Douglas Rogers, The Daily Telegraph, June 11, 2013
The current fascination for all things Gatsby has seen dozens of trendy New York hotels, restaurants, and bars channelling Jazz Age cool. Gatsby-themed menus and drinks are all the rage, and one hotel, The Jade, has even offered tickets to the movie.
But why go for the ersatz version of an era, when you can experience the real thing? Beneath the modernity of New York and the relentless pursuit of the Next Big Thing, this city actually venerates authentic old-world charm and glamour like no other. True, many of the great landmarks – Chumley’s speakeasy, Le Pavillon – are gone, but look closely and there are scores of classic establishments that don’t need to fake it. Some, such as Peter Luger steakhouse, have barely changed since the turn of the last century, while others – the recently refurbished Algonquin Hotel – have been resurrected in the spirit of their earlier incarnations.
Here we select our top 12 classic New York restaurants, bars and hotels – and why you should go.
The 21 Club
21 W 52nd Street, Midtown
001 212 582 7200
Opened in 1922 as a Greenwich Village gin mill before moving to its current Midtown location in 1929, at the height of prohibition, “21”, as it is affectionately known, is the last of the original speakeasies. Don’t let the “Club” in its name put you off. It’s open to all, although there’s always a uniformed doorman on duty, you can’t get in with jeans or trainers, and they only recently allowed men to dine without neckties. The 21 was frequently raided during prohibition, but survived because of a secret wine cellar (hidden in a wall) and because the most powerful people in the city – including mayor Jimmy Walker – were regulars. It’s been famous for its power lunches ever since, with every president since FDR (excluding Dubya and Obama), having dined here. In recent years, chef John Greeley has attracted a foodie crowd with modish dishes such as crispy smoked pork belly, and a fancy new cocktail menu. Try the Southside, made with Tanqueray gin and muddled mint. Upstairs at 21 is an elegant, 32-seat fine-dining restaurant, but the clubby wood-panelled bar room downstairs is where everyone from Hemingway to Henry Kissinger have broken bread.
2342 Arthur Avenue, The Bronx
718 584 1100
Arthur Avenue in The Bronx is an institution in itself. Forget Little Italy, this narrow street south of the Bronx Zoo lined with scores of Italian bakeries, restaurants, coffee bars and fine-food delis – check out the rabbits hanging in the windows – is the real deal. There are several classic restaurants – Dominick’s (2335 Arthur Ave) and Roberto’s (603 Crescent Ave) among the best – but Mario’s (established in 1919) is the Godfather. Indeed, Mario Puzo mentioned it in The Godfather, and Francis Ford Coppola asked to shoot a scene from the movie here. (The owners turned him down as it would have disturbed their regulars.) The style is over the top: Romanesque white columns, paintings of the Old Country and waiters in tuxes humming Dean Martin tunes. The kitchen is famous for its Neapolitan fare, including stuffed clams and more varieties of veal than should be legal. Try the veal scaloppine alla pizzaiola with a glass of barolo. Oh, and don’t forget to say hi to veteran parking valet, Joe Binder, 103, who started driving when Model Ts were on the road.
178 Broadway, Brooklyn
718 387 7400
Steakhouses have staying power. Several New York meat palaces are still going strong from long before F Scott Fitzgerald was in diapers. Delmonico’s (56 Beaver St) near Wall Street has served financial titans since 1837, (although it started out as French fine dining), Old Homestead (56 9th Ave), aptly located in the Meatpacking District, has done a mean rib eye since 1868, and Keen’s in Midtown (72 West 36th St) serves the same quality New York strip that Babe Ruth and Teddy Roosevelt loved here. But Peter Luger in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, established in 1887, is arguably the greatest of them all. The amber-lit, wood-panelled space is famous for its rare, juicy porterhouse, the owners always getting the first choice of cuts from New York meat markets. Take a seat in the brass-chandeliered front room, next to politicians, mobsters and celebrity sports stars, and let one of the famously surly Teutonic waiters tell you what you’re having. Warning: it’s pricey, and they do not accept credit cards.
234 W 44th Street, Midtown
212 221 8440
Every tourist loves a Broadway show, and this venerable eatery just off the Great White Way is an essential pre or post-theatre dinner stop. Going strong since 1927, the red banquettes, ornate lampshades, and hundreds of caricatures of showbiz celebrities – Liza Minnelli, Joan Rivers, Jackie Gleason – adorning the walls, are as much part of the scene as the jumbo crab cakes. The Tony Awards – the Oscars of the theatre world – were dreamed up in a booth here, and Wednesday nights they still have a special menu for Screen Actors Guild cardholders.
