NEW YORK — It felt sort of like old times, the other night at Sardi’s.
Joe Petrsoric, back in his familiar red jacket, was lining up martini glasses at the second floor bar where he has worked since arriving from Yugoslavia in 1972. Manning the front door, his traditional dark suit now accessorized with a face mask, was Max Klimavicius, who started working in the kitchen in 1974 after immigrating from Colombia; he now runs the place.
It had been 648 days since Sardi’s, a watering hole so closely entwined with Broadway that it was name-checked in the Rodgers and Hart song “The Lady Is a Tramp,” last served its cannelloni au gratin. And now, on the long night of the winter solstice, the oft-imperiled Main Stem mainstay with caricature-covered walls was ready to try again.
The timing is nerve-wracking. The omicron variant is rampaging through New York City, wreaking havoc in the theater industry.
There were 33 Broadway shows scheduled to perform Dec. 21, which Klimavicius chose for a soft reopening with limited hours, a limited menu and reduced capacity. But so many actors and crew members are now testing positive for the coronavirus that only 18 shows actually took the stage that night, and one of those made it to curtain only because the playwright grabbed a script and went on to replace an ailing performer.
“The place has to live,” said Klimavicius, who greeted customers like the long-lost friends many of them were, but also helped make sure they had proof of vaccination. “It’s part of the fabric.”
The restaurant is a combination of Broadway commissary and tourist magnet. As it reopened, producer Arthur Whitelaw, who still remembers a childhood visit to Sardi’s more than seven decades ago (his parents were taking him to a new musical called “Oklahoma!”), settled into a cozy corner from which he could survey the room. A few tables away sat four friends from The Villages, the fast-growing retirement community in Florida, who were in town to see “To Kill a Mockingbird” on their annual Broadway trip.
Broadway is a small town but a big business; in 2018-19, the last full season before the pandemic, 14.8 million people saw a show, spending $1.8 billion on tickets. Many of those patrons also spent money at hotels, shops and restaurants, like Sardi’s — a symbiotic, and symbolic, economic relationship that is essential to Times Square and the city at large.
“Sardi’s is a symbol of Broadway and the Broadway scene, and it’s been closed for far too long,” said Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance, which represents a theater-dependent neighborhood that occupies 0.1% of the city’s land mass but contributes 15% of its economic output. With New York’s business districts threatened by remote work, and its brick-and-mortar stores by e-commerce, in-person experiences like live theater and dining are more important than ever.
Times Square is still in recovery mode. “Office workers are coming back slower than anyone would have expected or wanted — occupancies are about 30% — and about 77% of businesses are open,” Harris said. “We still have a ways to go.”
Sardi’s, which has been operating on West 44th Street since 1927, employed nearly 130 people during peak seasons before the pandemic arrived; it’s restarting with 58.
The restaurant has weathered its share of challenges — booms, busts and bankruptcy. It has been popular and passe, but it has always been there, known more for its caricatures than its cuisine, drawing a mix of industry insiders and theater-loving visitors to eat, drink, kibitz and commiserate.
It was established by Vincent Sardi Sr., who in 1947, at the very first Tony Awards, won a special prize “for providing a transient home and comfort station for theater folk.” Klimavicius is now the majority owner.
Habitués understand the risks now faced not only by Sardi’s but also by the industry, the neighborhood and the city.
“We haven’t proven that the pandemic is over and that everything is not going to fail,” said Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, who likes to transact business at the upstairs bar while shows are running and the room is quiet. “But then, I grew up in California where the ground shook all the time and you never knew if your whole house was going to collapse on you, so I see it differently.”
Sardi’s began the pandemic, appropriately, with a moment of high drama: On March 12, 2020, just moments after agreeing to shut down all 41 theaters, a group of Broadway bigwigs gathered at the bar to drown their sorrows. They ate. They drank. They hugged. Then many of them got the coronavirus.
Among the industry gatekeepers who fell ill — with, to be sure, no way of knowing how — was Robert E. Wankel, chair and CEO of the Shubert Organization, which has 17 Broadway theaters and which is the restaurant’s landlord. On Tuesday, Wankel was there again, happily holding court over a vodka tonic and relentlessly bullish on Sardi’s, where he has been coming for 50 years and lunches three times a week.
“Sardi’s is going to do very well,” he said, “now that the theater is back.”
Sardi’s has been a part of Broadway longer than some theaters and has become part of the industry’s lore. As a line in “The Lady Is a Tramp” has it, “The food at Sardi’s is perfect, no doubt / I wouldn’t know what the Ritz is about.” Alice Childress mentions it in her play, “Trouble in Mind,” now being staged on Broadway, while in the musical “The Producers,” Mel Brooks has a would-be showman dream of “lunch at Sardi’s every day.”
Over the years, the restaurant has hosted luminaries from Eleanor Roosevelt to Ethel Merman and scads of Tony winners, Oscar winners and even, once a year, the dog that wins the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. “I went there with Elizabeth Taylor, for God’s sake,” said Charlotte Moore, artistic director of Irish Repertory Theater.
Among its current boldfaced regulars: designer Michael Kors, who created a Sardi’s-themed cashmere sweater for Bergdorf Goodman (selling for $990).
“When I walk into Sardi’s, I feel like I’m living in ‘All About Eve,’” he said. “I know Times Square needs to come back, and I know Sardi’s needs to come back.”
Sardi’s is among the last Broadway institutions to resume operations.
Since June, 39 Broadway shows have begun performances; the TKTS booth is once again selling discounted tickets; and other industry watering holes, like Joe Allen and Bar Centrale, have long since reopened.
But for months, Sardi’s remained shuttered, with an eerie menu in the window still listing the specials for March 13, 2020: a tasting of five cheeses, meatballs over bucatini, sautéed sea scallops.
Early in the pandemic, Klimavicius, like many, had his doubts; theater was dark, midtown was dead, and everything seemed uncertain. But this June, buoyed by $4.5 million from the federal government’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund, he began overhauling the space — redoing the kitchen, the gas lines, the ventilation and the wiring, among other things — hoping to modernize it in a way that no one would notice. People who love Sardi’s are, to put it mildly, change-averse.
“I was concerned when I heard ‘renovation,’” said Andrea Ezagui, a Sardi’s regular from Long Island, who showed up at 4 p.m. — the moment it reopened — and immediately repaired to the bar upstairs, where she celebrated with Champagne and friends. “They kept it the way it should be,” she said, “a little piece of heaven on Broadway.”
The restaurant’s famous caricatures came off their picture ledges for the restoration — all but one, that is. Barbra Streisand has the only caricature screwed to the wall, because fans stole the original; so now she remains, irremovable, with her admonition “Don’t steal this one” inscribed above her signature.
On a recent afternoon, Klimavicius and his crew set about putting the hundreds of caricatures back up, starting with one of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a good friend of the house.”
As he settled into his domain on the second floor, Petrsoric, the bartender, was clearly relieved to be back on the job, after spending too many months in Mamaroneck, New York, riding a stationary bike and, by his own account, going crazy. “What am I going to do at home?” he said. “I love people. And think about 50 years behind the bar. You know how many people I know?”
He started by mixing a Belvedere martini, a cosmopolitan and a lemon drop. “This is unbelievable,” he marveled. “But you know, it takes me one hour, and you’re back to normal.”