Steeped in rumour, the 35 jockeys lining the ‘21’ entrance are one of Manhattan’s most iconic sights. They point back to the former restaurant’s rich equestrian history.
There are many stories circulating around the frequently-photographed jockey statues at ‘21’. Some say they represent real riders. Others contend that they have a link to New York’s The Jockey Club, a private organization founded in 1894. Yet more argue they’re just idle decoration. The truth is far more interesting.
It all began with Delaware native J. Blan van Urk. A true ‘regular’. He had his own private table and the distinction of having a ’21’ dessert named in his honour. Sometime during the ’30s, van Urk donated the first jockey to his haunt as a token of his appreciation. A ’21’ tradition was born.
Over the years, some of America’s most famous breeders and owners have followed in van Urk’s footsteps. They include patrons from the Vanderbilt, Mellon and Ogden Mills Phipps families, as well as the Galbreath clan, owners of Darby Dan Farms. Today, many of the brightly painted figures represent the country’s most prominent stables.
In addition, there is a jockey dedicated to Secretariat, the greatest racehorse of all time. Two jockeys are also posted inside of ’21’s front door—a tribute, and a welcome to equestrians and racing enthusiasts everywhere.
The jockeys are unusual and you will not find their exact likenesses elsewhere. They were made by White Oak Foundry in Bacova, Virginia. The White Oak Foundry owned by Malcom Hirsch was known for cast iron jockeys and supplied the 21 Club in New York as well as many famous stables in Kentucky. In my book, this is the most collectable jockey. It is not even required to have original paint. I have often wanted a restaurant where I planted a jockey out front painted with that year’s Maryland Cup winner’s colors.
The 21 Club in NYC was opened in 1929 by cousins Jack Kreindler and Charlie Berns. They built the restaurant’s reputation on simple good food, a great bar and wine cellar. They were famous for their hamburger but for me it was the chicken hash! The Maitre’d remembered you if you had been there before and the owners relished in the successes of their patrons – many of whom dabbled in the horses.
Jack and Charlie came up with “gifts” and trinkets to give out to their famous patrons. Years later these could be purchased as well- be it a lamp, or scarf or an ashtray- all prominently displaying the iconic jockey.
The Jockey Club in Washington DC was such a blatant copy of the New York restaurant that Jack Kreindler went to see it for himself. He could not have been nicer about it proclaiming it the most sincerest form of flattery and presenting the owner’s daughter with a lovely 21 Club charm that I wear to this day.
Last year, I thought I recognized the familiar jaunty stance of a jockey coming up for sale in Lancaster, Pa. He was pretty rusty but I recognized it and he is now at GoreDean at the Forge and on Chairish.
We have also found some other treasures this year
But the greatest treasure is the memory of this truly iconic restaurant with its warm hosts and great food. Jack and Charlie made a place you wanted to be. You could understand the menu, the cocktails were mild and the atmosphere was always chummy.
Plus+ when in New York City, if you eat after midnight….its hash. Whether it was Mortimers or the 21- you would order hash and champagne and as the Village Voice said, “it might be the only thing you remember about that night!”