Behind the Legendary ‘21’ Club
A staple of the New York City dining scene, Wine Director Phil Pratt shares the restaurant’s secrets.
New York City's legendary ‘21’ Club is in its 82nd year at ‘21’ West 52nd Street, where it opened during Prohibition in a house retrofitted with raid-proof engineering—alarms, chutes, secret rooms and a lever behind the bar to dump its contents into the sewer. Wine Director Phil Pratt is enthusiastic and unpretentious, indicative of the ‘21’ ’s renewed energy since a gentle renovation last year. Since joining the team a decade ago, Pratt has grown the restaurant’s famous wine list—which had shrunk to about 350 wines 15 years ago—to over 1,300 diverse bottles.
Wine Enthusiast caught up with Pratt to talk shop.
Wine Enthusiast: This wine cellar is beautiful, and truly a cellar. Tell us about it.
Phil Pratt: The cellar was built when [‘21’ Club] opened at this location during Prohibition in 1930, and [they] needed to keep the wine safe from raids. It's actually the basement of the adjoining house, with a two-ton door built to match the brick foundation so there's no hollow sound when it's knocked. It's opened with a metal skewer inserted at an angle into one of many tiny holes bored into the brick. If the lock fails, the house would essentially have to be dismantled. Luckily it never has.
W.E.: What's with the bottle labelled ‘Elizabeth Taylor'?
PP: We still have a lot of historic bottles: An 1825 Madeira, bootleg gin from 1919, even a bottle of Suntory Whisky gifted to [‘21’ Club] in 1941 by an admiral in the Japanese navy.
Until about 15 years ago, we had a private stock program, where VIPs could buy wines from our list in quantity and store them in the cellar. We still have bottles for Liz Taylor, Joan Crawford, Gerald Ford, Eva Gabor, lots more. Any family reading this, please claim them, most are past their prime and we'd hate to trash them! Sammy Davis Jr.'s daughter called recently to ask if we still had any of her father's bottles, and she was so touched that we did.
People could buy a bottle for their child for us to keep, to open when they turned ‘21’ ; the Clintons laid one down for Chelsea when they came in 1994. We also had a grab bag program for bottles whose labels had fallen off and couldn't be identified—for pennies you might get a Lafite or a simple Chianti.
W.E.: How has the wine list changed over the years, and how does it reflect your clientele's changing tastes?
PP: We have our old wine lists in the archives. There was always lots of Bordeaux and Burgundy, a lot of German [wines], also Port and Sauternes. But ‘21’ Club was also one of the first to see the potential in U.S. wines back in the 1930s, with Wente Brothers, Martini and Korbel. I've tried to keep that tradition, and we now have over 300 California wines.
These days people are ordering a lot more Pinot Noirs from around the world, more Italian wines—southern hemisphere, not so much. We try not to lead too much, but I'm trying to get people to look at Greek wines.
W.E.: Your list is remarkably well priced, even some relative bargains for the well-heeled—a magnum of 1970 Vega Sicilia Único for $1,200, a 1985 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti for $8,600.
PP: We have a much lower markup than we did years ago. We have some of the best wines in the world, and we want them to be enjoyed, while also having good options for everyone. We have over 100 wines under $60, and a rotating ‘Opportunities’ list with extra markdowns.
W.E.: You’ve updated the restaurant, especially the new, more casual, Bar '‘21’ ' near the entrance, but it also feels the same as decades ago.
PP: So many regulars have come in and said, 'We love the renovation, it looks like you haven't changed a thing.' Dining in the Bar Room feels like it always has. Not long ago, we put a birthday dessert down for a table, and a woman at the next table broke into 'Happy Birthday.’ It was Liza Minelli.
In the film Wall Street (1987), Michael Douglas introduces Charlie Sheen to the good life with off-menu steak tartare at ‘21’ Club (gilded with a raw quail egg). You needn’t be Gordon Gekko to enjoy this surprisingly refreshing dish, though; it’s a made-to-order fixture on the restaurant’s menu, and relatively easy to put together at home.
Recipe courtesy John Greeley, executive chef of ‘21’ Club, New York City
8 ounces fresh-ground top round of beef (or other very lean cut)
1 lemon, juiced
1 raw egg yolk (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon red onion, minced
½ teaspoon anchovy, minced to a paste
1 teaspoon fresh chives, minced
1 teaspoon spicy Coleman's English Mustard
4 drops Tabasco
2 dashes Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon capers
1 teaspoon hard-cooked egg white, grated
1 teaspoon hard-cooked egg yolk, grated
1 teaspoon parsley
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients. Mix together with a fork until they are well blended. Taste and adjust the acidity and seasoning if necessary. The chef recommends serving with dressed greens or French fries.
Wine recommendation: “I am rather old-school on this dish, so I recommend a Bordeaux, and I’ve used the Sociando-Mallet 2007,” says Pratt. “I like it for its structure, as the dish is very rich, and the ‘Bordeauxness’ plays nicely with the meat and spices. However, I have recently been converted to Pinot Noir as a great accompaniment for this dish. The acidity in the Pinot plays the same role as the structure and tannin in the Bordeaux, but the freshness and bright fruit of the wine brings the dish together. I recommend the Klee Pinot Noir 2010 from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.”