This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.[Krieger, 8/12/10]
Sardi's may well be the most undervalued restaurant in town. A time capsule from another era, as well-preserved and redolent of New York history as "21" or Peter Luger, it is nonetheless regularly dismissed as corny, uninspired, even embarrassing. By locals, I mean. Out-of-towners, of course, love it, and make a visit within its warm red walls a requirement of their regular Broadway sallies. In in the dog days of August, you'll see plenty of them most any evening between 6 and 8 PM, alerting waiters they have a show to go to (No! Really?), and craning their necks to identify at least one or two of the hundreds of largely unrecognizable caricatures of theatre greats that line the walls.
Sardi's has been in its current location since 1927 and has been in Sardi family hands for almost all of those years. (The current head of the family is Sean Ricketts, the grandson of Vincent Sardi Jr.) It remains there by the grace of the powerful Shubert Organization, which has long owned the building and leases the space to the restaurant. As anyone with even a passing knowledge of New York history knows, the joint was for a number of decades the chosen watering hole and chow house of the Broadway set. (The idea for the Tony Awards was hatched at a table here.) The fickle illuminati of the stage have long since moved on to other social beehives, like nearby Joe Allen and Angus McIndoe.
They are fools. For Allen and McIndoe don't have better food—the quality of the kitchen fare has always been a knock against Sardi's—and in terms of mise-en-scène don't even begin to compare. Sardi's large, boxy, grand main room is theatre itself. It has high ceilings, spliced by wooden pillars. Square four-tops, set at a diagonal and surrounded by bentwood chairs, are corralled by a red banquette that all but borders the entire hall. The civilizing effect of a good banquette can not be underestimated. The world looks better from a banquette and people who sit in a banquette look better to the world. They ennoble the seated, framing faces and conferring perfect posture. And Sardi's has some of the best banquettes in town.
The set-up is more formal than the tourists are used to, and it makes them quaintly self-conscious as they order their Cokes and Cannelloni au Gratin. The children, wearing the best shirts their parents could force on them, fidget uncomfortably, as if at church, and keep their voices down. They're not enjoying the experience as much as their folks, but they're bound to remember it in 20 years. A few small parties of regulars and New Yorkers can be easily spotted among the throng. They are old, observant, relaxed and imbued with a quiet, somewhat shabby gentility. They linger over their crab cakes and silver coffee pots, and no longer care who the caricatures depict, though they do still occasionally crook a quizzical finger at them.
Waiters are in red jackets and black pants, with "Sardi's" stitched in gold thread near the left lapel. They prepare Steak Tartar tableside, shaking the meat in a silver bowl until it comes out a seamless smooth orb. They come from all lands. When they sing happy birthday to a little southern girl with a big yellow ribbon in her hair, a cacophony of accents fills the air. The girl has a kiddie cocktail; Sardi's can still be bothered to make that kind of thing. Adults have water or sodas, perhaps saving money because the restaurant's prices ain't cheap. Are there any theatre people here tonight at all? Famous actors? Moneyed producers? Nope. Doesn't look like it. But who cares? The gentle and appreciative theatre-goers who see their plays are.
—Brooks of Sheffield