Everybody Goes To Ken’s
A great American saloonkeeper in the tradition of Toots Shor and Elaine Kaufman, Ken Aretsky founded Oren and Aretsky and Arcadia and, for a decade, presided over the venerable ’21 before being unceremoniously fired in 1995. DAVID HALBERSTAM joins the billionaires and media barons savoring Cohibas and martinis at the opening of Aretsky’s second act, the swanky, Cheeveresque Patroon.
Published in Vanity Fair: Written by David Halberstam. Photo by Jonathan Becker. March 1997, issue 439.
We live in a semi-brave new world. The onetime male bastions of food and drink have all been invaded. The prejudices of the past have given way to the prejudices of the present-of a generation more politically correct and more cholesterol-conscious. Prime ribs have been replaced by chicken and pasta-the smaller the portion, it seems, the better. Cigarette smokers are in retreat, cigar smokers indulge at their peril; thanks to New York’s new anti-smoking laws, the entrances to many of the city’s better restaurants are littered with cigarette butts, as customers take outdoor smoking breaks and use the streets as giant ashtrays.
The most celebrated Manhattan saloon of my childhood, Toots Shor’s, is only a memory. It was, typically, a place where successful men did pretty much as they wanted at night while their wives waited patiently at home. Its main draws were the famous New York athletes who gathered there, through the era of DiMaggio to that of Mantle and Ford; but by Namath’s day it had become a victim of a rapidly changing society, of athletes who made more and more money and had moved to the suburbs, and of night baseball, which kept away both the ballplayers and the sportswriters who had faithfully mentioned the place in their stories. The innkeeper himself was notoriously boisterous. Asked once why he didn’t hang out there, Joe Namath answered, “Because the owner spills drinks on me.” Shor, never very good at bookkeeping or paying income taxes, spent the last years of his life fighting a losing battle with the I.R.S.
It is not surprising that a saloon is neither an easy place to define nor to run at the tail end of the 20th century, a time when gender discrimination in all aspects of life is unacceptable: it had better be a place that at once tilts to the fantasy of a male habitat and yet makes women feel comfortable. The food, traditionally secondary in such establishments, now has to be good, and certainly can no longer as in the past, be almost deliberately bad. (Why it was so bad is a fascinating question-was it one more means of keeping away women and other unwanted customers?) A nostalgic friend of mine who spends a considerable amount of time saloon hunting thinks that to the degree there is a last, best saloonkeeper in New York it may well be Ken Aretsky, and that his new Manhattan restaurant, Patroon, most resembles what a saloon should now be. It is a New Age saloon, if that is not a contradiction in terms: women are welcome (on the day I visited, two of the best critics in town were having lunch there, and they were both women-Janet Maslin, the film critic of The New York Times, and Ruth Reichl, the paper’s food critic); cigar smoking is permitted in the bar and upstairs cigar lounge; the food, presided over by executive chef Franck Deletrain, the former chef de cuisine of the Four Seasons, is quite good (Reichl recently awarded the restaurant three out of four stars in the Times); and, most of all, the place has a comfortable feel to it. “Patroon” was the 17 th-century Dutch word for the owner of a landed estate in the New World Aretsky had wanted a name associated with New York and Nelson Peltz, one of Aretsky’s two venture-capitalist partners (the other is Peter May), came up with it.
I think Patroon works not just because Aretsky is a high professional, shrewd and knowledgeable about his business, but also because he is a truly nice man. He is still in love with the idea of being a restaurateur, and he goes to work each day as other people might go to a university to listen, learn, and absorb all that is around him. It is no small feat to create the feel of a club in an age of meritocracy. It takes the ability to make people feel they are part of something special without excluding other people, who may be equally nice, but are less connected to the house.
Given the number of instantly affluent people who abound in New York, it is not easy to be the proprietor of a restaurant here. Plenty of customers feel they ought to be more important and powerful than they really are, even though they do not own a sports team or a failing tabloid (two sure ways to gain enough fame to offset innate insecurities). Each time they enter a restaurant their sense of self worth and personal Dow Jones fame-and-wealth index are at stake.
These days when Aretsky takes phone calls at the restaurant, he is often imperiously asked the question “Don’t you know who I am? ” It takes no small amount of skill and delicacy to handle such a clientele. Aretsky, whom I have known for some 20 years, does it as well as anyone in the business.
