The last time Donald Trump was in New York City he was the president-elect and rarely appeared in public. On the night of November 15, though, after sending the press corps home, he snuck out of his building and appeared at the 21 Club, an 88-year-old destination for New York’s power brokers just five blocks away from Trump Tower.
Trump had long been a regular at the restaurant, dining with his wife at table 11, directly next to the entrance and underneath the restaurant’s eclectic decor - patrons have long been able to donate memorabilia to be hung from its ceiling, and thus the space is adorned with Hess Christmas trucks (given by the Hess family), a broken tennis racquet courtesy of John McEnroe, and, directly above Trump’s favorite seat, a fake billboard for the sports entertainment company Van Wagner, which was hung during a meeting of the company’s board.
As protesters prepare themselves to gather outside Trump Tower and at other key political locations next time the president returns to the city, we checked in on one of the spots he loves best - a safe haven of tradition, business lunches, and classic American fare right in midtown Manhattan.
So how's the food these days?
The 21 Club’s menu is as varied as its ceiling. Decorated with photos of some of the place’s memorabilia, including that smashed McEnroe tennis racket - it features decades-old classics, such as the "21" Caesar Salad ($19), the dover sole ($72), and the "Speakeasy" steak tartare ($42), which have pride of place in the middle of the page. The remainder of the menu, which was designed by executive chef Sylvain Delpique, is a series of experiments with influences from around the world: the octopus carpaccio ($24), for instance, is visually stunning with thin slices of red wine-soaked octopus splashed with za’atar vinaigrette. The tender octopus is quite good, with a subtle middle-eastern flair contrasted by a pungent bite of olive tapenade.
But if you’re recreating the Donald Trump culinary experience - according to 21 Club representatives, he always orders the same thing - you might be disappointed.
The president’s standard order is a "21" Burger ($36), which he likes cooked well-done and topped with American cheese. On the side he’ll have a straightforward virgin Bloody Mary, an iced tea, or a Diet Coke. Said to be first luxury burger in the country when it was first served in the 1940s, the "21" Burger is made with a mix of three prime cuts, including short rib. The burger comes with pickles, tomato, grilled onions, and the special "21" sauce and is offered with a choice of cheeses, including cheddar and blue cheese.
Even for presidential aspirants who can’t bear to order a well-done burger and opt for medium instead, the experience is underwhelming, the hefty patty is tough with a heavy sear. It's seasoned well, though, on a custom brioche bun.
Another 21 classic, the $39 creamy chicken hash (favored by Melania Trump, according to staff), is drowned in thick mornay sauce with a helmet of melted gruyère on top. If it is difficult to imagine the president’s wife eating this heavy and decidedly old-fashioned dish, it’s nice to think of the story that accompanies it: the hash was created for the post-opera crowd in the ’40s— the 21 Club's version of late night pizza.
On a recent weekday afternoon, there was nary a chicken hash to be seen. Instead, as Bentleys and black SUVs idled outside, men in expensive suits with very large watches chatted over burgers and salads and paid with American Express Centurion cards, while women, who were in the distinct minority, were decked out in variations of Akris, Chanel, and Loro Piana sportswear. The restaurant was full, convivial, and as vibrant as a group of business lunches can be, while the service - waiters in white, managers in suits who knew customers by sight - was friendly, discreet, and swift. It was a quintessentially New York experience that anyone, Trump fan or no, could enjoy.
A Long History
Well before Trump Tower was a twinkle in the future president’s eye, Trump’s father, Fred, was a regular at the restaurant with his business partner; they would sit in the far reaches of the restaurant (regulars call the wall furthest from the entrance “Siberia”) and hold meetings. Today, there is a plaque commemorating the elder Trump at his favorite table.
It’s unclear when Donald first began to attend the 21 Club himself - except for during the December holidays, children under the drinking age are rarely seen inside the restaurant - but Shaker Naini, a host who’s worked at the 21 Club for more than 40 years, says that his first memory of Trump was in 1977, when he came as the guest of Roy Cohn.
Cohn, a lawyer who aided Joseph McCarthy in his anti-communist crusades in the 1950s and then shifted to a flourishing private practice representing everyone from mob bosses to George Steinbrenner, was a regular at the 21 Club, Naini said (Cohn later died of AIDS- related complications in 1986). Cohn reportedly took Trump under his wing, and after a period, Trump became a regular at the club himself. He even tried to buy the restaurant in 1984, according to memoirs published by H. Peter Kriendler, whose brother co-founded the restaurant. The deal fell through when Trump tried to make the sale conditional on a 10-to-20-year payment scheme, according to the book. "We insisted on a five-year arrangement," Kriendler wrote. "No deal."
Trump’s Dining Style
Naini, who is a first-generation immigrant from Hyderabad, India, said that Trump would regularly spend five or six minutes chatting with him before his meal, talking, Naini said, about New York politics; Naini added that Trump tipped well "occasionally, he said. "Not always, but occasionally."
Trump’s well-publicized visit last November wasn’t actually his last before becoming president. On a Sunday afternoon in December, the 21 Club's general manager received a call requesting a last-minute reservation for one of the private dining rooms. It was Trump on the line: weeks away from his inauguration, he’d picked up the phone to make the reservation himself.
News by Bloomberg, edited by Hospitality Ireland