Fade in: A long shot of a bustling New York City deli. The camera pans across tables of people chomping away, coming to rest on a man and woman facing each other. In between bites of sandwiches and slaw, they begin to argue about sex, until—to prove her point about females “faking it”—the woman simulates stages of increasingly intense passion. The man blushes. Other diners gape. And as our heroine’s gasps subside, another female patron informs the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
This is, of course, the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally (1989). And it made famous the restaurant in which it was set and shot: Katz’s Delicatessen (205 E. Houston St., at Ludlow St., 212.254.2246), an actual (since 1888) Lower East Side purveyor of pastrami and other Jewish culinary classics. But Katz’s is only one of many New York restaurants that have been featured in films, embellishing the dining experience with a touch of movie glamour.
Using an actual, often recognizable New York venue adds authenticity to a movie trying to depict a particular Manhattan milieu. Just about any film dealing with the theater almost inevitably has a scene set in Sardi’s (234 W. 44th St., btw Seventh & Eighth aves., 212.221.8440), the Times Square hangout for generations of showbiz professionals; having a regular “table at Sardi’s” is a mark of having made it, as David Frost (Michael Sheen) points out in Frost/Nixon (2008). Opened in 1927, the two-story eatery won theater folk’s loyalty by being one of the first to serve food into the wee hours. In The Country Girl (1954), it’s where play director William Holden takes his insecure star (Bing Crosby) and star’s hostile wife (Grace Kelly) to dinner after a late-running rehearsal; over outsize menus, Kelly and Holden square off as the restaurant’s famed celebrity caricature portraits smirk down from the walls.
Those caricatures, Sardi’s most recognizable feature, are another symbol of show-business success. In The King of Comedy (1982), a wannabe comic (Robert De Niro) imagines dining with his talk-show idol (Jerry Lewis) at Sardi’s. And when Kermit the Frog needs to generate some buzz about his new Broadway show in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), where does he go? Sardi’s, of course.
If Sardi’s instantly connotes the entertainment industry, ‘21’ (21 W. 52nd St., btw Fifth & Sixth aves., 212.582.7200) embodies a more general world of movers and shakers, and nothing suggests “you’re playing with the power brokers now” like a scene set in this historic speakeasy-turned-restaurant—such as the one early in the classic film noir Sweet Smell of Success (1957). A desperate press agent (Tony Curtis) approaches the table of columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and, as waiters bustle about bringing food and phones to patrons, Lancaster simultaneously patronizes Curtis, greets celebrities, scribbles notes, interviews—and oh-so-subtly threatens—a U.S. Senator.
A similar scene occurs in Wall Street (1987), establishing the power, seductiveness and silky menace of corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Though it’s exactly 30 years after Success, and the movie is now in color, ‘21‘ looks almost the same, as a loving, opening shot of the restaurant’s Bar Room makes clear—even down to the iron bells alongside the booth where Gekko holds court and barks orders to the young stockbroker, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), he’s invited to lunch. Like the naive Fox, the film audience is impressed with the rapid-talking Renaissance man Gekko seems to be, an expert in just about everything, from what to order (“Have the steak tartare; it’s not on the menu, but Louis will make it for you”) to how to dress. Just one quick moment—a joke Gekko makes about insider trading and the way he appraises Fox’s reaction to it—foreshadows the corrupt world he represents and will lead the young man into. (But he’s wrong about the steak tartare—nowadays, it is on the ‘21’ menu.)
‘21’ isn’t the only place where captains of industry dine. The term “power lunch” was reputedly coined in reference to The Four Seasons (99 E. 52nd St., btw Lexington & Park aves., 212.754.9494), so where else would high-flying hedge fund manager Robert Miller (Richard Gere) choose to seal the deal to sell his company in Arbitrage (2012)? The scene opens with the maître d’ (a cameo by restaurant co-owner Julian Niccolini), leading Miller to the table, a prime spot in the Philip Johnson/Mies van der Rohe-designed Pool Room, dominated by its seasonally changing trees and bubbling white pool, where his party of buyers and colleagues awaits.
Although the use of some restaurants benefits the movies they appear in, other movies benefit the restaurants—turning a known-only-to-locals venue into an international destination. That certainly happened to the aforementioned Katz’s Delicatessen, which has hung a sign above the actual table used in the scene, reading “Where Harry Met Sally … Hope You Have What She Had!”
While its Asian fusion fare was already popular with NYC foodies, Buddakan (75 Ninth Ave., btw W. 15th & W. 16th sts., 212.989.6699) got a boost as a backdrop in the first Sex and the City film (2008)—the venue for the rehearsal dinner for Carrie and Mr. Big. As the camera lingers over designer Christian Liaigre’s opulent interior—the very model of a modern mandarin’s palace—it captures the happy couple at the top of the restaurant’s dramatic staircase, then offers an overhead view of the banquet table in the central hall, which the entire party has taken over. Beneath the glitter, though, trouble is brewing: An obnoxious male guest, who keeps referring to Big’s past amours, and Carrie’s unhappy buddy Miranda, who blurts out some bitter comments, combine to give the groom a major case of the pre-wedding jitters—with fatal consequences for the Big Day. It’s a typical example of the Sex and the City mantra: For New Yorkers, the most emotional, personal moments often occur in public places.
Buddakan isn’t the only site whose beauty has bewitched filmmakers. Tavern on the Green (Central Park West & W. 67th St., 212.877.8684) has been featured in some 15 films (according to the 2009 book Tavern on the Green, by Jennifer Oz LeRoy and Kay LeRoy). With its Victorian Gothic brick and slate exterior, tucked amid the trees of Central Park, the historic restaurant is a perfect emblem of an urban oasis—and sometimes of an urban mentality as well. Case in point: a satiric scene from Ghostbusters (1984), in which Rick Moranis, fleeing a (literally) demonic hellhound, frantically pounds for help on the windows of the glassed-in dining room—only to be ignored by the self-absorbed diners within. (To be fair, NYC was seen as a more dangerous place back in the 1980s).
Tavern plays a more prominent—and, happily, warmer—role in Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011), whose plot revolves around the efforts of a workaholic real estate magnate (Jim Carrey) to acquire the historic eatery and tear it down. However, at the film’s climax—set amid the restaurant’s elegant, chandeliered environs—he realizes it’s a “part of New York history” and of his own past, too. After being closed for five years, the real Tavern on the Green reopened in April 2014, with a less formal design scheme and a new, glass-walled Central Park Room overlooking the garden patio.
It always adds an extra relish to movie-watching (and NYC dining) when a Big Apple restaurant also happens to be a Hollywood star.