It mustn’t have, but it surely got here as a shock that the jockeys had vanished. There they’d stood outdoors the “21” Club on West 52nd Street for many years, 35 of them, with their solid steel arms upraised to understand the reins of some invisible mount, their silks brightly painted within the colours of storied thoroughbred stables. Suddenly, then, they have been gone.
And now so, too, it could appear, is the “21” Club itself.
On March 9, nearly a 12 months because the pandemic pressured town to ban indoor eating, the “21” Club moved to terminate 148 staff, the bulk unionized, in keeping with a discover filed with the New York Department of Labor. “‘21’ Club has been an iconic part of the New York experience for nearly a century,” a spokeswoman for LVMH, the non-public French luxurious items conglomerate that acquired the restaurant as a part of a $2.6 billion 2018 deal for the Belmond Limited hospitality group, stated in an emailed assertion.
The devastating influence of the pandemic on the restaurant and hospitality industries, the spokeswoman added, had necessitated making “the tough determination to not reopen ‘21′ in its current form,” but rather to reimagine its “distinctive role in the city’s thrilling future.”
What that “distinctive” position is stays to be seen. Yet nearly definitely it is not going to embrace John Papaliberios.
For 29 years, Mr. Papaliberios, 69, and an immigrant from Sparta, Greece, waited tables at “21,” serving 5 U.S. presidents, passels of the requisite plutocrats, in addition to Broadway stars and Frank Sinatra, the baseball Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza and likewise the person who first acquired him for the Mets.
Among regulars, Mr. Papaliberios’s hands-down favourite was John F. Kennedy Jr., who stored a low profile, tipped effectively and infrequently rode to the restaurant from the workplace of his journal, George, on his bike. Until this week Mr. Papaliberios had fairly thought-about the “21” Club a second house, in addition to his last vacation spot in a restaurant profession spanning a half-century.
“It’s not just me,” he stated. “We have people here 30 or 40 years that are part of the history of the place.’’
That history was at the center of a flurry of nostalgic press accounts that greeted the restaurant’s closing late last year, at a time when it was still impossible to foresee how wrenchingly the pandemic would alter the retail landscape of New York. And there were abundant reasons to look back with affection at this singular Midtown institution with its wrought-iron gates from 1926, its flickering gas lanterns, the red-capped lawn jockeys donated to the place over the years by people with names — Vanderbilt, Mellon, Phipps — that filled the gossip columns of the past and then eventually, like high society itself, faded into unlamented desuetude.
The “21″ Club, was, after all, a rare survivor of Prohibition, that raucous interlude following the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920 when New York greeted a federal ban on the manufacture, importation or sale of liquor in characteristic fashion by transforming itself into what a temperance lobby, the Anti-Saloon League, blared was “the liquor center of America.”
Opened in its current location on Jan. 1, 1930, at a time when the New York City police commissioner estimated there were 32,000 speakeasies, the “21” Club outlasted almost all of its competitors. It survived the Depression, 9/11, the Great Recession and changing habits in dining to become, after nine decades, an institution. Now it may be lost to a pandemic that has also claimed neighborhood landmarks like La Caridad 78 on the Upper West Side, Colandrea New Corner in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and the Monkey Bar in Midtown, sustained on affectionate life support until March by the hotelier Jeff Klein and Graydon Carter.
So relentless in 2020 was the drumbeat of loss that it was initially hard to register the slow-motion decline of “21,” a business-district brownstone that remained an anomalous holdover of the Roaring ’20s; a watering hole of presidents (every one since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, with the exception of George W. Bush); a repository of outlandish lore (camouflage doors, invisible bottle chutes, revolving bars, Hemingway getting busy in a stairwell) that turned out to be substantially true; an adult playpen where Willie Mays’s bat hung suspended from the ceiling of the Bar Room alongside Bill Clinton’s Air Force One replica, Jack Nicklaus’s golf clubs and countless dusty souvenir toys; and the sort of dining establishment where calling for a Rob Roy did not required ironic “Mad Men” quotations around your drinks order.
For most ordinary New Yorkers, of course, the experience of the “21” Club was well out of reach. “It’s a restaurant that’s called a club, which connotes a public space, yet one that’s effectively private,” Meredith TenHoor, an urban historian and professor of architecture at Pratt Institute, said.
