It’s not every day I eat lunch with the eyes of Samuel Jackson, Lucy Liu, and Gary Sinise fixed upon me—all at the same time.
That’s because I’m dining at Sardi’s, one of the oldest restaurants in town. Its walls are filled with rows and rows of caricatures—about 95 percent of which are actors and the other 5 percent behind-the-scenes types (producers and so on), friends, and other VIPs (for example, mayors, though it looks like Mayor de Blasio hasn’t stopped in yet).
To have endured since 1921 in a city where a new restaurant seems to hatch every day is no mean feat. Of course it has had its ups and downs: through the Depression, various fires, and so on. But it pulled through, and became a fixture of the Great White Way, and more recently the film industry as well.
Sardi’s has been doing caricatures since 1929, just as the Great Depression started, as a way of drumming up business, said Sean Ricketts, co-owner of Sardi’s and great-grandson of Vincent Sardi Sr., who started the restaurant. Sardi Sr. was inspired by a Parisian restaurant, Joe Zelli’s, where caricatures of film stars hung on the walls.
In a way, Sardi’s is like a fascinating little museum in how it captured each decade’s acting illuminati—first in black and white, and then in color. Along the wall, the likenesses of Rex Harrison, Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis rub frames with their contemporaries: Tom Hanks, Antonio Banderas, and most recently, the girls from “Matilda the Musical.”
There are now over 1,300 caricatures. Once made, they are unveiled at a ceremony, signed by the subject, and then a copy goes up on the wall. (Originals are preserved.)
In the beginning, they were a way to reward people who came in regularly. “I don’t think at the time, it was being thought as a tradition, but that’s what ended up happening,” said Ricketts.
Ricketts tells the story of how a penniless Russian immigrant named Alex Gard came into the restaurant offering his services to Sardi Sr. A contract was drawn up—Gard would draw a caricature whenever needed, in exchange for two meals a day.
Early drawings by Gard were true caricatures in the sense that a feature would be singled out and aggrandized: bulging eyes, bulbous or stretched out noses, jowls, furry eyebrows, everything was fair game, for men as well as women.
They were best appreciated with actors with a sense of humor, or at least actors whose sense of humor trumped their vanity.
“Thanks Gard! It looks better to you than it does to me,” wrote actor Raymond Massey, known for his role as Dr. Gillespie in the “Dr. Kildare” series.
“Blame my parents,” wrote Russian actress and ballet dancer Tamara Geva, who was the first wife of George Balanchine. Although in reality quite beautiful, Gard gave his fellow countrywoman a long, exaggerated nose.
Actor Maureen Stapleton loathed hers so much she purloined it. “I don’t think she was really vocal about it when the unveiling happened, but sometime after she came and stole the caricature,” said Ricketts. Stapleton stayed away for about a year. “My grandfather sent her a note, ‘All is forgiven, come back.’”
If Gard’s pencil did not spare the feelings of the thin-skinned, his successor Don Bevan took a lighter, more playful quality.
Bevan drew the portrait of Laurence Olivier who inscribed it, “This is the happiest moment of my life.”
The current caricaturist, Richard Baratz, has been doing caricatures for Sardi’s for the last 30 years. He also works as an engraver for the U.S. Treasury. His engraving background shows; his caricatures are texturally rich, many with a crosshatch pattern that one would recognize from bank notes.
At some point, Hollywood came knocking to Broadway for talent. This was when silent movies gave way to “talkies,” requiring actors with voice experience. It lured many actors to the
West Coast, and Sardi’s started featuring film actors as well.
In more recent history, the caricatures have become more like portraits, maybe with some exaggeration of a feature, but only ever so slightly. Where Alex Gard might have done a quick sketch at the restaurant, publicists now send in photos that they would like the caricaturist to work from.
“The way the media works these days, if you’re a person on Broadway—a lot of times these days it’s like people like Tom Hanks, people of that nature—to depict them in a clownish way doesn’t go over all that well, so we’ve modified them so they’re more portrait-style,” said Ricketts.
A Home for Actors
Sardi Sr. was incredibly nurturing of actors—so much so that at the first Tony Awards ceremony in 1947 (fittingly, the Tonys were first conceived of at Sardi’s), he received a giant
gold money clip, acknowledging him for “providing a transient home and comfort for theater folks at Sardi’s for twenty years.” His son Vincent Sardi Jr. was honored at a Tony dinner in 1983.
Sardi Sr. was legendary for looking after people in the industry. There was the regular menu, and the lower-priced actors’ menu. According to “A Night at Sardi’s,” he even helped actors who were incapable of saving money. They would simply hand over half their paycheck to Sardi Sr. and he would open a savings account for them in what was known as the “Sardi Bank and Trust Company.”
“My great-great-grandfather, when he passed away, under his desk was a wooden box,” said Ricketts. “It was all these IOUs, all these actors over the years, ‘oh you’re down on your luck, listen, have lunch, it’s on me, when you get on your feet and you’re a big star you can reimburse me.’ A lot of people did, a lot of people went on and did well. Others weren’t so fortunate.”
Besides helping financially, if one were to go by New York Herald Tribune writer Lucius Beebe, Sardis played an immense role in the dramatic prowess of the actors: “Vincent Sardi is probably responsible for any number of great stage performances,” he wrote. “The genius of actors is notoriously integrated to their digestion. A properly aerated cheese soufflé or a turtle soup with just the right amount of amontillado may make the difference between a stumblebum Dane and a Hamlet of John Gielgudian proportions.”
Dining at Sardi’s
Though Sardi Sr. and his wife Eugenia were Italian immigrants, and the menu has Italian touches here and there, it was never an Italian restaurant. Rather, Sardi Sr. fashioned a
Most of the time, you might be looking at the walls and neighboring tables trying to spot someone rather than at your plate, but when you do, you’ll see generous portions.
Inflections are as much Indian as East Coast seaboard with a touch of Asian.
The jumbo crab cakes are quite popular for good reason, served with a smoked tomato piquillo sauce and a salad inspired by Asian flavors. ($29 lunch and $33 dinner).
Chicken strips served in a Madras curry sauce are particularly well complemented with the addition of piquant pappadam chips and sweet chutney, made of mango, pineapple, date, and currant ($24 and $28.75).
With a nod to Italian, the menu features Sardi’s classic cannelloni au gratin in a sherry-flavored tomato cream meat sauce and spinach cannelloni ($21 and $25.75).
Desserts are made in-house, and not to be skipped if possible. Sardi’s frozen cake, after a long hiatus, is back on the menu. The cake, with vanilla ice cream, raspberry sorbet, coconut shaving, with zabaglione and chocolate sauce, is a delight. ($9.75)
234 W. 44th St.
Open Tuesday–Sunday for lunch and dinner.
Late supper served Tuesday–Saturday.
Tuesday–Saturday: 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.
Sunday: noon–7 p.m.