Everyone has a story. When you work at the 21 Club, you have more than most. Christopher Smith is the captain of “Upstairs at 21,” which means he’s the maitre d‘ and sommelier every evening. He’s witnessed four proposals and four anniversaries on the same night. He’s also a trained opera singer with a diploma from Italy. How does an opera singer end up working at the 21 Club?
Vegas, of course. Then Christopher moved to New York, where he spent time at both Vento and Gotham Bar & Grill. He’s a character to say the least. He may look young, but he fully embraces old world traditions, like the jacket policy and even wishes they’d bring back the tie requirement. He’s not afraid to make a face if you order the mixed grill more than medium rare and he hates when customers ask, “What do you recommend?” because that makes him accountable for their meal. In the end though, Christopher’s job is “not to judge but to provide.”
I’m single. I can’t find a woman to put up with me long enough.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I originally started off wanting to be an astronaut. I really went down the path. I applied to the Air Force Academy. Then I was talked into a career with singing, so by trade, I’m actually an opera singer. I went to Italy and got an art diploma in opera. I even worked professionally for awhile.
How did you end up in the restaurant industry?
I flew out to meet some friends in Las Vegas. I saw how much money a friend of mine could make working at a restaurant in OK City. I didn’t know much about the industry, so I faked a resume, got myself an interview, and was hired at a place called The Bahama Breeze. In 2004, I moved to New York and worked at Vento, then Gotham Bar & Grill. Now, I’m the maitre’d, the captain, and the sommelier at 21 Club.
How has the dining room changed over the years?
If anything, I have changed some sequences of service to better accommodate the way the room works. But all things being equal, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Are the 21 Club diners younger or older these days? Or is it mostly the original lunch crowd, just getting older?
When you think of 21 Club, you think of eighty-years-old, still going strong. This is a place your grandfather brought you to and you’re bringing your grandchildren to. With 10,500 restaurants in Manhattan alone, you don’t get a lot of repeat guests, unless you’re the regulars in the institution downstairs. All in all though, what I seem to attract to this room is a younger clientele.
The 21 Club loosened its tie requirement for the first time in 79 years. Do you think we’ll see them dispense with the jacket requirement anytime soon?
I pray they stay firmly rooted in the tradition of the jacket. It saddens me that we had to bend to modern conventions with the necktie. I think you feel different when you wear your nice outfit. You carry yourself differently, and you walk differently. It’s kind of like Halloween. For women that’s a fairly normal thing – you get to dress up whenever you want. Men, it’s not nearly as common. The reason why the policy was around for so long and hopefully why it will stay is that it sets the pace as far as atmosphere goes. If you’re sitting in a nice suit or ballgown, and sitting next to you is someone in jeans, sneakers, flip-flops, or a hat, your suspension of disbelief is lost. It doesn’t belong there. I guess I’m fine with the tie policy, but I do hope the jacket policy stays. We need these bastions of something more. We need a reason to have an occasion.
21 Club is famous for its toy-covered ceiling. Diners can’t just donate a toy. They have to be asked. How do you pick who gets asked?
It all started with Juan Tripp. He was the head of Pan-Am airlines, and he was competing with Howard Hughes of TWA. He was a regular here – more than five times a week. He sat at table four, and he came in one day and called the owner over. He said, “Hey, I put enough money into this place to own it. Let me put a model of my boat above my table.” So the owner obliged and hung it up. Of course, everyone else came in and wondered what that model airplane was doing there, and then wondered how they could get their stuff up there. How? You became a regular like Mr. Tripp, which isn’t to say that you had to spend god-sums of money, but you had to become a part of the family at 21. People have tried to bribe the club with substantial amounts of money, and they say no. Just come dine with us, that’s all we want. The ceiling is covered in all kinds of markers of all facets of business. You have football helmets from the owners of franchises — Jackie Gleason’s pool cue from The Hustler, which he hung up himself, books by famous authors, a model of Air Force One from President Bill Clinton.
What are some of your favorite memories from your time spent at 21 Club?…
It’s the perfect setting for proposals. Once, we had four proposals in one night. By the fourth proposal, the room erupted in cheers and the man at table 75 bought champagne for everyone in the room. I’ve never had a no, though one came pretty close. It was her birthday and he had a marzipan plaque on her cake that said, “Will you marry me?” She was silent for awhile, but eventually the ring got on the finger.
Will you ever return to opera?
I don’t plan on being here forever. I do miss singing, but all things being equal, I have one of the best jobs in the city. Working here is very much a performance. I often compare it to doing thirteen nights of an opera. Each night is going to be different.
How do you think the food has changed over the years? On that note, who is your favorite of the chefs that have passed through the kitchen doors?
One of the reasons why 21 Club has maintained its status is its regularity. People had their tables, with an exclusive feel despite being open to the public. You probably had the same thing every time you came, which is why the chicken hash and burger are still on the menu to this day. These things will stand the test of time. They’re trying to drag 21 into the 21st century by redoing the menu. We had a section of the menu called 21 Classics, but no more. It’s the guests who ultimately command the kitchen. The food has to be accessible, American fare. In fact, we’re one of the few restaurants in the city that has Dover sole available daily – we have it flown in fresh from Holland.
How do you negotiate between the front and back of the house?
People often ask, “What do you recommend?” which is one of the worst questions you could ever ask, because now you hold me personally accountable for the enjoyment of the rest of the meal. Since I’m the face of the front of the house, I am indeed accountable, but so is my expeditor.
What is your favorite dish on the upstairs menu?
The best item is the mixed grill. It’s got a venison chop, chili-rubbed elk loin and wild boar sausage. It’s great. But if you order it more than medium rare, I’ll look at you funny.
Where do you like to go for a great meal in NYC?
I don’t get to go out much, but I like to go out and try new things. Gotham Bar and Grill is one. I think Alfred Portale does everything right there. Landmarc in Tribeca has a fine burger. Quality Meats has an excellent double rib roast and Smoke Joint in Brooklyn is good too.
Address: 21 W 52nd St., between 5th Ave. and Ave. of the Americas
Phone: (212) 582-7200