21 had a seriously flawed marketing strategy based on the hope that the people who had been eating there for 30 or 40 years would continue eating there for another 30 or 40 years. Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown, who is resigned to the changes, sighs: "I liked it enormously just the way it was, but to deny change is to fight a terrible battle every day. It'll be all right."
Even the horse in the foyer?
"I may find myself not objecting," she says hopefully.
The food at 21 was probably the worst for the money in the free world, but the regulars didn't care. "I imagine it's what they ate at Harvard and Princeton 30 years ago and they didn't want to forget the experience," says Anne Rosenzweig, 33, the new vice-chairman in charge of food operations. She has already made her mark as the chef (and a partner with Aretsky) at Arcadia, a celebrated and fastidiously tasteful Manhattan restaurant. She admits her style isn't what club regulars might have preferred; they probably would have fancied a chef who had apprenticed in a field kitchen during World War II. "I have not the slightest doubt that 21 will become a magnificent restaurant," says Theodore Kheel, a labor negotiator, "but what counts at 21 is the ambience."
Most of what made 21 more of a club than a restaurant, a place Aretsky calls a "kindergarten for billionaires," remains intact. Overhead in the bar are the same toys and souvenirs that had accumulated over the decades—a dozen or so football helmets, about two dozen airplane models, at least three dozen toy trucks plus an assortment of chain saws, telephone books, elephant tusks and baseball bats. Up on the wall is a fragment of a shell fired by the USS Texas during the invasion of France in 1944. Back in their cherished places are plaques filled with such timeless wisdom as "It's a long road that has no roadhouse." The 21 burger remains on the menu, now costing $22.75 at dinner. For any regulars concerned lest young upstarts take over the most prestigious tables, Kriendler vows there will always be a Siberia as long as there is a Kriendler. "Except now it will be heated," he says. "You soften up after a while."