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Martinis served at Sardi's (Photo: Courtesy of Sardi's)

Secrets of Sardi’s

10 surprising facts about the historic Theater District restaurant – from its humble immigrant beginnings to the ghost that haunts it at night

Since its opening in 1927, Sardi’s restaurant has served as the unofficial Broadway Hall of Fame, with 1,200 portraits of the restaurant’s famous “friends of the house” currently hanging on its walls. People like Bernard Schwartz, a shoeshine boy who set up his stand outside the front door, and Betty Perske, who sold newspapers just feet away, dreamed of the day they would be famous enough to cross the threshold. Years later, as Tony Curtis and Lauren Bacall, they would join the thousands of other actors, directors and producers who have used Sardi’s as their private dining room. Today, the tradition continues. You never know who you might spot sitting at the next table or on its famous walls. If those portraits could speak, here are some of the legendary tales they would tell.

 

Sardis 1930s

Visitors to the famous Sardi’s Cafe circa 1938: the comedienne Gracie Allen (wife to George Burns), actor Jack Haley, unknown friend, radio comedian Fred Allen and radio comedienne Mary Livingston. (Photo: Fink/General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

A theatrical tale of immigrants making their way in America
Sardi’s restaurant was founded by Northern Italian immigrants Vincent Sardi and Eugenia Pallera. The couple met just after each had landed at Ellis Island and, fittingly enough, their first encounter was in the Theater District, just a block away from the restaurant they would one day establish. Both Vincent and Eugenia worked at the Bartholdi Inn, an upscale boarding house for actors, where Eugenia was the housekeeper and Vincent was a waiter. The Sardis’ first restaurant, The Little Place, opened at 146 W. 44th St. in 1921, just down the block from the current Sardi’s location at 234 W. 44th St., which they opened six years later.

Vincent Sardi’s soft spot for actors hit his pocketbook
Vincent Sardi Sr. had a soft spot for theater people; his favorite brother Domenico back in Italy had been an actor. He quite literally made it his business to support struggling actors by serving two menus: the lower-priced “actor’s menu” and the regularly priced menu for non-actor patrons. Despite the break in prices, Sardi Sr. often fed actors on credit.  When Vincent Sardi Jr. took over the restaurant upon his father’s retirement in 1947, he discovered a drawer of 500 or 600 IOUs from actors dating back to the restaurant’s opening.

The Sardi family never messed with the mob
Despite their heritage, the Sardi family never wanted the restaurant to be labeled as Italian, as Italian restaurants in those days were often assumed to be associated with the mob. And in fact the cuisine veered a bit from traditional Italian — the Sardi family has been credited with creating the term “Continental” cuisine, as they took classic dishes from their homeland and served them with a twist. Their famous cannelloni, for example, is made with French crepes instead of pasta. Keeping the mob at arm’s length was such a priority that Sardi’s is one of the few restaurants opened during the Prohibition era without a speakeasy past. They did not serve alcohol until the 21st amendment had passed, which they celebrated by opening The Little Bar at the front of the restaurant in 1933.

 

Barry Manilow, Tom Hanks, Ed Asner at Sardi's

Interior of Sardi’s with caricatures of Barry Manilow, Tom Hanks, and Ed Asner (Photo: Courtesy of Sardi’s)

So many portraits, so few artists
In its nine decades, Sardi’s has employed only four artists for its famous caricatures (1,200 in all). The first was a Russian immigrant by the name of Alex Gard, a failed actor and parade float designer who drew portraits in exchange for two meals a day. Gard was hired in 1927 and according to their agreement, Sardi Sr. was not allowed to complain about Gard’s caricatures; in turn, Gard was not allowed to complain about the food.

The following artist, John Mackey, enjoyed a very short tenure as he drank the bar dry on more than one occasion. Don Bevan, a playwright who would become known for such works as Stalag 17, then inherited the job for more than 20 years. The current artist, Richard Baratz, is an engraver by trade and has worked for the U.S. Treasury Department. Baratz has been making the Sardi’s portraits since 1974 and holds the longest tenure as the Sardi’s portrait artist.

