In 1930, the iron gates in front of 21 W 52nd St in New York City opened for the first time and the 21 Club (or simply 21) welcomed its first customers. 21 was one of New York’s many speakeasies during prohibition.
After a raid in 1930, the owners paid a designer to build a system of camouflaged doors, invisible chutes, revolving bars and a secret wine cellar. The cellar was actually part of No. 19 next door, so staff could honestly say there was no alcohol on the premises.
With the end of prohibition in 1933, the restaurant and bar remained a favorite of the New York elite. Movie stars, sports icons, industry captains, and politicians all have patronized 21 Club over the decades. Much like the Hard Rock Cafe has instruments on the walls donated by famous musicians, the bar at 21 has an eclectic collection on the ceiling.
There’s a model of a PT-109 torpedo boat from President John F. Kennedy, a baseball bat from Willie Mays, a replica of Air Force One from President Clinton, tennis racquets from Chris Evert and John McEnroe, and even a golf club from Jack Nicklaus.
Not surprisingly, John McEnroe’s racquet is smashed into several pieces. 🙂
If you were a regular, you could house your private collection in 21’s wine cellar just like Presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and Aristotle Onassis did. Like any famous bar, it was frequented by Ernest Hemingway who, in 1931, was caught having sex with gangster Legs Diamond’s girlfriend in 21’s kitchen.
21 Club was a place to be seen. Recent celebrity visits include George Clooney (table eight), Rod Stewart (table 49), Harrison Ford (table 56) and Ricky Gervais (table 18). In 2016, president-elect Trump stopped by 21 Club with his family and friends for a celebratory post-election dinner.
There will be no such celebrations in 2020. That’s because 21 has been closed since March when all indoor dining was suspended in NYC during the first wave. While restaurants were allowed to do take-out, outdoor and eventually very limited indoor dining, such options aren’t viable for a restaurant like 21 Club, where rubbing elbows with the elite is part of the appeal.
Now that things in New York are getting worse and not better, indoor dining isn’t returning any time soon. And if it did, would people be rushing back to and eat/drink in an old speakeasy? Understandably, the management of 21 Club announced that the restaurant would be closed indefinitely and the remaining employees will be laid off in March 2021. Here’s their statement to the NY Daily News.
In light of the ongoing global crisis and anticipated extended recovery period for the hospitality industry, the difficult decision was made that it will not be feasible to reopen the 21 Club in its current form for the foreseeable future
While many articles are writing about the closure as an example of COVID-19 destroying the restaurant industry, it’s not like the place hasn’t already been closed for most of the year. The announcement of laying off workers is necessary because of the union workers they employed. The owners are already talking about plans to reopen in a way that ensures long-term viability while keeping the character of the location intact. I would guess that they’ll wait until people feel more comfortable about going out to a crowded restaurant for dinner and they’re betting it’s going to be later and not sooner when that’ll happen.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary