When one thinks of nightlife before WWII, it conjures up images of nightspots serving food until the wee hours of the morning and music until dawn. Nowhere was being away from home epitomized in the city like New York City in the 1930s and 1940s. It was a legendary moment in time.
After a four-year probation period was revoked, King Kong led Faye Ray around the side of the Empire State Building, Duke Ellington performed nightly at the Cotton Club on 125th Street in Harlem, and two clever cousins named Jack Kriendler and Charlie. Berns legitimized a speakeasy at 21 West 52nd Street and dubbed it The “21” Club.
Although “21” had been raided more than once during prohibition, federal agents could never blame Jack and Charlie. At the first sign of a raid, they would activate an ingenious system of pulleys and levers, which would sweep the bottles off the bar shelves and dump the shattered remains down a conduit into the New York sewer system.
Throughout the 1930s, the “21” was frequented by many literary figures of the time, including: John Steinbeck, John O’Hara, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, HG Wells, and Robert Sherwood. In fact, all the notables of the mid-20th century made it to “21” at one point or another. It competed with sponsorship from other legendary New York City venues, such as the Stork Club and El Morocco, as one of the Café Society’s most famous hangouts.
In the 1940s, Spellbound hit theaters starring Gregory Peck and is one of the first films to feature / mention the “21” Club. According to Jeff Kraft and Aaron Leventhal, co-authors of Alfred Hitchcock’s Footsteps in the Fog: San Francisco, Mr. Hitchcock had a long-standing connection to the “21” Club. Starting with his first trip to the United States from England in the late 1930s, he was a regular at the restaurant throughout his life. Humphrey Bogart frequented “21” as an actor in distress in his pre-Hollywood days. When he wasn’t partying with friends, he was content to sit alone at “21,” seriously bent over a notebook, smoking a pipe and drinking whiskey, imagining himself as a budding playwright. His taste for the drink ranged wildly between Scotch whiskey, Black Velvets (equal parts Guinness and Champagne), bathtub gin martinis, beer, and Jack Rose cocktails.
Bogart would return to his old refuge in 1944 and propose to a young Lauren Bacall in Table 30. They first worked together on To Have and Have Not, based on the novel written by “21” regular Ernest Hemingway (who was surprised to the gangster girlfriend Legs Diamond in the kitchen “21” in 1931). Hollywood hit “21” years later in the 1950s to shoot scenes for the classic movies “All About Eve” starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter and “The Sweet Smell of Success” with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
The first of the 33 replicas of the horsemen on duty in front of the entrance gates of “21” was donated by sponsor Jay Van Urk in the early 1930s. In 1992, a jockey was stolen from the restaurant and that news was reported on page 2 of the New York Post. The next day, a “21” regular customer was looking out of his office window overlooking Washington Square Park, saw the jockey in a shopping cart, and called the police. In 2004, there was a collection of 33 riders, the most recent being Saratoga Stables representing the great New York horse Sunny Cide, winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness races.
In recent years, “21” has undergone a host of renovations and remains one of the few classic restaurants still in existence since the heyday of New York City’s nightlife. It is still a refreshing throwback to the great dinner of a bygone era. Classic American food is still expertly executed and the menu, with or without a large bottle of wine, remains an enjoyable experience for New Yorkers and visitors alike. It will certainly provide memories for generations to come.