COVID CLOSURES: The legendary '21' Club
Updated: Jun 8, 2021
I've never been to the '21' Club. And now, it looks like I never will, at least not in its current form. LVMH (Louie Vuitton Moet Hennessy) the worlds largest luxury goods company that owns Christian Dior, Fendi and Givenchy, acquired the historical speakeasy as part of a $2.6 billion deal. The somber announcement was revealed in December of 2020. Why am I mourning the closure of a restaurant I've never been to? Because, like Charlie in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, you needed a golden ticket to get in, and I wanted in. That elusive "golden ticket," was wealth. Although the '21' Club was not a private club per se, it may as well have been, as it was out of reach to the average New Yorker. It took fame and extreme wealth to get you a decent table at this iconic restaurant, or risk being banished to Siberia with the thirsty tourists. Along with brunch at The Plaza, or breakfast at Tiffany's, dining at '21,' has continuously been on the top-ten list of things to do while visiting NYC.
The legacy of '21' has been captured in some of the most famous films in cinema history; All About Eve (1950), The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Wall Street (1987) and as recent as the critically acclaimed, On the Rocks (2020), with Bill Murray and Rashida Jones. The list is endless, but for me, the absolute best, was the season six episode of Sex and the City: "The Domino Effect," where Big hilariously tells Carrie he's having surgery for "a little heart thing."
To say goodbye to the '21' Club, is to say farewell to a vital part of NYC history. For 91 years, 21 West 52nd Street was home to the '21' Club. During prohibition, cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie burns opened an illegal drinking club known as the Red Head in Greenwich Village. By the time they relocated to its current location on west 52nd Street, they had a new name and a solid reputation. Movie-stars, politicians, as well as the ultra-elite, flocked to '21' in its golden era; legend has it Ernest Hemingway had sex in a stairwell with the girlfriend of Legs Diamond; table 30, known as Bogie's corner, is said to be the table where Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had their first date. Even Marilyn Monroe was a regular, and became chummy with co-owner Kriendler.
For all the tales of debauchery and Joie de vivre, the saddest tale to emanate from this culinary landmark will be the loss of employment for its displaced staff. In early March of this year, '21' laid off 148 unionized employees; some of whom have been there for over 25 years. Allegedly, the employees were given no warning. What's ironic is that as of this writing, Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of LVMH, just became the richest man in the world surpassing Jeff Bezos. (This was made official by Forbes magazine on Monday, May 24th, thanks to a surge in the stock market.) While the rest of the world was suffering during the pandemic, LVMH was laughing all the way to the bank.
On its Facebook page the famed, high-end restaurant teased future plans for a come-back: ". . . as soon as they are developed, refined, and finalized." Is the shut-down indefinite? No solid plans have been announced as of yet. If, and when, '21' decides to re-open its doors, the furloughed staff are worried the classic establishment will open without them. Last December the ejected workers --whom are members of the UNITE HERE Local 100-- rallied in front of the shuttered business, for future reassurance they will be re-hired.
For many of these former employees, '21' wasn't just their place of business, tight bonds and familial relationships were developed. They were a family, and now that "family," faces an uncertain future. '21' survived prohibition, the Great Recession of 2008, and the post 9/11 economic downturn that followed. It remains to be seen if it can survive the annihilation of COVID-19 and its effect on the hospitality and restaurant industries.
It's been months since the jockeys that stood guard at the entrance had vanished. Will they return? Were they really removed for cleaning and restoration, or are they on the way to the Smithsonian for preservation of a bygone era? Only time will tell. Like the resilient city it resides in, I believe '21' will be back, and when it does, it will be better than ever.