Saturday 29 January 2011
Dylan Jones: 'The 21 club was raided many times during Prohibition, but no federal agent could ever find the cellar'
To celebrate his new CNN talk show, last week I threw a dinner for Piers Morgan at "21" in New York. With its old-school clubby charms, quintessentially American while very much apeing British style, it seemed the most appropriate place to hold it. Tommy Hilfiger, David Lauren, Robert Earl, Sir Philip Green, Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff, Gawker's Nick Denton, the New York Post's Col Allen and a host of others sat down to crab cakes and rack of lamb as they toasted the latest Brit to wash up in Manhattan.
Earlier in the day I had gone to the club for a walk-through of the room, and was taken on a guided tour of the famous former speakeasy. The highlight was the Prohibition-era wine cellar, which not only still has a collection of bottles once owned by Elizabeth Taylor, Burgess Meredith, Sammy Davis Jr and other celebrities and politicians (including three Presidents) who used to store their wine here ("It's mostly vinegar now," said my guide), but also contains one of the finest private dining rooms in the city, with a 16-seat table that sits bang in the middle of four very well-stocked walls.
The club was raided many times during Prohibition, but no federal agent could ever find the cellar. This was because the 18in-thick, two-and-a-half-ton stone door was so well disguised, sitting behind hanging smoked hams and a shelved wall filled with canned goods. It was opened only by a meat skewer pushed through one of the cracks in the door, and so consequently the cellar's hoard was never discovered. Also, when the upstairs bar was raided, a system of levers was used to tip the shelves off the bar, sweeping the liquor into the sewers below.
"21" is one of the most iconic clubs in the city, mentioned in countless novels (Ian Fleming made Bond meet here for martinis), featured in films (in Wall Street Michael Douglas educates Charlie Sheen on some of the finer things in life to be found here), and every President since FDR has dined on one of its four floors.
The Orient-Express group are threatening an overhaul, so if you want to sample a taste of classic New York before it goes, try to get there as soon as you can.
And be sure to order the crab cakes.
Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'
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