Secrets of Sardi’s: The hall of fame of Broadway

AM New York
Secrets of Sardi’s: The hall of fame of Broadway
By Meghan Giannotta
May 12, 2016

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Generated by IJG JPEG Library

Right in the heart of the theater district sits Broadway’s own hall of fame: Sardi’s.

Walking into the Sardi’s dining room, you’re greeted by Bette Midler, Tom Hanks, Lucille Ball and hundreds of other famous faces — well, caricatures of their faces, at least. As many as 1,200 caricatures have hung on the walls at Sardi’s, a tradition begun by founding owner Vincent Sardi Sr. in 1927 as a way to drum up business.

Sardi’s first opened in 1921 as The Little Restaurant, in the space now occupied by the St. James Theatre, moving to its current 44th Street location and changing its name in 1927. With Broadway’s theaters booming outside of its front doors, it soon became a popular hangout for local reporters and aspiring actors and actresses.

“He made the restaurant as his family, and that’s where the love of the theater begins,” current owner Max Klimavicius told amNewYork. “He had open arms for actors and actresses and made it as if it was their home. That’s where the fabric of Sardi’s comes from.”

So grab a seat at the family table and dig in! amNewYork’s spilling secrets as rich as Sardi’s sauce.


The first caricaturist was paid in meals, not money
Opening shortly before the Great Depression, Sardi’s struggled to bring in a profit in its early years. Sardi Sr. hoped the caricatures would encourage Broadway’s stars to stop in for a meal. So, he hired artist Alex Gard as the restaurant’s first permanent caricaturist — but couldn’t afford to pay him. Gard and Sardi Sr. struck up a deal in which the artist would be given two free meals per day in exchange for his work, Klimavicius said. Eventually, Sardi Sr. offered to pay Gard actual money, but the artist still chose the food.

What the celebrities saw wasn’t always what they got
To make it up on the walls, every caricature needs to be signed by the celebrity. To avoid opposition, Gard would hand over unfinished versions for signatures and go back later on to accentuate celebrities’ features before hanging them up, Klimavicius said.


Some celebrities really (really) disliked their caricatures
By definition, a caricature is meant to accentuate facial features for comic effect. But try telling a celebrity that when she’s greeted by a drawing of herself with a giant mouth or pointy nose at a caricature’s unveiling.

Gard stayed true to this definition, which caused some trouble for Sardi’s throughout his nearly 21-year run with the restaurant. The caricatures “were not flattering. Some subjects hated them, as a matter of fact,” Klimavcius said.

Actress Maureen Stapleton hated her caricature so much she actually took it off the wall, Klimavcius said. Bette Midler wasn’t a fan of her original drawing either. Both were redone.

Sardi’s has always redone drawings that have left celebrities unsatisfied, though. Today, the caricatures have become more like portraits, to keep everyone happy.

There’s a discounted menu, but it’s only for a select group
If Joey Tribbiani were to walk into Sardi’s, he’d be treated like a king. The restaurant has a special menu reserved for actors and actresses, but there’s one catch. The “Actor’s Menu” is only offered to struggling performers. The menu offers the same dishes as the main one, but at discounted prices. Actors can nab cannelloni au gratin for $19 instead of $25.75, grilled marinated pork chops for $22 instead of $30, and more.

It was a tradition started by Sardi Sr. in the ’20s as a way to drum up business, Klimavicius said, but it’s still just as popular today. On a typical Wednesday, Sardi’s can see up to 80 actors from nearby Broadway shows drop in for a meal between matinee and evening performances.

Celebrities’ spots on the wall have nothing to do with status
“Your position on the wall has nothing to do with your real status, but you know actors’ egos,” Vincent Sardi Jr. wrote in his book “Off the Wall at Sardi’s.” The caricatures aren’t nailed to the walls, so they can actually be moved around freely as Klimavicius wishes. If a notable name has a reservation or a play opens on Broadway, the restaurant makes sure to move those caricatures up front. Sardi’s also retires drawings based on whether or not they’re recognized by diners anymore.

Everyone who’s on the wall has eaten at Sardi’s
Climb up the ladder of fame all you want, but you won’t make it onto the wall at Sardi’s until you’ve dug into a plate of cannelloni. Klimavicius said the famous faces behind every caricature are considered “friends of the house.”

So keep this in mind next time you’re dining at Sardi’s: You’re sort of breaking bread at the same dinner table as Lucille Ball, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Danza, Tom Hanks and the many other celebrities who made it onto the wall.

One of the longest-running radio shows broadcast from the dining room
Vincent Sardi Jr., who took over the restaurant after his father’s passing in 1947, started a radio show right in the dining room of Sardi’s. The first “Luncheon At Sardi’s” show was broadcast on March 8, 1947, on the radio station WOR. Host Bill Slater would interview famous diners at every table and chat about Broadway’s latest productions for the hour-long show that lasted through the late ’80s. According to Sardi Jr., the radio show was one of the longest-running radio shows of all time. It still occasionally broadcasts.

Sardi’s is the birthplace of the Tony Awards
Like any good idea, the concept of the Tony Awards was thought up over a plate of good food.

Actress and director Mary Antoinette Perry, the namesake of the Tony Awards, was a longtime loyal customer of the restaurant. When she passed away in 1946, producer Jacob Wilk came up with the idea for the ceremony in her honor over a meal at Sardi’s, Klimavicius said.

In turn, Sardi Sr. was presented with a Tony Award during the first ceremony on April 6, 1947. He was given a gold money clip as his award, before the official Tony Award medallion was a thing. Although the 44th Street restaurant holds much of Broadway’s history, you won’t find Sardi’s award there. The money clip was passed on to Sardi Sr.’s son and is no longer in the restaurant’s possession.

A piece of Broadway history lives on on its walls
A part of the Belasco Theatre, operated by The Shubert Organization, the same company that owns the restaurant’s property, can be found on the walls of Sardi’s. Theater director David Belasco’s apartment, which was located directly above the theater, was taken apart and auctioned off after his death in 1931, Shubert archivist Maryann Chach said.

Sardi Sr. was given Belasco’s original bookshelves, chandeliers, beams and doors, which he had carefully cut apart and reassembled within his restaurant. What was once used as a dining room, the restaurant’s third floor (now known as “the Belasco Room”) is used as private offices.

Sardi’s cooks up a special meal for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show winner
Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show winners have dined at Sardi’s since the early 1980s — and yes, we mean the dogs.

The tradition started with former Westminster Dog Show chair and president Chet Collier, who was a big fan of Sardi’s. He’d take the winning handlers to a lunch at Sardi’s after the show and the top dog usually tagged along. Eventually the canines took over the lunch and it became an event entirely in their honor.

Sardi’s usually cooks up a steak for the dogs, but the restaurant has recently expanded that menu to include a chicken option, Klimavicius said.

And in case you were wondering, the dogs do mind their manners at the dinner table. “What amazes me is in the middle of all camera flashes, they keep their composure,” Klimavicius said.

They come for the caricatures; they stay for the food

Thanks to hundreds of famous caricatures, Sardi’s has become a popular tourist destination. But what keeps the locals coming back is good food and solid tradition, Klimavicius said.

The most popular dish: cannelloni (pictured).

The best-selling appetizer: crab cakes.

The busiest day: Saturdays between 4:30 and 8 p.m., where Sardi’s sees from 600 to 700 diners.

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