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Classic Treats

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FOR MUCH OF ITS LONG RUN, the best dish at the 21 Club in New York (21 W. 52nd St.; 800-721-CLUB) involved faces rather than food. Frank Sinatra claimed his own table there. Richard Nixon laid down wine in 21's 20,000-bottle cellar. Writers Claire Boothe Luce and Dorothy Parker famously exchanged insults at the door. ("Age before beauty" Luce announced. "Pearls before swine," Parker shot back.) Scenes from "All About Eve" and "Wall Street" were filmed in the legendary dining room, which is distinguished by a ceiling of suspended toys and sports memorabilia, and by its illicit past as a speakeasy. It should come as no surprise to learn that this party of a restaurant, which stretches across three townhouses, opened on New Year's Eve, as 1929 gave way to 1930.

In the old days here, patrons supped on chicken hash and steak tartare, dishes that live on as part of the menu's 21 Classics. Though a series of high-profile chefs has helped update the offerings in recent decades, my inclination is to stay in the past when I order. The time-tested, lime-brightened crab salad features jumbo lump crab, and Dover sole is impeccable, deftly grilled and treated to wild rice and a seasonal vegetable.

Insiders know to request the off-the-menu hunter's salad of chopped vegetables rather than the more traditional Caesar -- which is "What TV Guide is to literature," my droll waiter volunteered. The secret to a memorable burger? The kitchen shapes its patties using top round and bits of dry-aged sirloin; seasons them with Dijon mustard, minced onion, duck fat and fresh herbs; and serves the burgers on sourdough rolls with a choice of potatoes. A favorite of Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg, the 21 Burger last cost $21 in 1987; these days, the signature goes for $27 at lunch and $30 for dinner.

The rules at this country club in the city have relaxed over the years. Taking photographs is no longer forbidden, and ties are no longer required at lunch. They are at dinner, though, which is what George Clooney discovered when he showed up wearing a sweater last fall -- a fashion lapse quickly corrected by longtime greeter Shaker Naini (start date September 21, 1976), who proffered the actor a tie from 21's collection of 20 or so designer labels.

Entrees $30 to $46.

Ask Tom

Denise Aitchison and her husband were recent diners at Belga Cafe (514 Eighth St. SE; 202-544-0100), where they shared an appetizer, ordered two entrees and split a dessert that their server had recommended as "perfect for sharing," the Washington reader wrote in an e-mail. The couple were subsequently surprised to see a $3 splitting charge on their bill for the jointly eaten first and final courses. "I understand why a restaurant might feel it necessary to charge an extra fee for sharing an entree, but an appetizer?" Aitchison asked in an e-mail. She says she has never been billed for sharing food in a restaurant before, "and I don't recall anything on the menu about the extra charges." The restaurant's manager, Galia Kaplan, confirmed the $1.50 fee, which does not appear on the menu, but said the charge is "seldom used," and then mostly for split entrees and with large groups. The server erred, Kaplan said, adding that she hoped the couple would contact her so she "could make them happy."

Got a dining question? Send your thoughts, wishes and, yes, even gripes to asktom@washpost.com or to Ask Tom, The Washington Post Magazine, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Please include daytime telephone number.

To chat with Tom Sietsema online, click on Live Online at www.washingtonpost.com, Wednesdays at 11 a.m.


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