Vincent Sardi Jr., Owner of Legendary New York Theatre Restaurant, Is Dead at 91

By Robert Simonson
January 4, 2007

Vincent Sardi Jr., whose very surname is as potent a piece of theatre vocabulary as there is — given that it adorns the most famous Broadway restaurant in history — died Jan. 4, The New York Times reported. He was 91.

Mr. Sardi died at a hospital in Berlin, Vermont. The cause was complications of a urinary-tract infection. He had retired from running his eponymous eatery in 1997 and lived in Warren, VT.

In its heyday, Sardi's was the watering hole for all of Broadway. Stars grandly entered the dining room after opening-night performances to be greeted by an ovation. (The first such was granted to Shirley Booth after she opened in Come Back, Little Sheba.) Producers wheeled and dealed in corners. Broadway columnists held court. Newspapers with reviews of that night's show were delivered to the door at midnight. For many years, the Tony Award nominations were announced there. And tourists and theatregoers rubbernecked at the stray remaining tables to see what famous faces were to be seen.

Its interior is well known to any theatre professional or theatre lover. The walls are lined with countless framed caricatures of Broadway greats past and present. (The overflow hang on the walls of the second and third floors). Red banquets frame the dining room, surrounding round tables trimmed with bentwood chairs.

Although there are now other theatre meccas — including Joe Allen's, Orso and Angus McIndoe's — the Sardi's name still looms larger than any other theatre-district restaurant in the country's theatrical imagination, and it remains a popular destination with tourists from all countries.

Vincent Sardi, Jr., was born July 23, 1915, in Manhattan. In 1921 his father took over the restaurant in the basement of a brownstone at 246 W. 44th Street, the Times reported. He named it the Little Restaurant. The theatre people who patronized it called it Sardi's. The building was knocked down in 1927 and replaced by the St. James Theatre. After that, the family moved the business to 234 W. 44th Street, and there it remained. Mr. Sardi joined the business as dining-room caption in 1939. When his father retired in 1947, he took over the restaurant.

Columnists such as Walter Winchell and Ward Morehouse made the address famous by mentioning it in their columns. Columnist Leonard Lyons actually made it his second home, stationing himself at the same table night after night. His photograph still hangs in the restaurant bar.

Mr. Sardi was always charitable in his treatment of actors. He often ran them lines of credit, and actors working in Broadway shows know to ask for a special menu on which the prices of entrees are reduced.

The restaurant has been featured in numerous films, including "But Not For Me," "Please Don't Eat the Daisies," "No Way to Treat a Lady," "The Fan" and "The Kind of Comedy." And, for many years, Playbill magazine has hosted their Spelvin luncheons there, in which they honor cast members of a current Broadway show.

Not all of Mr. Sardi's ventures over the years succeeded. A branch eatery called Sardi's East on E. 54th Street never caught on and closed in 1968 after a decade. And a television show called "Dinner at Sardi's," in which dining stars were interviewed, was not popular.

In September 1985, after a spell of poor business, Mr. Sardi sold the restaurant to two producers from Detroit, Ivan Bloch and Harvey Klaris, and the restaurateur Stuart Lichtenstein. Mr. Sardi planned to retire. But when the owners declared bankrupcy and closed the place in 1990, he bought the place back and reopened in 1991 after a renovation and with an improved menu. Over time his partner, Max Klimavicius, assumed most operations.

The famous caricatures were the idea of Sardi Sr. He remembered the movie-star caricatures that decorated the walls of Joe Zelli’s, a Parisian restaurant and jazz club. He hired a Russian refugee named Alex Gard, who was brought in by press agent Irving Hoffman, to render the drawings. His pay: one free meal a day. In 1947, Vincent Sardi, Jr., attempted to grant Gard more favorable terms, but the artist refused; Gard continued to be paid in free food until the day he died in 1948.