As New York City shines bright with holiday spirit year after year, these two restaurants triumph as everlasting classics.
By Suzanne Johnson
Few places are more exciting than New York City during the holiday season. From the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center to the remarkable decorations along Fifth Avenue, New York City is the home to some of the most historic and beloved holiday sights in the country.
Two of New York City’s most iconic restaurants, the 21 Club and the Waverly Inn, transform their popular dining establishments right after Thanksgiving into the most decorative and delicious celebrations of the holiday season you will ever see. Or taste.
Yes, New York City is known for offering the latest trends in world-class dining, but when it comes to experiencing the best of the holidays, I much prefer these classic restaurants. Newer restaurants may garner most of the attention from the deluge of “culinary influencers” and “crowd-sourced reviewers” who now determine who’s been bad or good, but iconic restaurants like the 21 Club and the Waverly Inn are still thriving after years of success.
So whether you are downtown—the Waverly Inn—or uptown—the 21 Club—for lunch, brunch or dinner, I promise that the decorations alone at these two landmarks will make you feel as if you are starring in your very own holiday classic movie. In fact, both restaurants have been in films and television shows, but it’s not just the décor that wows directors and customers alike.
The Waverly Inn and the 21 Club attribute their success to a balance of service, ambiance and, above all, food. With each restaurant celebrating a significant anniversary this year, both continue to serve their beloved traditional dishes while striving to stay current. Incorporating clean lifestyle trends like vegan and gluten-free choices, each restaurant is dedicated to catering to its customers’ culinary likes and needs.
The Waverly Inn is situated in an 1844 townhouse on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. As you approach the restaurant during the holiday season, the heart-warming phrase “you had me at hello” comes to mind. And as you take in the 10,000 white lights on the tree illuminating this tastefully decorated landmark, you’ll wish you’d brought your Christmas stocking to hang from one of the ornate fireplaces within.
With its old world vibe, the Waverly Inn has enjoyed a charmed existence but not simply by coasting on ambience and charm. “It’s all due to very hard work,” says Emil Varda, the estimable manager who opened the Waverly Inn in partnership with journalist and former Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter, and Roberto Benadid, television writer and producer. The three were neighbors on Bank Street and had a quest to create “a haunt we could feel at home in.”
Soon celebrating their 15th anniversary, Emil says their success comes down simply to their philosophy about service.
“We are not trying to educate our customers,” he says. “We are not trying to tell them what to order or what wine to drink. We serve what our customers know, can afford and like. We are an institution built on regulars. We treat our patrons very well, and they return because of our great service, our great food and our policy of protection. We keep our customers safe from the public eye.”
And what Emil means by “safe from the public eye” is that under the amber lighting of the Waverly Inn, perhaps nestled in one of its fabulous red leather booths or discretely dining in the ivy-covered atrium built literally around a tree, a celebrity or notable figure is able to dine with comfort in this clubby space.
Still attracting intellectuals, A-listers and the like, there is one “star” seen every day in the dining room at the Waverly Inn that cannot go unmentioned: the six-panel mural by famed caricaturist Ed Sorrel. The mural includes large drawings of artistic greats such as Pollock, Brando, Warhol, Dylan, Monk and others intended to show and tell a story to the customers about the type of people—actors, musicians, poets, playwrights, beatniks and bohemians – for whom the Waverly played host back in its previous incarnation. It is the best of Greenwich Village and not to be missed.
But, to be sure, the biggest star at the Waverly Inn is always the food. The Waverly’s special Chicken Pot Pie, delicious Dover Sole and “to-die-for” mac and cheese with white truffles are just a few of the many traditional and seasonal dishes and desserts offered on the menu that will make your season bright as well as delicious.
Moving up to Midtown, which is the absolute “must go” zone in New York City during the holidays, you will find the 21 Club—a classic and beloved restaurant located on West 52nd Street.
The 21 Club is a “reassuring constant in an ever-changing world,” offering sophisticated fun and timeless elegance for everyone, young and old.
The legendary restaurant is a short distance from Radio City Music Hall, where the Rockettes have been kicking off the season since 1925, and conveniently close to Rockefeller Center. So, whether you’re gearing up for a show or looking to unwind afterwards, it’s right on the way.
And a bonus: During the holidays, it’s just two blocks away from the world’s most famous Christmas tree, erected each year on Fifth Avenue.
Like the Waverly Inn, the 21 Club is situated in a historic townhouse. But in contrast to Greenwich Village, its surroundings are the towering glass and steel buildings of Midtown Manhattan. Upon approach, you will see a row of colorful iron jockeys standing sentry, enclosed by a beautiful iron fence annually adorned with garlands, lights and bows for the holidays. To the step inside, one needs only to look for the faded red canopy and period lamplights that read “21.”
And when you walk in under that canopy, know that almost every U.S. president since “the 21” opened in 1930 has done so, too. So has the most impressive array of world-famous artists and actors, athletes and coaches, politicians and singers, captains of industry and Medal of Honor recipients.
It seems every inch of the 21 Club comes with a story. This beloved former speakeasy, considered “the best in the world” during Prohibition, makes the line “if only this restaurant could talk” ring true.
For one, there is the story about the elaborate measures taken to hide liquor from the feds during Prohibition. In fact, you can take a tour of a remarkable historic room, located in the basement behind a two-and-a-half-ton door, camouflaged as a wall, and still opened to this day with a meat skewer.
Now renovated, this room is considered one of the most coveted private rooms for events in the world, a perfect example of how the 21 Club continues to make history.
Celebrating its 90th anniversary this New Year’s Eve, the 21 Club’s rare history is filled with stories often shared over drinks or a meal in its famous barroom, where the ceiling is chock-full of memorabilia, each with a story better than the next.
The items are each unique gifts—from Howard Hughes and other business tycoons, sports legends including John McEnroe, presidents and entertainment celebrities. Sophia Coppola gifted the clapperboard from her recent film to this rare, suspended collection—a must-see when at the 21.
The secret to the 21’s 90-year success can be attributed to its being many things: a museum, an art gallery, an event space, a theater and, above all, an outstanding restaurant.
Under the direction of Chef Sylvain Delpique, favorites such as the famed “21 burger,” steak tartare and creamy chicken hash are prepared and served with pride by white jacket waiters overseen by black jacket managers. The menu offers inspired cuisine with seasonal ingredients – something for everyone with special additions for the holiday season. And don’t skip the cheesecake.
During the holiday season, the 21 Club is the place to be, not only for the food and festive decor, but also for the music: Christmas carols are sung by the Salvation Army, a heartfelt tradition at the restaurant since 1936.
In an always-changing market, thankfully the Waverly Inn and the 21 Club have stood the test of time. Above all, both restaurants strive to maintain a standard of excellence, elegance and reverence for history. (The 21 Club still requires jackets and provides to anyone who comes unprepared. A shout-out for tradition: Here! Here!)
Make sure to put a reservation at both restaurants on your Christmas list when coming to New York City this holiday season.