151 Union Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn
718 855 1545
Enter this bare-brick hole in the wall in Red Hook, and you’re transported back to the time gangster Joey Gallo and his brothers ruled these streets. Martin Scorsese shot a scene from The Departed here, – but the owners don’t like to crow. Indeed, the service is so slow you almost feel as if you’ve stumbled into a Sicilian grandmother’s kitchen only to find she’s taking a nap upstairs. Founded in 1904 – it has a vintage awning and gorgeous white-tile floors – they do small Sicilian plates such as the vastedda sandwich (spleen layered with ricotta and grated cheese) and pasta con sarde – sardines with wild fennel, pignoli, raisin and spices.
Grand Central Terminal
15 Vanderbilt Avenue, nr 43rd St
212 953 0409
Some reincarnations of old classics work. This hard-to-find cocktail lounge in Grand Central Terminal was the former private office of Twenties tycoon John W Campbell. Now it’s a cathedral-like space with leaded glass windows, ornate beamed ceilings and a huge stone fireplace. During the week commuters cram in for cocktails “from another era”, such as the rum-fuelled Prohibition Punch, so come over a weekend when there’s space at the long bar. A “no trainers” rule ensures guests keep up appearances.
McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 E 7th Street, nr Second Ave, East Village
212 473 9148
They don’t they get much more atmospheric than this museum piece of a saloon, opened in 1854. It has barely changed since then, except that in 1970 they finally allowed women through the swing doors. It’s still very much a man’s joint. Brusque, aproned bar staff serve sloppy half glasses of either “light” or “dark” ale, always two at a time, slamming them down on weathered tables. Never mind the spillage – the sawdust on the floors soaks it up, as it’s done for 160 years. A century’s worth of dust on the gas lamps was recently ordered cleaned by city authorities, but the lamps are still hung with chicken wishbones honouring dead soldiers. If you need food, order the cheese and onion plate with your ale, something past guests Abraham Lincoln, Boss Tweed and Brendan Behan have all done.
54 Pearl Street, Financial District
212 968 1776
The Jazz Age? Pa! This downtown tavern dates back to 1762 – easily the oldest bar in the city, and arguably the oldest building. George Washington bid farewell to his troops here over a “turtle dinner” after the Revolutionary War – need we say more? Updated in recent years by The Porterhouse Brewing Co, the building comprises seven low-slung wood-floor rooms that include the Dingle Irish Whiskey Bar, a museum and a restaurant. Washington’s favourite dish was chicken pot pie and it’s a big hit on the contemporary colonial-inspired menu today. Wash it down with a glass of Porterhouse’s Oyster Stout, the sweetness of the brew derived from fresh oysters shucked into the conditioning tank. That’s so old-school we’re amazed Mayor Bloomberg hasn’t banned it.
129 E 18th Street, Gramercy Park
212 473 7676
Gramercy Park is one of the most graceful neighbourhoods in Manhattan, spoiled recently, we feel, by the flashy Julian Schnabel redesign of the Gramercy Park Hotel – now an outrageously garish celebrity hang-out more suited to Las Vegas. For a taste of the refined Gramercy, go to Pete’s Tavern, a block south, a wood-panelled gem from 1864, and the longest continually operating bar in New York. O Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi in his favourite booth by the front doors, and during prohibition, when many New York taverns closed, it became a smoky speakeasy. Now it’s a classic all-American tavern popular with the preppy types who come for craft beers (try the 1864 House Ale) and juicy burgers in a lamplit, wood-panelled setting. Ignore the hotel up the block, this is the real deal.
The Algonquin Hotel
59 West 44th Street, Midtown
212 840 6800
For such a legendary hotel, the 1902-built Algonquin Hotel is easy to miss. It has a nondescript exterior and lies on a bland Midtown Street. But what a history! Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle held court here in the Round Table Room after the First World War; it was the setting for the founding of The New Yorker magazine in 1925; and, much later, the home of the Oak Room (now gone), where cabaret greats such as Harry Connick Jr and Diana Krall launched their careers. Regular guests have included Noël Coward, who has a suite named after him, Laurence Olivier, Graham Greene and Tom Stoppard. Usually we don’t feel renovations work, but a 2012 overhaul to the somewhat shabby interior has maintained most of the hotel’s old-world charm, while sprucing it up for the 21st century. Pay homage to literary greats in the Round Table Room itself, where a giant oil painting of the Vicious Circle looks down on diners, and the round table beneath it is the most sought after seating.
60 E 54th Street, Midtown East
New York, 10022
Opened in 1926, this discrete Midtown hotel was catapulted to citywide prominence with the revamp of its lobby lounge, Monkey Bar, by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. The hotel’s heyday was the Thirties, when the low-lit lounge became a hang-out for actors and writers such as Tallulah Bankhead and Tennessee Williams. In the Fifties the mirrors were replaced by a series of comic human-monkey murals by caricaturist Charlie Wala, but the lounge fell out of fashion until the recent redo. Not so the hotel, at least with a certain set. Unknown to most New Yorkers, it has been home over the years to the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Maria Callas and Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz, whose piano now occupies a suite.