At Manhattan’s iconic ‘21’ Club, head to the basement for the best private room in the house
If How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson could travel back in time to Prohibition-era New York City, the first place he’d go is Jack and Charlie’s 21—now known as the ‘21’ Club. The suited-up bro would fit right in at this elite speakeasy, as would two other revelers who clean up nice: Stefan and Rebekah. The Vampire Diaries’ immortal bloodsuckers would have not only partied here, but likely would have helped the establishment evade the law, or at least caused a good distraction.
The owners Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns were the experts in diverting attention. Despite federal raids, the savvy restaurateurs were never caught. Their secret to speakeasy success? Good neighbors. To safely stash illegal liquor from the feds, they made a deal with the house next door (19 W. 52nd St.) and kept the booze in that basement, the two brownstones connected by a hidden door. Watch! toured this once elaborately disguised vault—now meticulously restored and renovated for bespoke private dining—and learned a thing or two about the restaurant’s celebrated past and present. Here’s what makes the legendary ‘21’ Club the coolest cat in town.
‘21’ opened on New Year’s Eve in 1929, and quickly became the swankiest place to be seen for the rich, famous and influential. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Will Rogers and Humphrey Bogart were regulars. Easily the most exclusive among New York’s estimated 32,000 illegal clubs, nonfamous folks were allowed only when accompanied by a regular or deemed good for business or the right kind of sorts by the doorman.
The ‘21’ wine cellar was invisible by design. Behind hanging smoked hams and shelves of canned goods stood a perfectly camouflaged 2-ton door built right into the bricks, which could be opened only by inserting a slender 18-inch meat skewer through one of many cracks in the cement wall. In addition to the hidden vault, ‘21’ used a mix of unique defenses to protect its precious contraband—from booby traps and collapsible shelves for quickly disposing of liquor bottles to fake walls, hidden panels and secret passages for moving merchandise.
When a raid was imminent, the doorman would activate a secret alarm to warn management and guests. Patrons would down their drinks and bartenders would flip shelves to swiftly remove all tipple evidence. Since the alcohol was technically held next door, when employees were asked by federal agents if there was liquor on the premises, they could truthfully answer, “No, sir!”
Today, besides the storied wine cellar, the ‘21’ Club boasts 10 private event spaces and can host parties of 10 to 200 for lunch or dinner and up to 450 for a reception, from the $1.7 million renovated Puncheon Room to the intimate 32-seat Upstairs at ‘21’ restaurant. And of course there’s the legendary Bar Room, the watering hole of celebrities and VIPs including The Good Wife’s Julianna Margulies, George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, Natalie Portman and just about every sitting president.
It is rumored that more deals are made at ‘21’ than on the stock market floor, and it’s likely due to delish dishes like the signature “21 Burger”—a juicy 10-ounce freshly ground burger with preserved tomatoes, sautéed onions and ‘21’ sauce. Pair this American dream with a crisp dirty martini (or three!) and you’ve got yourself the ultimate power lunch, no secret password required.
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The ‘21’ Burger by Executive Chef John Greeley
Yields four burgers (approximately 10 ounces each)
1 pound, 4 ounces chuck (trim off excess fat, large dice)
1 pound short rib (trimmed off bone, large dice)
5 ounces dry aged sirloin (trim excess fat, large dice)
1 ounce Vidalia onion (diced medium)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme (pick leaves off the stem)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper (fresh ground medium)
1. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together so the meat chunks are seasoned and spices are evenly distributed before grinding.
2. Run mix through a meat grinder, first through a medium die, then through a fine die.
3. Form into four 10-ounce large meatballs and pack into a plastic wrap-lined tin to make the hockey puck shape. (You can use a 5-inch ring mold as well to get a shape, but the burgers should be at least an inch thick and 4–5 inches in diameter.)
4. Let burgers sit in refrigerator for at least 2 hours to overnight to firm up.
5. Brush burgers lightly with grapeseed oil and grill over medium heat until nicely browned.
Tip: If you sauté the burger, you can also finish cooking it to a higher temperature in a 350-degree oven.
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