The 21 Club
Papa Guru – Jeff Pogash
For the better part of a decade the brownstone mansion with the floriated iron grille and gateway, sunken entrance, and seasonal window boxes, known as Jack and Charlie’s, had been one of the four or five most distinguished restaurants in town. Its address was 21 West Fifty-second Street.
(Snoot If You Must, Lucius Beebe, D. Appleton-Century Co., New York, 1943)
When renowned raconteur, man about town and chronicler of the times Lucius Beebe wrote these words, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns were in their prime and among the most famous bar owners in the world. Their Prohibition era speak-easy turned legitimate restaurant, still operated like a private club and was a haven for celebrities and celebrity wannabes from all walks of life. From the outside, it was impossible to decipher the goings on within these hallowed walls. Sure, it was a fine-looking brownstone, but the entire street was lined with them and it was hard to tell one from the other. Once inside, a first-time guest might have been quite surprised by the décor, since it was about as plain as you could get – a lounge decorated in green and white with an open fire, a couch or two, and a magazine rack with English sporting magazines and the daily newspapers of New York. Adjacent to the lounge was an oak – timbered tap room with a semi-circular bar where, it was said, some mighty fine drinks were served. A wooden staircase painted white and lined with green carpet led from the bar to the second floor where guests would find two dining rooms (front and back), a barbershop, a gymnasium and powder rooms. This most exclusive watering-hole was entered through an ornate iron grille and gateway and stepping down into a sunken entrance. It’s address was 21 West 52nd St. eventually becoming known as “Jack & Charlie’s 21” or the “21 Club.” They moved to this address in 1928 having been located three blocks south on W. 49th St., closer to Radio City Music Hall, a family establishment. The Prohibition agents and local police patrolled W. 49th St. and raided the speak-easies there in an attempt to keep the area “family friendly.” An exodus to W. 52nd St. was in order, just far enough away from Radio City to keep the illegal bars relatively free from interference.
This was not Jack and Charlie’s first establishment and by 1928 they were already experienced bar owners. In 1921, just a year after Prohibition began, a bar known as the Red Head became their first illicit establishment. Liquor was served in tea and coffee cups and sold for about a dollar an ounce. From this “cup joint”, Jack and Charlie opened a night-club called the Fronton, located at 88 Washington Street, a hang out for artists and literary types. They operated from 1924-1925 at which time construction of a subway station forced a move to 42 West 49th Street. From 1925-1928, a new restaurant bar called The Puncheon Grotto was opened. It is here that Jack & Charlie’s reputation for serving great food and fine liquor was established and it was at the Grotto that a spiritual and carnal connection was made with Yale University men, who called it Puncheon Club. A Yale man made this place a habit of Yale men – and quite a good habit it was. It has remained that ever since.The ordinary run of speakeasy is a necessary evil of Prohibition. Thus, it is a genuine pleasure to find such a place as the Puncheon, combining as it does the connoisseurs ultimate in wining and dining. This has long been the watering place of particular epicures – you may mingle with them there in the expensive aroma of cigars. (From The Yale Record, written during Prohibition).
When the Puncheon Club moved from W. 49th in 1928, Jack & Charlie’s 21 Club was born at 21 West 52nd Street. It quickly became the stomping ground for celebrities from all walks of life. ‘21’ is where the worlds of literature, art, theatre, business and politics blended into a very elite and elitist melting pot where food, drink and hob-nobbing took center stage. If likened to food, 21 Club was no beef ragout, but rather a filet mignon topped with foie gras and caviar. Its customers were la crème de la crème. Where else could you find Clark Gable, Ernest Hemingway, Lord Halifax (British Ambassador to The United States), Myrna Loy, Bing Crosby, and Jimmy Stewart, within spitting distanceof Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In later years, John F. Kennedy, Grace Kelly, Barbara Walters and many more well known figures from politics and Hollywood were regular customers, some even having their own private wine and cigar vaults in the cellar. In 1957,when he was 39 years old, John F. Kennedy attended a luncheon at “21” sponsored by some New York City liquor dealers. He was senator from Massachusetts at the time.
To be admitted into this shrine, a customer had to be recognized by Jimmy, the fellow who stood inside the door, acting as both greeter and bouncer. If Jimmy did not know you, there was no chance in hell for admission. For those people who were lucky enough to get past Jimmy, greetings and salutations from Philip, Mino, Monte, Albert, and Mildred, a former Ziegfeld Follies dancer turned hat check girl, were in order. The reward for running the gauntlet at 21 was being escorted to the bar or to one of the upstairs dining rooms to enjoy some of the finest cuisine available in New York. Dining choices were virtually unlimited, ranging from Steak Diane, Scotch grouse, Caviar from Sweden to Foie Gras from Strasbourg, and one of the great specialties of the house, Green Turtle Soup. Hamburger and hash were staples of the menu as well. At some point in the meal, a waiter would most likely ask the diner – Sauce Maison ? Apparently, many dishes were considered incomplete without this finishing touch, a concoction containing 21 (of course) different spices and condiments. When it came to cocktails, 21 and Bill the bartender were king: The bar is spacious, comfortable and meticulously operated. Probably the best place on the island where you can call for Dewar’s, Teacher’s, Walker’s Black Label or any other brand of whisky and get just that. (From The Iron Gate of Jack & Charlie’s “21”, New York, 1936) Let’s not forget that during Prohibition and even after repeal, quality spirits were very hard to find since so much of it had been confiscated and destroyed and the typical speakeasy would be selling home-made (bathtub) gin and whiskey, much of which was downright dangerous to drink. Jack & Charlie’s “21” Club was the gold standard. Popular drinks served by Bill the bartender included one that became a signature cocktail, the refreshing Southside – 2 ounces of gin (or vodka or dark rum), juice of half a lemon, sugar to taste, leaves of fresh mint. These ingredients are to be combined in a shaker with ice and then strained into a double Old-Fashioned glass filled with ice. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
The “21” Club has not changed all that much since 1928, although like many colleges throughout the U.S., admission standards have been relaxed. All you have to do is make a reservation and you’re in like Flynn. Sauce Maison is still served and to this day, there is a delightful cast of characters to greet you at the door (his name is Shaker) and usher you to your table. Even though Jack and Charlie are long gone from the premises and Orient Express owns and runs “21”, there is still a feeling of exhilaration that one experiences when entering the brownstone at 21 West 52nd, knowing that you have made it through the door unimpeded. The atmosphere of a private club is enhanced by the thirty-three colorful painted jockey statues that adorn the exterior. They date back to the 1930’s and represent gifts from some of the well-heeled customers who owned stables and race horses. You may not be a millionaire, but you can certainly live like one at “21” – even if it is only temporary.