“He’s the last of a great breed,” says one of New York’s foremost food professionals, Eli Zabar of E. A. T. And the Vinegar Factory. “There are a few men like him left in some of the great restaurants in Europe, but they don’t make them like him anymore in this country — men who are so intensely attuned to the needs of their customers. The restaurant business has changed, and now it’s more about ego, about the personal satisfaction of the owner and the chef. The theory is that if the customers are smart they’ll agree with you. But Ken puts his talent and energy into coddling his customers. It’s very old-fashioned-a lost art, really. ”
Aretsky is a New York kid who grew up on the Lower East Side, and he learned the business literally from the basement up. His father, Sidney Aretsky, ran Carbonic Gas Service Corporation, a business that delivered soda, syrup, and CO2 for seltzer to restaurants. Aretsky was supposed to take over the family business, but delivering the CO2 for other people’s bubbles held little attraction for him. Yet he enjoyed going around with his father. He loved the bustle and the noise he found inside, the customers flushed with excitement and pleasure, and the sense that something important was happening. If Sidney Aretsky had lit tle interest in the glamorous aspect of the establishments he visited each day, he nonetheless understood the risky nature of the restaurant business. Father and son might call on a prospective client at a spanking-new place, and Ken would be duly impressed by the handsome interior and the friendly owner, but after they left, Sidney would tell his son that there was no way they were going to take this client on. Why not? Ken would ask. “Terrible location, ” his father would answer. “It’ll be padlocked in three months, and I don’t want to go through a losing fight trying to get my bills paid.”
In 1972, at the age of 31, Ken Aretsky opened his first restaurant, in Roslyn, Long Island. It was called Truman’s, and it was an immediate success, but Aretsky had always wanted a place in Manhattan, so he sold his interest after two years. For more than a year he walked the Upper East Side looking for just the right place. One day in 1978 he stumbled on a vacant old gin mill at 84th Street and Third Avenue. A tiny handwritten note in the corner of the window said the place was for rent. It was exactly what he wanted: Great space, a wondrous old-fashioned bar, the whole place had a turn-of-the-century feel to it. “It was the Friday of the Fourth of July weekend and he met briefly with the landlord and learned that he could hold the place only by handing over a check for S5,000 on the spot, which he did, hoping that he could cover it at the bank by Tuesday with the help of friends, which he also did. His partner was an old high-school friend, Steve Oren stein, by then a prominent male model who worked under the name of Oren Stevens. Oren and Aretsky, the place was called. Oren was the host of a television sports show in those days, and he had forged connections with a number of lo cal athletes, who began to hang out at the restaurant. First they had the Rangers, then some of the Jets (“Take care of my boys, ” Sonny Werblin, the sports impresario, had told Aretsky, “don’t let them get in trouble”), and, in time, Yankee slugger Reginald Martinez (the magnitude of me”) Jackson, then at the height of his fame. A young, hip, good-looking crowd, which included some of the era’s most beautiful models, followed.
Nothing lasts forever, though, and when George Steinbrenner passed on re-signing Jackson (who then went to the Angels) in 1982, Aretsky took it as a sign that an era was over: the owners of Studio 54, the sig nature establishment of the era, were going to prison for tax evasion; cocaine was no longer considered quite so amusing a drug, and the sexual revolution was slow ng down, thanks to a dramatic increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Aretsky sold his share of the business to his part ner and caught his breath. But he had not lost his love for the restaurant business Oddly enough, the glamour never wore off for him-even if the hours were crushing. In a quiet, unobtrusive way he had made a lot of friends (I remember going to Oren and Aretsky a few times and not liking the restaurant very much, but liking Aretsky a great deal). He felt he had come to understand what New Yorkers looked for when they went out. It was not just good food, but also not to be bored. They wanted-needed-to burn off the nervous energy that is almost unique to the city, and they wanted a sense of theater. In addition, they expected some sort of recognition to match their own sense of themselves and, above all, not to feel diminished at the door.
In time he found a suitable location for a new place-Sidney Aretsky, he thought, would have been proud-at 62nd and Madison, a high-rent area with the chic-est stores in the city, and he opened Arcadia there. He brought over as his partner and chef Anne Rosenzweig, just about to emerge as one of the most talented of a new and dazzling generation of young American chefs.
