21 West 52nd Street, New York NY 10019; map); (212) 582-7200; 21club.com/web/onyc/21_club.jsp
Service: Country club formal
Setting: Dim, clubby, leather and wood punctuated by white table cloths.
Cost: Three courses $24.07
Not many restaurants have a more storied past than 21 Club. It started as a speakeasy in 1930. Located on 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, the Club, along with 29 other speakeasies, is the reason the block's now called "Swing Street" (you'll find the commemorative sign with this name on the corner of 52nd and 6th Avenue).
Gossip columnist Walter Winchell was famously banned from 21 and the next day, it was raided after he wrote a scathing column questioning why it appeared to be above the law. The raid led to some modifications such as a secret wine cellar and an elaborate warning system. When the federal government came knocking in 1932, an exhaustive search turned up nothing despite the fact that there were 2,000 cases of liquor stashed in the basement.
These days the secret wine cellar is a private dining room. When prohibition was repealed, the 21 Club went legitimate setting up "21" brands of liquor and establishing itself as a hot spot for politicians, captains of industry, and movie stars alike. Not much has changed since. In 1950, 21 started serving its famous hamburger and it arguably became the birthplace of the term "power lunch." According to Forbes "more deals are done at 21 than on the stock market floor."
As you would expect, the price of dining here is not cheap. The burger for example, $30. But go at lunch and for $5 less than that, you can get a three-courses prix fixe meal.
Start things off with meaty cubes of cured steelhead salmon tossed with chunks of watermelon, mizuna, radish—it's doused in a tart citrus dressing. The flesh of the salmon is buttery, though a touch too fishy on its own; but with the supporting ingredients, it's nicely balanced. The acidity from the dressing cutting the richness of the salmon and mirroring the sweetness of the watermelon.
A main course of smoked pork belly comes in a generous slab, glazed with a honey vinegar and set atop yet more pork (the pulled kind), sugary disks of sweet potatoes, corn, and roasted poblano peppers. It's an imposing dish but not quite as heavy as it looks—the pork is cooked until it falls into tender ribbons with light fork pressure. It has a hearty, sweet character but the skin isn't crisp and crunchy and the pulled pork underneath seems more of an afterthought, and an unnecessary one at that.
And finally, a rich crème brûlée dotted with vanilla beans under a crisp, lacquered crust, and served alongside a wonderful candied ginger shortbread. The richness of the cream and eggs is balanced by the vanilla and crust sweetness—it's a great version of crème brûlée.
You will eat well at lunchtime at 21 Club, and for a fair price if you order a la carte. The cuisine might not scale the lofty heights of the city's finest eateries, but to be fair, it's better than it probably needs to be.