H. Jerome Berns & H. Peter Kriendler

January/February 1992

Food Arts presents the January/February 1992 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to the '21' Club's H. Jerome Berns and H. Peter Kriendler, the hosts with the most.

"Mr. Jerry," 84, and "Mr. Pete," 86, as those members of the founding family are affectionately called by the staff, were both to the business born but took a detour before they joined their older brothers at Jack and Charlie's 21—originally a Prohibition-era speakeasy—in 1938. Both came from humble immigrant families of Austrian descent who settled in New York City around the turn of the century. "Pete's mother was my father's cousin," says Berns. "And she was a midwife who delivered 3,000 babies, including me.

"My mother was so afraid I'd join my brother in something illegal, she shipped me to Ohio," continues Berns, who graduated from the University of Cincinnati and then worked on the drama desk of the Cincinnati Enquirer. "My daughter, Cecily Miller, who's now our banquet manager, said, 'Free movies are nice, but milk is better.'" Berns recalls.

Kriendler, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School, practiced only briefly and then became a stockbroker. They both gladly gave up these short-lived careers to join the family business.

Berns believes that the fact that they were "collegians, with the ability to talk to the early guests, many of whom were Yalies and Harvard men, on their own level" contributed to the panache of '21,' a mystique already set in motion by Jack Kriendler's bon vivant flair—a box at the opera, sable-lined coat, hand-tooled, silver-trimmed cowboy boots and an endless supply of rich friends.

And plenty of panache it had. Through the years, the rich and powerful, the literati and the gliterati, presidents and politicians, mayors and moguls all crowded in as much to see and be seen as to eat and drink. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan have all been customers as have Henry Kissinger and Nelson Rockefeller. The rule forbidding women in slacks was first overlooked for Katherine Hepburn; and '60s chic Rudolf Nureyev broke the no-tie-admittance stricture. A ceiling full of toys—a miniature American Airlines plane, oil derricks, a Greyhound bus, a box of Reynolds Wrap—representing tycoon customers' enterprises dangle in the bar. Brass plaques mark Bogie's Corner and Nixon's Table. Iron jockeys sporting the racing colors of thoroughbred stables owned by '21' customers, such as the Vanderbilts and Whitneys, flank the doorway. The '21' Club is not really a club, but it is clubby—eccentric, exclusive and expensive.

"We kiss girls, embrace men and express cordial welcome to people as if they were visiting a friend's home," says Berns.

Kriendler adds: "God gives you a gift: You like people; they like you back. We're both fortunate in having that quality."

Seven years ago the family sold '21' to financier Marshall Cogan, who immediately launched a controversial multimillion dollar face-lift. A new chef, Michael Lomonaco, presides over an updated menu, though the famous '21' burger (now $24) and chicken hash remain.

And Mr. Pete and Mr. Jerry stay on as ambassadors of goodwill, a testimony to the importance of a family's hands-on involvement in a restaurant. "I work half a day," Berns quips, "from 9 to 9, five days a week.)