National News

The Elite Are Locked Out, While 21 Club Dries Out

Posted January 31, 2018 5:14 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The 21 Club, the venerated Midtown Manhattan restaurant, is famous for its clubby atmosphere and influential celebrity patrons, so it was strange recently to see its ornate iron gates padlocked and a sign explaining that the iconic place was closed because of water damage.

Stranger still was a walk inside 21, during what would normally be a bustling weekday. The place was emptied of its clientele, and largely gutted of its well-appointed décor and furnishings, revealing its original gritty endoskeleton.

On Jan. 2, the restaurant flooded, causing damage that will keep it closed at least until March, with upper floor catering rooms closed at least until June.

Broken pipes near the ceiling on the fifth floor set off three fire sprinklers, sending thousands of gallons of water into the restaurant’s walls and floors and cascading four floors down the restaurant’s old wooden staircase “like Niagara Falls,” said Teddy Suric, the general manager of 21.

Within a half-hour, the main water line from the street was shut, but not before the flooding had caved in ceilings and ruined several recently renovated bathrooms, Suric said.

Crews ripped out walls, ceilings and flooring, exposing layers of linoleum flooring original to the building.

The flooding damaged some of the restaurant’s ornate handmade molding, and damaged part of its 300-piece collection of paintings, drawings and photographs, estimated to be worth $3 million. Some photographs require refurbishing, and some of the frames of the 30 paintings by Western artist Frederic Remington were damaged.

More than 100 union employees have been laid off until the restaurant can reopen, and Suric has been dealing with insurance and construction officials — and reassuring the city’s power elite that 21 will survive.

“All the calls I got, from CEOs, politicians, NFL owners, proved to me that this is more than just a restaurant," Suric said. “It’s part of the core DNA of the city.”

The wood floor has been ripped up in the restaurant’s vaunted dining room and bar area, which has served the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Hemingway, and has been depicted in films including “The Sweet Smell of Success,” and “Wall Street.”

More recently, President Donald Trump has long been a regular here, as have members of his Cabinet, including Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Wilbur Ross, the Commerce secretary.

Now a work zone, chairs and tables are piled up and covered in plastic around other tables that are still decorated with brass plaques for such famous regulars such as former President Richard M. Nixon and humorist Robert Benchley.

“We were lucky this didn’t have to come down,” Suric said as he scanned the sea of mementos hanging from the ceiling — more than 1,000 artifacts donated by famous patrons. Most of the toys, as they are known at 21, were not damaged, since the devastation was largely concentrated in the catering rooms on the upper three floors.

In one of them, Christian Bandler, the construction manager for the restaurant’s renovation, stepped carefully across a lattice of thick, wooden joists and beams. He pointed out a cross-section of four layers of flooring, and a hidden chimney, that was once used by a basement incinerator.

Workers also found in the floorboards a spinning coin that became a tradition started by Jack Kreindler and Charlie Berns, who founded 21 in Greenwich Village in 1922, before moving it uptown to its second home.

The coin was given to favored guests who would spin it like a top to determine who at the table would pay the check.

Bandler and Suric walked over water-stained floorboards and into a modest catering room known as Pete’s Room, whose walls were gutted to the original wood lath and plaster dating back to before the restaurant opened in three adjacent town houses in 1929 as a speak-easy.

With the gutting of 21 leaving its bones exposed, the divisions between the town houses can be clearly seen.

Suric said 21 earned about $19 million last year, and would lose at least $3 million in dining and catering revenue from the closing.

At least the flood occurred after December, which is always the restaurant’s busiest month, said Avery Fletcher, director of marketing for 21.

“If this had happened in December, it would have been a very different story,” she said.

Suric said the closure has been far from a respite.

“It’s more work than if I had all 10 rooms going for lunch and dinner,” he said.

Still, the flood allowed him to “freshen up” the décor of the upper rooms, and make other small reconfigurations and repairs such as redoing the restaurant’s creaking floors.

“The whole idea is to bring 21 back fresh,” he said, “not modernize it.”