The fibreglass jockeys weren't standing sentry on West 52nd Street last night, as I approached the iconic 21 Club. For the briefest of moments, I was worried the place had closed and was annoyed at myself for not checking earlier. But on closer inspection, I realised that the owners must care about the welfare of the famous jockeys as much as locals do, particularly in the cold weather and heavy snow. Because sure enough, as I got up to the front door, I was almost eye-to-eye with the smiling jockey figures, lined up in their stripey outfits on the other side of the wrought-iron fence. All was right with the world once more.
The last time I came to this gorgeous Club I was with Mum & Dad. Was that really in 2011? Time sure has flown. Last night, I was on my own (at least initially), and I extricated my work pants from inside my rubber snow boots as I chatted amiably to the doorman outside. Once indoors, the silver-haired maitre d' welcomed me to the Club, helped me check my coat, and ushered me to the front bar and onto a lofty, red leather-clad barstool.
To my left, a pair of young businessmen, engaged in some sort of friendly but pointed one-upmanship. Their dirty martinis sat largely untouched. Pity.
To my right, an affable old gent wearing a cravat. Or was it an ascot? Do I even know the difference? No matter his neckwear, the man stood at the bar, slowly working his way through a dozen natural oysters washed down with an ice-cold beer. The barmen bantered with the old man every time they wandered past him; the old man's eyes twinkling under bushy eyebrows. It was clear he was enjoying himself a good deal.
The bar menu at the 21 Club lends itself to repeat visits. There are so many tempting options - not just for beverages, but for tasty snacks to pair with them. For my pre-theatre beverage I chose a glass of Sancerre, which turned out to be a very tasty option.
As I sipped my drink and tried not to look alone, I watched the old man out the corner of my eye. He wasn't like the businessmen that surrounded him - bantering loudly with other patrons, and back-slapping one other in an over-zealous (and decidedly fake) manner. Instead he savoured his oysters and beer quietly, waiting patiently for the barmen to return so he could trade zingers with them. That the old man remained standing suggested to me that he was just pit-stopping, not making a night of things. A bit of nourishment for the stomach and the soul, before returning home for the evening. I approved.
Then the loud ladies from Chicago wandered in, and the mood of the bar changed. The slimey businesmen down the end surrendered two seats for them. Gallant, perhaps - or not. Obligingly the ladies smiled and fluttered their eyelids, calling the young barmen by name and coyly seeking suggestions for wine ("sweet, but not too sweet, you know"). Such a familiar pantomime - everyone played their parts beautifully.
Depositing the twelfth empty oyster shell back on its plate, the old man drained his beer and paid his bill. "Be careful now, and watch out for this one," he said.
"Do you mean him or me?" I asked, gesturing to the barman.
"Both. You're young rascals, I can tell" he replied, and winked at me on his way out the door.
Takes one to know one, I'll wager.