Around the Quads

The Restaurateur Who Brought Celebrity Glamour to the Table

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mack amid the Manhattan Theater District’s riotous mix of boffo hits and broken hearts sits a restaurant called Sardi’s. For decades, that spot at 234 W. 44th St. has been synonymous with premieres, celebrity spotting, caricatures of show-biz types and all-around entertainment razzle-dazzle.

Vincent Sardi wearing a jacket and tie in the kitchen of his restaurant in 1966.

Sardi, in the kitchen of his famed restaurant in 1966.

Leonard Nones / Condé Nast via Getty Images

And, for more than 45 years, it was Vincent Sardi Jr. BUS’37, the “Unofficial Mayor of Broadway,” who owned and ran the place. He once called his family’s namesake establishment “a message center, a lovers’ rendezvous, a production office, a casting center, and even a psychiatrist’s office.”

He added, “We serve food, too.”

Sardi’s began life as a speakeasy that Vincent Sardi Sr. acquired in 1921, six years after his son, nicknamed “Cino,” was born. Even as the younger Sardi studied on Morningside Heights — his first two years were spent at the College — he knew where his destiny lay. One day he told his father that he wanted to follow him into the business. His mother was appalled; her son, after all, was an Ivy Leaguer. But Papa Sardi said, “There is nothing disgraceful about being a restaurant owner if you are well trained and do it right.”

So Sardi abandoned his pre-med track and transferred to the Business School. Outside of class, he toiled in the kitchen and behind the cigar counter (“Dad said the cigar counter was a job; I thought it was punishment”), as well as spending time as a busboy, waiter, captain, headwaiter, host, buyer and accountant. He formally purchased Sardi’s in 1947.

Under the guidance of Sardi fils, who worked 14 hours a day, the restaurant became legendary. The Tony Awards were conceived there the same year that Sardi bought out his father, and for decades the nominees were announced at a luncheon ceremony. Traditionally, an opening-night cast and crew would adjourn to Sardi’s to await the early reviews. “If they’re good,” said Sardi, “we start to hear, ‘Captain, a bottle of champagne and the food menu. God, I’m hungry!’ If the reviews aren’t good, all we hear is, ‘Check, please.’”

Of course, Sardi’s also earned a reputation for its gallery of hundreds of celebrity caricatures — a tradition begun in the late 1920s when Alex Gard, a poor Russian refugee, struck a deal to draw them in exchange for meals. (Stories are attached to many portraits, including that of James Cagney CC 1922, which someone stole off the wall on the day he died.)

Sardi liked actors; he had been one in his childhood, playing “Pietro the Little Wop” in 1925’s forgettable The Master of the Inn. He also appeared in Buckaroo in 1929; the reviews were so bad that the producers cut all the extras after opening night, “including me.”

Mindful, perhaps, of such misfortunes, Sardi was an indulgent host, often allowing patrons to run up large tabs. “I’ve learned to be awfully careful with an actor out of work,” he said. “A table in a good location is simply my way of giving him a pat on the back.” Along the way, he came to know many of his clients. He took Broderick Crawford’s Doberman for a walk every night when the future Academy Award winner was starring as Lennie in Of Mice and Men. He washed dishes with actor/director Alfred Lunt, who told him, “You serve fine food at your place, and you know how to get people seated gracefully — but after this, I know you know how to run a restaurant!”

The Sardi’s name has carried far beyond NYC; both restaurant and owner have featured on television and in numerous movies. For its 1976 turn on NBC’s Big Event series, the producers wanted a dish not normally on the menu. “So we serve 200 people Scotch grouse, which has to be cooked practically raw,” Sardi recalled. “And all of a sudden I hear, ‘Vincent! What is this crap?!’” In The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), “Cino” ejected Kermit the Frog after the ambitious amphibian tried to replace Liza Minnelli’s caricature with his own. But two years later he sold the business for a reported $92 million and retired to Vermont to play polo, tend to his German Shepherds and tinker with his collection of antique cars.

By that time, much of Sardi’s luster had dimmed amid the 1970s decline of New York City in general and Times Square in particular. In 1988, New York Times critic Bryan Miller described the once proud landmark as “a bumbling parody of itself.” The new ownership filed for bankruptcy and closed the doors on June 30, 1990.

And so, determined to rise to the challenge of restoring his family’s name, the septuagenarian Sardi abandoned pastoral Vermont for bustling Midtown. Returning to his beloved restaurant, he found a crumbling, roach-infested building and water dripping from stained ceilings. “It was one of my saddest moments,” he told Crain’s New York Business.

Sardi responded by investing $500,000 in refurbishments, bringing back some of the staff and in general being a reassuring face of the old days. The grand reopening took place on November 1, 1990, with a party for 400 guests to celebrate David Merrick’s revival of the Gershwin 1926 musical, Oh, Kay! In just a couple of years, business was rebounding.

“We got through Prohibition and the Great Depression,” Sardi said. “You can’t just let a tradition like this go down the drain.” And indeed, it has not. Satisfied with the turnaround, Sardi’s longtime owner left West 44th Street for good in 1997. Today, the restaurant is as firm a fixture of the Theater District as ever.

When Sardi died on January 4, 2007, at 91, his peers saluted him the following evening as they long have other giants of his realm — by dimming for one minute the marquee lights of the Great White Way.