The most disappointing dining experience I’ve had recently was at the 21 Club. The service was disappointing, and the vegetarian options were basically nonexistent. The 21 Club hypes itself up quite a bit–emphasized in particular right now because of some recent renovations–but the experience did not live up to the hype.
To start, the lunch menu has no vegetarian main courses.* This is a negative mark, even if a given chef can create some great vegetarian meal, because I never know in advance that I can be accommodated. If a restaurant is willing to make a vegetarian meal, they should at least put it on the menu; that way, we know they’ve given the matter at least a little thought.
I did have some options for the first course–there were a number of salads available–and I went with the roasted beets and goat cheese. Actually, the beets were my second choice; my first choice was listed on the menu as: “Jersey Tomatoes, grilled eggplant and Cubano pepper salad, buffalo mozzarella, romaine, gazpacho sauce”. Sounds good, right? But they’re made with bacon! This is one of the most frustrating things about trying to eat out as a vegetarian: the meat items sometimes aren’t even listed. Too bad, because the tomatoes sounded good.
In any event, as I said, I went with the beets. I am generally not a fan of beets, but a friend was raving about the beets at Jean-Georges, and I got in my mind that maybe the beets here would be spectacular too. But they weren’t they were just were “okay”. Nothing special, not terrible. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you told me they were from your corner diner. They seemed uninspired, and maybe under-done, because they were rather hard. I did add some salt, though, which helped a lot. I also liked the goat cheese.
Now at this point I want to digress briefly. Often at these restaurants, I’ll order some wine. I’m a big fan of sparkling wine, and this particular day I’d ordered a frizzante. (Specifically, the non-vintage Vespaiolo Cantina Beato Bartolomeo Breganze.) Now, every time I’d had a sparkling wine up until this point, it’s been served in a champagne flute. The waiter at 21 brought the bottle over to me with a white wine glass. I thought this was weird, and asked for a champagne flute instead. Now, maybe I was wrong–a waiter at Maze recently told me that he heard that Prosecco can be served in a white wine glass. My point is not the merits of who was right or wrong; it’s the attitude. The waiter left and came back a few minutes with my champagne flute. I was writing the name of the wine on my notepad at the time. As he put the flute down, he said in an annoyed voice, “You can drink it in a white wine glass, too. Why don’t you write that down?” ?!?! I was definitely not expecting that kind of attitude.
So for those keeping score at home, we have (1) bacon in the tomatoes, even though it’s not listed on the menu; (2) beets that were passable but nothing special; and (3) attitude from the waiter about the wine service. 21’s going 0-for-3 at this point.
As for the main course… well, there’s no vegetarian option on the menu. The waiter told me they could do “pasta with vegetables” or a “vegetable plate”. Since the former sounded to me like a frozen dinner, I decided to go with the latter.
The vegetable plate was an assortment of a few different side dishes: mushrooms, asparagus, squash & tomato. There was nothing wrong with these vegetables as such. It’s just that I would have expected more from the famous 21 Club. You call yourself a “Landmark New York Restaurant” where I can “[e]xperience New York at its finest”. I would have expected just a little more thought put into the vegetarian food. The asparagus was quite good; the mushrooms were too salty. The tomatoes and squash were prepared very simply, which was fine. I’m not looking for complicated food, but I do want to feel like you put some thought into what you would serve.
For dessert I got a piece of apple pie. I love apple pie, so this redeemed 21, just a tad. The pie was very good, although I found the crust to be a bit too thick on the bottom.
The 21 Club is filled with history and lore, and the atmosphere is definitely unique. But the vegetarian options are slim, the menu can be misleading, and (at least in our experience) the server had a bad attitude. One star.
Note (update 10/15/2011): the menu link will take you to the current version of the 21 Club’s lunch menu. I notice that, some time after this post went up, the Jersey Tomatoes are not listed as an appetizer, and there is a vegetarian entree (an interesting-looking pasta dish with pumpkin and mushrooms). In the future — as I’ve done for some posts already — I will be more diligent about posting an image of the menu as it existed at the time I went to the restaurant. None of this changes my rating, of course, though I’m pleased to see that the restaurant is at least a little more vegetarian-friendly. (Return to the body of the post.)