From its famous caricatures and actors’ menu to its rich history, this renowned eatery is the ideal place for theater history and a great meal.
“As long as there is Broadway, we’ll always be here,” says Max Klimavicius, the current owner and president of Sardi’s restaurant, the landmark eatery in the heart of the New York Theatre District. Since 1921, Sardi’s has been Broadway’s dining room, playing host to opening-night parties, press receptions, and contract negotiations. It’s the perfect stop for drinks or a meal before or after a show. The cozy bar and main dining room on the first floor offer intimate eating experiences of snacks or entrees, or you can watch the lights on the Great White Way from the second-floor bar, which offers a great view of 44th Street. Klimavicius states the place is like a theater museum, with its red walls covered with caricatures of just about every celebrity of the past 100 years.
“This started because we used to have a meeting of journalists here called The Cheese Club, which was to mock the Algonquin Round Table,” explains Klimavicius in his charming Lithuanian accent, referring to the famous daily gathering of wits and writers at the nearby Algonquin Hotel. “But here it was more fun. Very loose. We had Walter Winchell, the biggest gossip columnist between 1928 and 1960; Mark Hellinger [the theater columnist and film producer]; and Irving Hoffman, a press agent, who brought along a Russian émigré artist named Alex Gard who sat and started to do sketches of the people at the table. It was there that the idea was born. The club suggested to Vincent Sardi that if he would hire Alex to sketch the famous people who came to the restaurant, he could put the drawings on the wall. So they struck a barter deal where Alex would do the caricatures in exchange for two meals a day. The only stipulation was that Vincent wouldn’t criticize Alex’s art and Alex wouldn’t criticize Vincent’s food.”
After Sardi’s son, Vincent Jr., took over the management of the restaurant, he wanted to pay Gard in cash, but the artist refused and continued to take his wages in food until his death in 1948. Gard was succeeded by three others — John Mackey, who had a drinking problem and didn’t last long on the job; Donald Bevan, also a playwright, who coauthored Stalag 17; and the current artist, Richard Baratz, an engraver by trade who started his Sardi’s gig in 1974 and has held the position the longest. The first 300 of Gard’s pieces have been donated to the archives at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. There are now 1,200 caricatures on the walls, from Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, and Sammy Davis Jr. to Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hanks. And who could forget the portrait of Kermit the Frog and the scene in The Muppets Take Manhattan where the puppet amphibian attempts to hang his own caricature on the restaurant’s famous walls?
Many other films and TV shows have shot in Sardi’s. Don Draper had cocktails there in Mad Men, and Kramer from Seinfeld is seen chowing down with the theater crowd after falsely accepting a Tony Award. A brief list of movies with scenes set in the restaurant, most with show business themes, includes: The Velvet Touch, But Not for Me, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, No Way to Treat a Lady, Author! Author!, The Fan, Woody Allen’s Radio Days, and Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy.
Baratz renders about 30 new caricatures a year. “The main criteria is that the person has to be a friend of the house,” explains Klimavicius. “They have to frequent the place. We don’t necessarily choose stars. Some of the people we choose are just starting out.”
The Family of Broadway
The restaurant bowed in 1921 when Vincent Sr. opened his first restaurant but had to move when the building was set for demolition to make way for the new Erlanger Theatre, which later become the St. James. The Shubert brothers, fierce rivals of the Erlanger company, offered Sardi’s the lease on a new building, and so the second Sardi’s opened in 1927 and has remained in that location to this day. During the eatery’s early days, Vincent Sardi Sr. would extend credit to struggling actors, including a then-unknown James Cagney, who danced in Broadway choruses before finding fame as a Hollywood tough guy. “Vincent and Eugenia Sardi made it part of the fabric of the Great White Way because of their love of the theater,” says Klimavicius, who started in the kitchen as a traffic coordinator in 1974, making sure orders got from the chef to the customers quickly. “Vincent Sr. was a vagabond growing up; he never had a family. He was a runaway. He worked on ships as a child and came to England from his home country, Italy. He started in the restaurant business there; then he came to America. At Ellis Island he met Eugenia, also from Italy, who became his wife. Because he never had a family he made this restaurant a second home for all these actors who were starving and had nothing. When he passed away, his son, Vincent Jr., found a chest full of IOUs from the actors who never paid.”
While Sardi’s no longer extends credit to financially strapped performers, it does have an actors’ discount menu, available to any customer presenting his or her paid-up Equity or Screen Actors Guild card. On Wednesdays between the matinee and evening performances, if you are acting in a show, you can get half-off the actors’ menu discount.
“The restaurant has been through its ups and down,” relates Klimavicius. “Vincent Jr. took over the restaurant from his father when he came back from the service after World War II. Vincent Jr. wanted to sell the restaurant when he wanted to retire in the mid-1980s. He sold it in a leveraged buyout and the group that bought it used it as a money machine and it eventually went out of business in July 1990. We were able to reopen it six months later. Vincent Jr., as the only secure creditor, got to buy the restaurant back for one dollar and he took me as his partner. When we reopened on November 1, 1990, we didn’t have a liquor license because when he sold he had to liquidate the whole corporation. We had applied for it but we didn’t have it yet. It was during a very difficult time. There was a war with Iraq, a recession. But I still remember people walking in and looking in awe at the place. All the regular customers were able to bring their own liquor. We’d put their names on it and kept it behind the bar. It was difficult, but it gave us a sense of what Sardi’s was about.”
After Vincent Jr. retired, Klimavicius took over the management. He’s seen many changes during his tenure, particularly the alterations from the shadiness of the neighborhood during the late 1970s to its current family-friendly environment. “I remember while the Marriott hotel was being built in the early 1980s, they used to have private security patrolling the area. I remember taking my life in my own hands walking down the block to get my car between 8th and 9th Avenues late at night. It was very seedy, I don’t know how we survived it, but I guess we did.” While the restaurant does not host as many opening-night parties as it used to — Klimavicius explains they no longer have the space to accommodate the ever-growing numbers of producers and the press expected at such events — they are still the home of such annual industry events as the Outer Critics Circle Awards dinner, the Drama League nominations, and, of course, the unveiling of the latest Sardi’s caricature. Like the world-weary glamour gal in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, Sardi’s has seen it all and, my dear, it’s still here.