Some portraits are so valuable Sardi’s can’t even borrow them back
Sardi’s donated Gard’s first 300 portraits to the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. When Vincent Sardi Jr. asked to borrow the portraits to photograph them for the book Off the Wall at Sardi’s, the NYPL refused, telling Sardi Jr. “if you want to photograph them you can do it here, but we will not allow you to take these portraits out.”

 

Tom Hanks Sardi's

Tom Hanks attends Tom Hanks’ caricature unveiling at Sardi’s on May 23, 2013 in New York City. (Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

The portraits aren’t all of Broadway greats
In order to have a portrait at Sardi’s, subjects must be “friends of the house,” who frequent the restaurant. And each portrait must also be signed. Though most portraits in Sardi’s are of people connected with Broadway and the arts, there are portraits outside of the usual circle, including jockey Steve Cauthen, boxer Jack Dempsey and every NYC mayor from Jimmy Walker through Michael Bloomberg.

The first Sardi’s caricature was of Ted Healey, a bandleader and comedian who made his name by putting the Three Stooges together. As a publicity stunt, Healey once brought an orangutan into the restaurant for lunch.

The most recent additions to the walls include Tom Hanks, currently starring on the Great White Way in Lucky Guy, and Cyndi Lauper, who won a Tony for Best Original Score for Kinky Boots.

Not everyone likes their portraits
For years the Sardi’s portraits were rendered in true caricature style, with exaggerated features that were sometimes not flattering. As a result, a few of the subjects hated their portraits. The actress Maureen Stapleton, for example, hated her portrait so much she stole it from the wall, took it home and burned it. Milton Berle was so shocked when he saw the size of his nose in his portrait that he ran out and got a nose job shortly thereafter. He demanded a new portrait after the surgery. Sardi’s refused to re-do it. Current artist Richard Baratz “auditioned” for the job by doing a portrait of Bette Midler, who hated it so much she declined to sign it.

The portraits’ portability causes problems
The restaurant’s lease with their landlord, the Shubert Organization, stipulates that the organization owns any permanent fixtures in the restaurant. Vincent Sardi Sr., in turn, made sure to never permanently affix the portraits to the wall so that he could take them with him if he had to move. As a result, the portraits are easily “lifted.” Actress Anna Maria Alberghetti, who starred in Carnival, hated producer David Merrick so much that she stole his portrait and hung it in her bathroom, right over the toilet. In the film The Muppets Take Manhattan, Kermit the Frog tried to steal Liza Minnelli’s caricature and replace it with his own. Liza had Kermit thrown out of the restaurant by Vincent Sardi Jr. who played himself in the film. (Both Kermit’s and Liza’s portraits currently hang in the dining room.)

 

Sardi's Theater District

Sardi’s, Theater District (Photo: Afagen/Flickr CC)

The restaurant’s best known baby is the Tony Awards
When theater luminary Antoinette Perry passed away in 1946, a group of her friends gathered at Sardi’s to devise a way to immortalize her. At that dinner, the idea for the Antoinette Perry Awards — the Tonys — was born. The following year, at the first annual Tony Awards, Vincent Sardi Sr. received an honor: a gold money clip with the inscription, “To Vincent Sardi, for providing a transient home and comfort for theater folks at Sardi’s for twenty years.”

There are ghosts in the wings
Pieces of the old Belasco Theater — beams, chandeliers, doors and bookcases — moved to Sardi’s when the theater was torn down. Legend has it that David Belasco, the “Bishop of Broadway,” who produced and directed more than 100 Broadway plays between 1884 and 1930, haunts Sardi’s with eerie late-night noises as he searches for the remnants.

Despite attempts, there’s only one Sardi’s
Vincent Sardi Jr. tried a few times, and failed, to expand the Sardi’s brand. In 1958, he opened Sardi’s East on East 54th Street. When he had trouble luring patrons from the Theater District over, he purchased a double-decker bus to run diners over from Broadway shows. Still, the restaurant was an ultimate failure, closing in 1968. Then in the 1970s, Sardi Jr. attempted to open a dinner theater in Long Island, which had a run as short as a critically panned musical. Current owner Max Klimavicius who started at the restaurant nearly 40 years ago as a dishwasher says, “The fact is, Sardi’s is a unique place that would not work anywhere else. So the Sardi’s you know is likely to remain the only Sardi’s.”

Uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places with our Secrets of New York

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