“It’s this central node in a network where deals historically get done and decisions get made,” Ms. TenHoor added, and this is perhaps why Donald J. Trump frequented the restaurant and even chose it as the setting for an election victory dinner in 2016. “He liked to greet everybody when they walked by,” Mr. Papaliberios, the waiter, said, referring to Mr. Trump’s preferred table, No. 11, along a wall on the way to the bar.
Yet for those with the means to dine there at the “21” Club had become largely passé, the sort of spot you imagine visiting but seldom do — and with good reason.
There was the restaurant’s notoriously exclusive seating policy, for one thing — may I show you to Siberia, section 17, at the very back of the townhouse? There was a tiresome dress code requiring gentlemen to wear jackets that eventually relented, relieving them of ties. There was the pedestrian food that was already considered overpriced in 1950 when, two decades after the birth of the modern hamburger, “21” was charging $2.75 for a burger that coffee shops of the era were serving for little more than a dime.
“It is one of those restaurants that people mourn though they haven’t been there for years,’’ said Paul Freedman, a Yale history professor and culinary historian whose book, “Ten Restaurants That Changed America,’’ notably omitted the “21” Club from the list. “Lüchows was like that,” Mr. Freedman added, referring to a 14th Street institution that closed in 1986 after a 104-year run. “It was terrible for years, but still endearing because of the experience of being there.”
For habitués, the place evoked an exclusive club: the hushed atmospherics, the indifferent décor, the soothingly sentimental bric-a-brac, the implicit understanding that, as one was being inducted into a special sanctum, almost certainly someone else was being kept out.
“I loved the place,” said Stanley D. Petter, 86, a pioneering Kentucky thoroughbred breeder and bloodstock agent. “It was the atmosphere and the feeling that it was something you had done when you were younger and it was always nice to be welcomed back.”
Reliably the “21″ Club was where Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, known as “Sonny,” and different members of a gilded elite repaired after the National Horse Show, the oldest repeatedly held horse present within the nation and a key fixture on the calendar of now-vanished New York. “It’s strange when you consider that, within my lifetime, I’ve seen the rise and fall of most of what they used to call Society,” Mr. Petter stated.
If, as its homeowners recommend, the “21” Club does finally return, it can absolutely be in a kind these folks would have discovered unrecognizable. And if the restaurant resurfaces, as some within the hospitality business predict, as a branding anchor for one of many high-end lodges LVMH has set about growing because it seeks to broaden its attain past luxurious items, it could be following a system these just like the proprietors of Carbone or Ralph Lauren on the Polo Bar have deployed with nice success: quoting New York again to itself.
Whether they are going to be doing so with unionized staff stays open to query. “It’s a sad, sad time,” stated Bill Granfield, the president of UnitedHere! Local 100, a restaurant employee’s union. “If am a sommelier or a line cook or a banquet busboy, what have I moved to since March of last year?”
Central to the legacy of the “21” Club is one other group apart from its patrons, stated Carmen de la Rosa, a New York State Assembly member who rallied to protect employment for longtime staff first furloughed and now left to outlive on federal stimulus funds as their union lobbies to protect their jobs. “Places like the ‘21” Club don’t exist in my neighborhood, to be sincere,” stated Ms. De la Rosa, who represents the 72nd District, in Upper Manhattan.
The survival of such locations, she added, just isn’t solely essential to livelihoods but in addition to town’s financial and cultural vitality. “I’m an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and when I go into these settings and look over and see someone Colombian, Dominican or Mexican that has similar experiences to mine, I don’t want that to be lost,” she stated. “That’s the essence of what makes New York a beautiful place to live in.”
Nor does Maria Veramendi, 46, the restaurant’s first lady banquet captain, whose job loss will pressure her to maneuver out of town, she stated. Nor Mr. Papaliberios, who stated that after working at fantastic eating spots across the metropolis, he landed on the “21” Club sure it was “the place I’d been looking for all my life.” Nor Katia Malarsky, a 34-year-old pastry chef who, if she reluctantly traded the excessive pleasure if low-wage lifetime of a contract kitchen employee for normal hours and medical health insurance, discovered to her shock that her seven years on the “21” Club have felt just like the acme of her profession.
“There’s a reason I stayed,” Ms. Malarsky stated, referring to the frenzy she obtained every time she walked previous the garden jockeys that have been carted off in December — for “restoration” as an LVMH spokesman stated.
“The name has gravitas,’’ said Ms. Malarsky. “When I told my grandfather I’d gotten a job at the ‘21’ Club, he was the proudest he’d ever been.”