NEW YORK - There are some New Yorkers who are actually pleased with Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. Among them are probably the owners of the 21 Club, the trendy American restaurant in mid-Manhattan that has been operating at record capacity since it became known that the president-elect tends to escape from the Trump Tower in order to visit his favorite restaurant in the city.
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The first time it became known that Trump sneaks out, the circumstances were somewhat embarrassing. One evening a Trump spokeswoman went out to reporters who were sitting and waiting for the president-elect, and informed him that the president’s daily schedule was finished and he had no more plans. The journalists and photographers went home.
A short time later Trump set out in the direction of the restaurant, on 52nd Street near Fifth Avenue, a few minutes from his home. A Bloomberg News reporter who was in the restaurant at the time reported the incident, and the other journalists were furious. Although Trump lost no sleep over the matter, the spokeswoman promised that it wouldn’t happen again.
Last Monday I happened to participate in an event next to the 21 Club. When I left I discovered that 52nd Street was closed. Policemen and Secret Service people surrounded the place, and an ambulance stood nearby. A terror attack? A security incident? Nothing of the kind.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that Trump was in his favorite restaurant. This time he dined in a private dining room, and when he stopped on his way there and passed through the restaurant itself, he was greeted with thunderous applause, shook hands with the diners and also entered another private event, attended by local real estate people.
I had heard about the club in the past. They told me that it was a very nouveau riche kind of place. The truth is that I had never visited there, but I remedied that. The next day, in pouring rain, I went to the restaurant in order to understand what exactly goes on there. There was no choice but to reserve a place for 5:30 P.M., because after that hour all the tables were already taken. The staff confirmed what was already known, and apparently they weren’t supposed to tell – that Trump was here the previous day.
When you already start a conversation with the staff, they admit that the fact that the restaurant is one of Trump’s favorites is very helpful for business. And in fact, during the peak hours it’s very hard to find a table here. A reminder: This is a luxury restaurant. A couple can find themselves with a bill of $250-$300 and more for a meal at the end of the evening, depending of course on the amount of liquor they consume.
Trump’s election to the presidency prevents him from doing a number of things that he really loves. For example, to enter restaurants and public places, rub shoulders with people, pat people on the back, exchange jokes. Now he is much more limited.
Next to Trump Tower is a good Italian restaurant called Fresco by Scotto, which Trump used to patronize. They say here that he has been barred from visiting the restaurant for security reasons, but the next president likes their food, so occasionally they prepare dinners for him and send them to his nearby home.
Trump is not willing to give up the 21 Club, and that’s understandable. He may be the most important person in the world at the moment, but in New York he actually reigned in the 1980s. The 21 Club is one of the quintessential symbols of the opulent 80s in New York, the years when his star rose and the word Trump electrified the air here.
The restaurant and bar are on the first floor, and the two top floors are for private events. When you enter the restaurant you of course encounter the noisy bar, which is an essential part of the visit. The restaurant itself is paneled with reddish wood and has red carpets, red leather seats, dim lights. Even here – it’s very noisy. All around are Christmas wreaths decorated with gold and silver ribbons. On the walls are paintings by Frederic Remington depicting life in the Old American West in the late 19th century.
The male guests, usually aged 40-60, are dressed in good suits, usually with ties, and the women, of a similar age, are also dressed in their finest. There are New York businessmen here as well as wealthy people from all over the U.S. and the rest of the world. Jeans are absolutely taboo. A suit jacket is mandatory.
The 21 Club is famous among other things for its low ceiling, from which toys and souvenirs hang: planes, cars, trucks, football helmets with the manufacturer’s logo. The waiters say that the company executives, athletes and other VIPs bring the toys and autographed memorabilia, as an ego trip.
Can anyone bring a model or toy that will hang down from the air?
“No,” laughs the waiter, “it’s only if you’ve come here at least 100 times and you really are somebody.” When they take inventory they attest that the late President John F. Kennedy gave the 21 a small torpedo ship, and former President Bill Clinton gave them a model of Air Force One. The tennis rackets of John McEnroe and Chris Evert are here too.
The place opened in 1930 and became known as one of the most famous speakeasies selling liquor during the Prohibition Era, when the sale and consumption of liquor were forbidden. At the time there was a secret wine cellar where the liquor was hidden, and well-connected Americans imbibed the forbidden drinks there. One can find quite a number of such speakeasies all over New York, but 21 Club is one of the most famous.
The police and tax authorities raided the place from time to time, in order to seize the liquor and catch its drinkers in the act, but legend has it that there were hidden doors and hiding places that nobody could discover, through which it was possible to smuggle and hide the liquor.
Over the years the restaurant changed hands several times. Today, 21 Club is owned by Belmont, the boutique hotel chain. The truth is that this fact kills the restaurant’s sex appeal somewhat. Just imagine what would happen if a scion of the Bronfman family, who once had a liquor empire that began during Prohibition, owned the restaurant? But what can you do if they prefer doing something else?
Every table in the restaurant has a number, and on its website they boast of this fact and reveal who sat where. Take a deep breath and dive into the gossip pool: Ernest Hemingway, for example, sat at table 7. Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and George Bush also liked that table. On the other hand, George Clooney prefers the adjacent table 8. Frank Sinatra ate at table 14 and Harrison Ford prefers to sit far from the center, at table 56. Humphrey Bogart dined at table 30 and Bill Gates at table 42.
And what about the “real estate mogul,” as he is dubbed on the website? Trump prefers to sit at a side table, no. 11. Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin, who annoys the new president on “Saturday Night Live,” comes to eat here, at table 29. Incidentally, I sat at table 27, where actress Bette Midler and Ruth Reichl, the excellent former food critic for The New York Times and the food magazine Gourmet, also used to sit.