Arcadia was an immediate hit. Not long after that, one of the city’s most successful venture capitalists, a man named Marshall Cogan, bought the venerable “21′ Club on West 52nd Street for $21 million. In 1987, Cogan hired Aretsky to run it. Modernizing “21′ was not easily done. To a new generation of New Yorkers coming of age in the 1960s and 70s it had a reputation as one of the stuffiest places in the city, a hangout in its day for such men as J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Roy Cohn. The management and staff had become arrogant, skilled more, it seemed, at keeping out younger people than at bringing them in.
The premises were outdated and badly worn down, although no more so than the customers. Never had so many people deputized themselves as authorities about food, Aretsky discovered upon arrival They let him know right away that under no conditions was he to change the menu, which he in fact judged to be terrible. “Here was this place which could not have been in worse shape, it was losing money, and all these older customers thought it was the greatest place in the world, and they were telling us not to change anything. As far as they were concerned, it was not the restaurant which was on trial, I was on trial,” Aretsky notes.
Cogan poured money in-$10 million to fix up the kitchen and modernize the dining rooms-and slowly, cautiously, the menu was updated, although not without complaints. Right off, Aretsky lost the great battle of the chicken hash. He thought it tasted too heavy, and was detrimental to the customers health as well, because it was loaded with cream He decided to change it to a lighter hash, using chicken stock as a binder. The protest against the new hash was immediate. The traditionalists were enraged, and forced him to go back to the old recipe Score one for the past. In time, though, he won some victories: peppered tuna steak and bay scallops were guardedly added to the menu. Gradually the change over worked and the place became profitable again, but to many younger people there was still something dark and heavy about it. Aretsky realized how deeply in grained the past was at ’21’ when he learned that the writer John Irving, Aretsky’s personal friend, had shown up with his three sons, all of them as strikingly Handsome as their father, all four well dressed in tweed jackets and pressed jeans, and had been turned away because of their dress.
Aretsky’s relationship with Cogan did not reflect the improvement in the restaurant or its enhanced profitability Aretsky’s friends warned him that he was too good at his job, and that Cogan thought he was getting too much credit for the restaurant’s success, when to Cogan’s mind it was being driven by his own money, not by Aretsky’s managerial skills. Too many people, it was said, were leaving the restaurant under the impression that Aretsky was an owner, not an employee. In March 1995, he was effectively fired from his job.
But Aretsky had made a lot of friends over the years, and when he decided to open his own place again, he did not lack for backers. Within a year he had established Butterfield 81, a small Upper East Side bistro.
When he decided to open Patroon, he walked the city until he found the right place, just as he had for Oren and Aretsky. The location he settled on was a building on East 46th Street, the site of the former Christ Cella, one of the city’s great steak houses, which had closed in 1995. Unlike the brownstone that housed ’21,’ it had been built as the site for a restaurant, in 1957 by Richard Cella.
This time Aretsky wanted to re-create the ambience of one of his favorite restaurants, Harry’s Bar in London, and yet be true to the 50 s architecture of the building. The décor he chose reflected, as much as anything, the change in the concept of the saloon: it is less woody, less dark, consciously more inviting to women. For the vestibule and upstairs cigar lounge he chose vintage photographs, mostly of New York City-Rockefeller Center, Mickey Mantle at Yankee Stadium, and Charles Hoff’s memorable shots of boxing matches at Madison Square Garden-from the 1940s and 50s, which he considers to have been the golden age. It was mainly in order to recapture the more leisurely dining experience of that less rushed era that Aretsky, a cigar smoker himself, included a humidor (patrons can rent boxes for their personal brands) and cigar lounge.
So far Aretsky has succeeded in attracting a diverse following of the city’s stars, Wall Street players, fashion executives, and writers. Woody Allen has been seen there of late. And although in New York, as in other cities, the jocks do not hang out very much except with their own, Wayne Gretzky, now with the Rangers, and Ernie Grunfeld, the Knicks’ general manager, have been there, too. As for Aretsky himself, he still works enormously long hours, getting to the restaurant early in the morning and leaving late at night when the action is finally over, but he always remembers what his friend Peter Kriendler, his favorite of the original owners of ’21,’ once told him: “When I get up in the morning and go to work, it’s all fun-every day is New Year’s Eve.”