2017-06-07 / Features

Vincent Sardi, A Host For The Ages


The interview is finished. The door to his office closes. The man interviewed walks ahead and presses the button for the elevator. One only wishes one had the time and space to explore more of his memories. On the way down the octogenarian talks about still being an officer in the Marine Reserve and how a general recently called him to tell him he had been promoted. He asked the general if that meant he got a raise. The general laughed. In fact, he still serves the Marines on special occasions as a “dollar a year” man. He also recounted some of his adventures of World War II in the Pacific and told a funny war story, all before the elevator stopped.

As the host and his guest approached a flight of stairs heading for the ground floor dining room in the building’s multi-floored restaurant the two locked arms on the host’s part more a gesture of friendship than for assistance, and the 80-plus-yearold marched sprightly down the stairs. The main room was crowded. Why shouldn’t it be? It was Sardi’s, the world famous restaurant in new York’s Theater District, and it was a Friday night. The host, of course, was Vincent Sardi.

Vincent Sardi, Jr., with some of the celebrity caricatures that line the walls of the famous restaurant that bears his name. Vincent Sardi, Jr., with some of the celebrity caricatures that line the walls of the famous restaurant that bears his name. Famous diners, like Werner Klemperer (Col. Klink of “Hogan’s Heroes”) warmly hugged him, while others stopped eating to wave and say hello. All understandable because many are long-time friends. Sardi has been their host for a great many years.

Anyone who ever attended a Broadway show, has eaten at Sardi’s Restaurant. It’s printed right on the bottom of every show ticket. Only kidding of course, but it should be. Eating at Sardi’s is a must. It’s almost part of the show itself. In its dining rooms a customer can rub elbows with some of the world’s most famous people. “The customers are the ambiance” the host suggested, only partly in jest.

Sardi’s located next to the Helen Hayes Theater on west 44th Street in Times Square, has been an eating place for the famous for decades. Its caricatures lining the walls bear the likeness of the hundreds of celebrities who have dined there and were created by a group of famous artists. The easily recognizable walls are one of the reasons Sardi’s has often been shown in movies and television shows when famous New York restaurant background scenes are used.

The restaurant and the man are one. Who is the man who is Sardi’s? He was born in the Bronx in 1915. His parents were immigrants from Piedmont, Italy. Vincent Sardi senior left Italy when he was 12 and went to live with a relative in England. He attended school there and worked in the dining room of a famous hotel while learning the business. At age 20 he emigrated to America. It was here the elder Sardi met his future spouse while working in a Manhattan hotel dining room. They married and set up housekeeping in the Bronx.

The family became nomads, moving from one borough to another, finally settling in Manhattan. Vincent Junior attended Holy Cross Academy, a prep school, and graduated from Columbia University. He is a member of Columbia’s Sigma Chi fraternity.

While the Sardi parents had already started what would ultimately become the world famous Sardi’s, unfortunately the customers didn’t know it and times were tough. Besides running the restaurant the family also took in boarders. During this time Vincent Junior was apprenticing to be a chef at the Ritz Carlton. He hated commuting from Queens to his job in Manhattan so he got a job in Queens driving a horse-drawn milk truck. It was here he fell in love with horses. His interest in horses was eventually a factor in bringing him and his wife, June, together years later. She is an accomplished equestrian and artist. They still ride together.

In 1941 fate stepped in and his interest in being a chef and in horses were both put on hold as WW II broke out and young Sardi enlisted in the Marines. He returned home after four years, and in 1946 bought his dad’s restaurant and completely revamped it. By 1956 a very successful but weary Sardi sold his business. Within five years the new owners ran the business into the ground. Sardi, with his friend and now partner Max Klimavicius, reacquired the restaurant in 1990. Through their efforts it was reborn. Sardi’s is today one of the most prestigious restaurants in the world.

The only one of Sardi’s family involved in the business is grandson Sean, who serves as a maitre d’. Other family members are sons Paul and David, daughters Jennifer and Tabetha, foster daughter Etsko Tazaki of Japan and eight grandchildren.

Sardi in his 80s has a quick wit, spry appearance and keen business mind. He has been host to and involved in the lives of many of the world’s most famous personalities. He said he found Eleanor Roosevelt one of the most interesting.

A man of diversified interests Sardi has led a unique life. He drove sports cars at Lime Rock, Connecticut with actor Paul Newman, dined with Helen Keller, took on the Mob in Washington to defend his industry, played polo with champions and was part of an ocean-going sailboat crew. He helped to reactivate the New York Police Department’s Auxiliary Mounted Police which still patrol New York’s Theater District and rode with the revitalized unit.

Appropriately, he has joined the ranks of his famous patrons and friends. The restaurant and the man are intertwined and both are known worldwide. He was fortunate enough to have been part of that magical time when show business was show business and celebrities were celebrities. All his tales of those times and their people are equally magical.

Bestriding yesterday and today, Vincent Sardi is still, truly, a host for the ages.

This interview was part of an ongoing feature of Gazettes past. Jim Mahoney was Editor of the Gazette when it was written. We lost him last year. We reprint it in his honor.

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