What's In a Name?
Referred to as “the numbers”, '21' is the oldest restaurant in NYC named for its address.
“Clubby” in décor and furnishings, '21' was never a private club. Like their other speakeasies, there was always a front door receptionist/screener inside '21' to keep a certain ilk out, including gangsters (most notably John Thomas “Legs” Diamond, who wanted a cut of the business, federal agents (until December '33 anyway) and drunks.
'21' on Camera
In 1950, scenes from "All About Eve" were filmed at '21', the first of many to come. According to “Celluloid Skyline” (2001) by James Sanders, '21' has been featured in more NYC movies than any other restaurant. On-screen credits include "Sweet Smell of Success", "Written on the Wind", "The Opposite Sex", "Wall Street", "One Fine Day", "Manhattan Murder Mystery", "The Associate", "Sex and the City" and "The Apprentice". '21' is also referred to in many movies, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s "Rear Window", when Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) had '21' deliver dinner to a laid-up L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart).
Nearly every U.S. President since FDR has visited '21' – George W. Bush is the lone exception.
Dress Code Interpretations
Although '21' has always been known for upholding its dress code of jackets and ties for gents at night, several famous faces have put their own spin on it:
Sammy Davis, Jr., wearing a turtleneck under his jacket, was lent a cravat and tied it around his head (turtleneck sweaters under a jacket are now permitted in the evening).
Groucho Marx wore a jacket over a t-shirt and a tie looped around his neck.
A woman who’d heard that Katherine Hepburn was allowed in wearing slacks decided to do the same. Informed that she wouldn’t be let in with trousers, she went to the ladies room, removed them, wearing only her blouse and panties. Her daring earned her a one-night exemption from the no-slacks rule.
Similarly, first Survivor winner Richard Hatch, who spent most of his time naked on the island, filmed a segment of Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee here wearing ONLY a jacket and tie.
Eat, Drink and Be Merry:
A long list of culinary luminaries has passed through the '21' kitchen over the past 75 years including Henri Geib, Yves Louis Plonis, Daniel Bruce, Anthony Pedretti, Alain Sailhac, Geoffrey Zhakarian and Michael Lomonaco.
But it’s not only the chefs and line cooks preparing with panache at '21' -- tableside items prepared by the dining room captains account for nearly 15% of dishes ordered each year in the Bar Room. The most popular entrées: steak tartare (fans include Martha Stewart) and steak Diane; Caesar salad is the top selling appetizer.
Special orders don’t upset us:
1) Groucho Marx ordered one bean, and then sent it back to the kitchen, declaring it "undercooked";
2) KFC founder Colonel Harlan Sanders celebrated his 86th birthday at '21' by having his own famous fried chicken delivered to the table (nothing like this chicken had ever been served at '21', nor would it again);
3) Frank Sinatra routinely requested spicy Italian cherry peppers to pop in his mouth while waiting for his dinner.
Overheard at '21’:
From a poem by socialite Mary Lou Whitney - "When I was young and 20, I went to '21'. Oh, I had drinks aplenty. And I had plenty of fun."
"Lunch is for wimps," Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas), Wall Street (1987).
One rainy night, Robert Benchley uttered the immortal wisecrack, "Get me out of this wet coat and into a dry Martini."
Ernest Hemingway often waved off a Papa Doble while announcing to the bartender, "Since I'm not drinking, I'll just have a tequila."
Legend has it that while walking through the front door, Clare Booth Luce stepped aside and muttered, "Age before beauty," to Dorothy Parker. Her reply, "Pearls before swine."
According to legend, Frank Sinatra and Brooklyn Dodger manager Leo Durocher were dining at '21'; Sinatra was handing out $100 bills as tips to every worker in sight. They went to the men's room, and the attendant could hardly wait for his $100 but Leo said, "Frank, you have been taking care of everything all evening, let me take care of this" and, as Sinatra reluctantly acceded to that plea, Durocher reached into his pocket, fished out $1 and handed it to the attendant with a word of thanks.
'21' retains its longtime reputation as the restaurant where more deals are done than in the boardroom (Forbes magazine) and the sports world typifies this.
One of the biggest deals: In 1983, baseball’s first $billion-plus deal for broadcasting rights negotiated by the NY Yankees and NBC.
In 1985, ABC News and Sports President Roone Arledge welcomed Joe Namath to the Monday Night Football broadcasting team with Frank Gifford, whose NY Giants helmet is one of the team’s three represented on the Bar Room ceiling.
And (according to Page 6), NBC Chief Jeff Zucker with his Sports President Dick Ebersole were spotted at '21' with NFL Commish Paul Tagliabue and his TV guy Steve Bornstein possibly discussing "NBC wanting to get back onto the gridiron."