Chef at New York’s ’21' Maintains That Taste Is the Best Business Sense

From Bloomberg Business News

Honor, adventure and sufficient income was in the air of Twenty-One.

--Norman Mailer, from his book “Harlot’s Ghost”


After Michael Lomonaco prepared a meal for Ronald Reagan many years ago, he showed the former U.S. President his Screen Actors Guild card. Reagan, who headed the organization before starting a career in politics, shook his head and quipped: “I guess we both got better jobs.”


To say the least. Lomonaco is the executive chef of “21,” one of the world’s most expensive and best-known restaurants. Having that kind of cachet sure beats life as a struggling actor.

Lomonaco has presided over the kitchen of “21" for seven years, after gigs at Le Cirque and Maxwell’s Plum, two other upscale New York restaurants. He is also the author of a new book, “The ’21' Cookbook.”

“Cooking means everything to me,” he said at the Bloomberg Forum. “Health, food and fitness go together.”

A native New Yorker, he spent 10 years working in the theater, two more in the hotel and restaurant program of New York City Technical College.

The responsibility of pleasing some of the world’s wealthiest and most demanding diners is awesome for “21’s” 175-person staff.

“We have 700 seats,” he said, noting that “21" serves as many as 1,200 meals a day.

But beyond mere numbers, in restaurant circles and far beyond, “21" is special. From its earliest days in the 1920s as New York’s plushest speak-easy, it has always been much more than a place to grab lunch or dinner. It is a part of New York’s culture, a symbol of living large.

It is a place that defines one’s position in the pecking order of celebrity status by the seating chart--from the front table in the bar room where Frank Sinatra held forth as the Chairman of the Board, to the remote Siberia of the upstairs rear, one always knows where one stands at “21.”

It is distinctive, as well, for its 27 Remington paintings and the model trains, planes, and gimcracks suspended from the low ceiling of the downstairs bar.

It has boasted such celebrity regulars as Howard Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, Groucho Marx, Edward R. Murrow, Cole Porter, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. In addition, every American President since the Great Depression has dined there.

When Lomonaco cooked for Richard Nixon, he met the former President’s request for Dover sole. Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, favored crab cakes. When Lomonaco traveled to the White House to give a demonstration of low-fat cooking, President Clinton’s aides asked him to prepare a meal for their boss.

“I served him vegetables,” Lomonaco said with a grin, aware that the President has a reputation for a hefty waistline and for wolfing down fast-food fare with gusto. “I don’t know how it went over.”

Lomonaco’s success affords him a status enjoyed by few other chefs. He has appeared on David Letterman’s programs “five or six times” over the years.

In fact, Lomonaco said proudly, when Letterman loses a bet to his staff, he often pays up by buying a slew of hamburgers from “21.”

Don’t scoff. These aren’t exactly slabs of meat off the grill from McDonald’s. At “21,” a hamburger costs $21.95.

That’s right--10 Big Macs. Offering what may be the most expensive burger in the world is only a part of “21’s” reputation for top-shelf prices. Entrees at the restaurant, which serves seafood and meats as specialties, cost $40.00. These kinds of prices symbolize the exclusive nature of “21"--and define, as well, the restaurant’s dilemma.

Its lifeline is the Gold Card, expense-account crowd, who can write off those business expenses on their employers, or their taxes. Lomonaco appreciates their devotion but wants to cook for as many people as possible. Yet “21’s” prices often prove prohibitive for ordinary folk.

“Success, to me, means pure acceptance,” he said.

Which explains some of the restaurant’s attraction down through the years--from Main Street to Wall Street, from Broadway to Hollywood.

Alfred Hitchcock devotees may remember the scene in the movie “Rear Window” when socialite Grace Kelly entered Jimmy Stewart’s apartment with a “21" waiter toting lobster and champagne.

Then, there was the power-lunch scene in “Wall Street.” Michael Douglas’s conniving takeover wizard, Gordon Gekko, makes young Charlie Sheen, portraying a naive but ambitious stockbroker, a too-good-to-be-true offer, then leaves him alone with his raw-egg-topped steak tartare at a front table in the bar-room.

The “21" Club was sold recently to James Sherwood, a London-based operator of hotels, restaurants, and tourist trains. Sherwood has pledged to maintain the restaurant the way the regular patrons prefer to see it, with some enhancements, like a den for cigar-smoking customers.

The sale price was not disclosed, but Sherwood said it was “a reasonable multiple” of the club’s annual cash flow, which he put at $2.5 million. Published speculation since “21" went on the market in the spring put the price at $40 million.

Sherwood is president of Sea Containers Ltd. and chairman of Orient-Express Hotels Inc., which operates 10 hotels and two tourist trains, including the prestigious Venice Simplon Orient-Express. New York entrepreneur Marshall Cogan, who bought the club from its two founding families in 1985 for $21 million, sold it to Sherwood.

One way the restaurant will continue to flourish is if Lomonaco can meet its customers’ ever-changing tastes.

“We prepare more vegetables as entrees than we ever have,” he said. “We use very little heavy sauces and no cream or butter.”

As Americans become more health- and fitness-conscious, they favor lighter fare at lunch and dinner.

“You must stay current and listen to what people are saying,” Lomonaco said, and, he might have added, eating.