For the past two years, Greg and I have celebrated the holidays with both of our families, traveling between frigid Chicago and sunny Florida. It’s a lot of fun rushing around to see friends and family while making sure we’re able to fit in our favorite Christmas traditions (I’m looking at you, Lehnertz Ave) and enjoy everything the holiday season has to offer.
It is busy though, so last year we started another holiday tradition that I love: celebrating Christmas early with just the two of us. Before we pack our bags and board our flights, Greg and I set aside a December evening to have a special Christmas date. We go to a festive restaurant for dinner and then come home and open our presents to each other while sitting under our Christmas tree and listening to Christmas music.
Last year I chose The Nomad Restaurant, my favorite place to eat during Christmastime. The entire evening was magical, from the dimly-lit library where we drank spiked eggnog near the Christmas tree to the fabulous meal covered in truffles that we ate by candlelight. Needless to say, the bar for this year was set high!
Greg and I had been wanting to try 21 Club for awhile now, and I had heard that it’s beautifully decorated over the holidays. So we headed there on Saturday for this year’s Christmas date.
The outside of the restaurant is easily recognizable with its mini statues of horse jockeys. And it was in fact festively decorated.
That evening we dined in the Bar Room, one of the most unique dining rooms in New York City. The ceiling is covered in small toys which are gifts from sports stars, celebrities and even presidents. Traditionally if you were enough of a regular to have your own table, you could take the liberty of adorning the space above your head with a toy that represented your field.
We sat in the corner at one of the most enviable tables in the restaurant. Just next to us was a plaque commemorating the table that was used in the film Wall Street. And that’s not the only time Hollywood has featured 21 Club. It’s actually the most filmed restaurant in New York City, and you can see it everywhere from the 1950’s classic All About Eve starring Marilyn Monroe and Bette Davis to, more recently, Sex and the City.
21 Club has a fascinating history. Cousins Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns opened a speakeasy in the East Village and later moved it uptown. When J.D. Rockefeller decided he wanted to build Rockefeller Center at that location, Jack and Charlie held a black-tie party on New Year’s Eve in 1929. When guests arrived they were given a bottle of champagne and a pickaxe, and they set to work helping to tear everything down. Then, at midnight, Jack and Charlie announced the new (and current) location at 21 West 52nd Street (21 Club gets its name from its address, it was never really a club). Guests dropped their pickaxes and picked up the iron gate, moving it three blocks to the new location. This gate still stands outside the restaurant today.
21 Club was raided once during prohibition, and afterwards Jack and Charlie commissioned new security measures that included camouflaged doors, revolving bars, and shelves which were designed to collapse and send wine bottles down a hidden chute if the authorities arrived. There was even a secret wine seller in the basement next door which allowed staff to truthfully tell police that there was no alcohol stored on the premises.
21 Club’s lore only continued in subsequent years, with Ernest Hemingway dining there and having an illicit affair on the kitchen steps with a mob boss’ girlfriend.
This article dives even deeper into 21 Club’s history and is definitely worth a read!
Our waiter did an excellent job of sharing 21 Club’s history with us throughout our meal, but it wasn’t until we looked up the restaurant on the car ride home that we learned all of the above information. I wish I had googled it beforehand since it would have made our dining experience that much more interesting.
We began with bread and deliciously salted butter.
And, of course, cocktails.
For an appetizer we shared the Burgundy Escargot with vadouvan butter, tomato concasse and Naan bread. It was excellent and my favorite dish of the night.
For his main course, Greg dined on the restaurant’s famous “Speakeasy” Steak Tartare topped with a quail egg and served with potato crisps. It was also very good.
However, this is where the food went downhill. For my main course I selected the Honey Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli with blue cheese, hazelnut, swiss chard, and sage-brown butter. It sounds delicious, right? But the taste was just ok. I’ve had much better butternut squash ravioli.
And the other thing I didn’t like about the $41 dish was that they only served four ravioli. That meant each pillow of ravioli cost over $10, and because the ravioli didn’t even taste all that great I thought my meal was wildly overpriced.
Pasta is one of the biggest markups in restaurants because it’s so inexpensive to make, so I’m always annoyed when restaurants serve such small pasta portions. It would have only cost 21 Club a few dollars more to double the amount of ravioli and then I would have felt less cheated with my meal.
For a side Greg and I shared the Truffle Macaroni and Cheese. Again, this pasta dish wasn’t all that great. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good either. And you couldn’t even taste the truffle! At least the price was only $17 so I didn’t feel as annoyed about the dish being mediocre.
I have to say I was disappointed in 21 Club. The history is fascinating, and it’s worth visiting for that. But I didn’t like my food and so I’d suggest going for cocktails and having the escargot if you’re feeling peckish.
As we unfortunately discovered, planning a Christmas date so near to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was a major hassle. Traffic was awful and barely moved, so I ended up walking several blocks in heels and bare legs when I had dressed preparing to step out of the car and walk directly into the restaurant. The holiday traffic certainly isn’t 21 Club’s fault, but for future Christmas dates we will be steering clear of Midtown.
Also, I had heard wonderful things about the restaurant’s Christmas decor, and although the outside is beautifully decorated the Bar Room had just one wreath on the wall. It’s not the end of the world, but for a Christmas date where we’re hoping for the same magical holiday atmosphere that we experienced at The Nomad Restaurant, 21 Club was just a letdown.
21 Club does have a Christmas tree in its lobby, at least, so we made sure to take a few festive pictures before heading out.
Then we went home, poured some egg nog, and opened our presents, bringing the holiday magic back into our Christmas date.
P.S. My dress is by Marchesa Notte. It’s from a past season but you can shop current looks here.