"Sardi's is synonymous with Broadway," says Max Klimavicius. And he should know. That's because Klimavicius is Sardi's managing partner, and he has been working at the restaurant on West 44th Street, in the heart of the theatre district, for 33 years.
Few stage aficionados would disagree. Sardi's has been a Broadway signpost since it first came on the scene in 1921. It has been host to countless opening night parties, the fans in the street shouting and applauding as the elegantly-garbed celebrities arrive to await the reviews — quietly and swiftly departing if the critics' thumbs point down or celebrating late into the night if the show in question has been declared a palpable hit.
Then there are the 700 or so colorful caricatures on the walls, drawings of so many of the stars who have themselves peopled the first-floor dining room for the better part of a century. And of course, there are the stars themselves, the legendary evenings of days gone by when the tables were filled by the likes of Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and Alec Guinness — and just about every Tony winner or Tony nominee who ever trod the boards.
It is the love for theatre that has made Sardi's what it is, Klimavicius says — a passion and respect brought to the restaurant by its founders, Vincent and Eugenia Sardi, and continued for many decades by their son, Vincent Sardi Jr., who died in January at age 91. And it is that love that Klimavicius plans to continue.
"One thing we will never change is the restaurant's historic feel, its ambiance," he says. One indication of that continuity, he says, is the 40 to 50 new caricatures he commissions every year. The most recent? "Bob Martin of Drowsy Chaperone. Donny Osmond of Beauty and the Beast. Richard Griffiths of History Boys. John Lloyd Young of Jersey Boys. And Tony Danza from The Producers."
Klimavicius grew up in Colombia — he is part Lithuanian and part Colombian — and came to the United States when he was 19. His first job in this country was as a dishwasher — a job, he says, he took out of necessity — in a restaurant called the Press Box on East 45th Street (it's no longer there). "I needed a job where I could work nights and go to school during the day," he recalls. "The restaurant business afforded me that opportunity. Plus, they gave a uniform. In addition, I really didn't know much English. And for working in the kitchen, knowing English wasn't necessary."
He earned a degree in business administration at Queens College, and while he was in school he began rising up the restaurant ladder. He moved from the Press Box to Sardi's in 1974, beginning as an expediter. "It's the person who coordinates when the orders come into the kitchen," he says. "He takes the orders from the waiters and disseminates them to the different cooking stations. When it's time to pick up the orders, he calls them out. It's like being a traffic controller."
From there, he went into the dining room as a table captain, and then a maître d', an assistant manager and a manager. When Vincent Sardi Jr., who had sold the restaurant in 1985, resumed ownership in 1991, he did so with Max as his partner.
These days, Max says, 60 to 70 actors show up weekly to dine between matinee and evening performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays. "Just about everybody comes in at one point or another," he says. Max sees "pretty much every show there is on Broadway. It's my business to see as many performers as I can, and to know who they are." He loves the straight plays, he says, but his favorites are the musicals. "I enjoy straight plays, but with musicals it's all entertainment. And after all, we all want to go to the theatre to get away from our daily routine."
The Sardi moment Max perhaps treasures the most happened one night in the late 1970's, when Laurence Olivier walked through the restaurant's door. This legendary theatrical giant, Max recalls, "was the most down-to-earth person I've ever met. He put me totally at ease."
What Max hopes for in the future, he says, "is for Sardi's to become again the theatrical hub that it was in the 1960's. This is my challenge. The restaurant, and the theatre, are my life. I am carrying the torch that Vincent left for me, and my purpose is to make sure that the torch remains lit. Right now we have Vincent's grandson, Sean Ricketts, up and coming in the ranks as a manager. And he will be my continuity."
Over the years Sardi's has had some hard times, Max admits, but it has been around now for 86 years. And, Max vows, it will remain a survivor. "There's just something about this place," he says. "It's hard to explain. There's a kind of magic. Always has been and always will be."