Chatting With Shaker Naini, ’21’ Club’s Fashion Policeman
By Julie Besonen
October 19, 2012
Keeping up with the times, the storied ’21’ Club has undergone some nips and tucks, most recently a nearly $2 million remodel of a private event space upstairs. The modernized Bar ’21’ features a lower-priced small plates menu and a relaxed dress code. One thing that hasn’t changed since 1978: Shaker Naini, the dapper gentleman graciously greeting guests. Shaker has now been here the longest, following the retirement of a waiter who started in 1967. He stepped away from the door for a bit to talk about sartorial policing and the celebrities he’s had to turn away.
How different was the dress code when you started working here in 1978?
We were very strict. We’d tell people to fix their tie if it’s too loose. I told Mick Jagger once to fix his tie. I told Ted Turner. To this day, he comes to the door and says, ‘My tie is okay?’
Did Mick Jagger argue with you?
No, no, he fixed his tie politely.
And now men don’t even have to wear a tie here.
No, you don’t, but most men still do. Jeans, shorts and sneakers are still not permitted. There was a time when women couldn’t come here in pants. Katharine Hepburn was the first woman allowed to come in with pants.
I read this is Ricky Gervais’ favorite restaurant in New York.
He’s been coming for the last ten years.
And George Clooney is a regular.
He’s been here many times. I had to give a tie to him once. A lot of movie actors are more casual and relaxed than you’d expect.
So you’d keep ties on hand for them.
One time I gave a tie to Richard Burton to wear over his turtleneck.
You met Richard Burton?
I’ve met everyone. Richard Burton was in a Broadway show at the time and used to come to ’21’ between three and five before the show. One night they had to cancel because he was here.
He was drunk?
I won’t say. But he was here.
Did he come in with Elizabeth Taylor?
No, she came in with Mr. Malcom Forbes. She was very nice, polite. She still has wine stored down in the wine cellar.
Is there anyone famous you’ve had to turn away?
One time Burt Lancaster came here in jeans. We could not take him. Andy Warhol once came in jeans.
Did he change and come back?
No, he didn’t come back. Bette Midler came in jeans and we couldn’t take her. Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn came in jeans and we couldn’t take them.
Do you ever get intimidated by someone famous or powerful at the door?
No, never. When people walk into ’21’ — especially in the late ’70s and early ’80s — they are nervous. It’s a big thing.
Have you had a favorite customer?
Frank Sinatra was a very good customer. He was a regular, always with an entourage of people and his wife Barbara Marx. When he walked in, he used to call everyone by name. He knew the doorman’s name, my name, the head waiter. He was very connected with the staff.
I’ve read he was a good tipper.
Yes, he’d give $20 or $50 to everyone. He was a good man.
You’ve seen several presidents come through the door, right?
Clinton was here many, many times. He has had parties upstairs and had a birthday party for his daughter when she turned 17, I believe. He left a bottle in the wine cellar for her to have when she turned 21. Jimmy Carter was also here after he left office. I had to give him a tie.
Has Obama been here?
Are there any nights over the years that stand out for you?
One night President Gerald Ford came in with his wife for a pre-theater dinner and they were seated at table 10. After they left, President Reagan came in with his wife and they sat at the same table.
I was here for my birthday recently and pleased to see a lot of young people.
A few years ago you would have seen people who were 65, 70 to 80 years old on average. Now our clientele is much younger, especially in Bar ’21.’
I wonder if the Mad Men phenomenon has helped bring it back.
The bar menu is very affordable, and the more casual dress code helps. People like the mini hamburgers. Young people come in and want to know about the history when it was a speakeasy.
Do you like what people are wearing here today?
Lately, yes. People are much more skinny. The women wear tighter dresses and the men are wearing very slim shirts and pants.
You’re here greeting people for almost every lunch and dinner. What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I’m a political junkie. I watch MSNBC.
Does Rachel Maddow come in? I’ve heard she loves a good cocktail.
I love her but I haven’t seen her here. Chris Matthews comes in.
You’re very good at recognizing people.
I watch a lot of movies. I read the New York Times, the Daily News, the Post, Entertainment Weekly. I know what’s going on. You have a great magazine. It’s been around since 1984.
21 W. 52nd St.