A friend was good enough to treat me to dinner at Frankie & Johnnie's Steakhouse on 45th Street the other night, giving me a chance to enjoy the former speakeasy and Theatre District staple before the Death March of Progress yanks it down.
I was surprised to find the place thronged, packed to the gills with noisy, happy diners. According to my friend, it's always that busy. We sat in a corner banquette with a full view of the actions, under a photograph of Robert Preston dining with Sandy Dennis (!) at the eatery back in the 1960s. Tables and chairs are packed tightly together in the small room and the seasoned waiters swan in and around the narrow spaces between with ease. We were mothered over by a veteran waiter whose mindful, decorous manner made us feel quite cared for. We both ordered the Filet Mignon with Mushroom Cap, along with sides of garlic mashed potatoes and spinach. I'm not much of a steak fan, so I was surprised how happy the entree made me. It was a beautiful piece of meat from start to finish, tender and flavorful. The mashes potatoes were a dream. We downed it with a superb half-bottle of 2004 Grgich Cabernet Sauvignon.
It's quite a cozy room and it's sad to think it will be gone by January (according to our waiter). It still has a secret, sequestered air to it, and the vista looking through the blinds down on the busy Broadway side street of W. 45th Street is a bird's-eye close-up you can't enjoy anywhere else. The spot shows its age, with the stairs up to the restaurant, and another flight up to the bathrooms, visibly slanting and sloping at curious angles.
The trip up to the bathroom is worth a visit. I wondered if this stairwell once served as an escape route to a secret room or passage when 1920s guests were surprised by unwelcome visits from the police. There is also an old Daily News clipping hung next to the men's room that is worth a perusal. It concerns an 1963 encounter between Jason Robards and Richard M. Nixon in the F&J bar. A drunk Robards was singing old Irish tunes when he spied Nixon at the bar with some government men and let go with "Trick Dick! What the hell are you doing here?" He continued: "You were a lousy football coach. You were a lousy Vice-President, and you'll never be President." Nixon tried to laugh off the encounter by offering to pay for a round for the room. He put $20 on the bar, but kept his arm around the bill. Sure enough, when he left, he surreptitiously repocketed the $20, therefore stiffing Frankie & Johnnie's.
Bet Robards thought of that night often when filming "All the President's Men."