HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Inside the historic Frederick Hotel in the heart of Huntington's downtown, 21 at the Frederick offers patrons modern cuisine in a classic atmosphere that seems as if it hasn't changed a day since 1964.
That's the year Huntington businessman Bill Ritter and his partner, architect John Jenkins, opened Elephant Walk as part of the Hotel Frederick. Mark Cross, who has owned and operated 21 for eight years, said he considers himself lucky to have his business in same location as the private club that opened 50 years ago.
"I've always thought this was a really cool place," Cross said. "I used to come in here when it was Ming's and the (second incarnation of) Elephant Walk. I was lucky that when we came here it was still furnished and looked much like it always has."
The private club atmosphere is still there, from the dark private seating to the large and imposing door customers have to walk through to enter the restaurant, but it is the elephants that maintain the original charm, Cross said. The door handle to enter is an elephant's trunk, and the one to leave is its backside. Metal elephants "walk" along the walls, surrounding customers in their booths as they eat dinner, and the bar is shaped like an elephant's trunk.
Pat Januszkiewicz has been a loyal patron of 21 since its beginning. She and her husband have a standing Friday night cocktails and dinner date there. She said the food is wonderful and of the highest quality, but it is the place itself that keeps them coming back.
"The community of guests is as important as the food," Januszkiewicz said. "They have a large group of regular guests, and Mark is there most every night. He welcomes us and always speaks to us. He takes a personal interest and remembers things we tell him, like if you had a golf game or went on vacation. You feel important when you go there."
Both Cross and Januszkiewicz praised chef Matthew Noah as an important part of the restaurant's success. Cross said he and Noah place a lot of importance on the consistency and presentation of dishes. Januszkiewicz said if there's something you like at 21, you can bet it will taste the same the next time you go in.
While the food may stay consistent, things do change at 21. Cross recently remodeled and opened the first-floor space which once served as the Frederick's dining room and then as a series of offices. He said the large space, which is now being called the ballroom, while brighter, still maintains the feel of 21 and can be used to seat overflow guests, large groups and as a conference room.
The ballroom expands more space and services for 21, Cross said. A supporter of various community improvement organizations and initiatives, he said he hopes to use the ballroom as another piece of the overall revitalization of downtown Huntington.
"This is a space Huntington needs," Cross said. "If you look around, there is a lot of downtown development going on, and I want this to be a part of it. The development is good for 21 at the Frederick. All the apartments, condos and businesses going in around here drives in new customers, which is obviously good for us. But success isn't the only goal — it's also providing Huntington with quality food, quality service and to help bring new things to the city."
Cross' commitment to community is not limited to offering a new meeting location or supporting local organizations like the Marshall Artists Series. He also sources his meat and produce from local vendors when possible, he said. That's something Januszkiewicz said she appreciates.
Keeping the restaurant upscale was a top priority, Cross said. The location has a five-decade history in Huntington as a place for food and drink, and he said his guests have responded to his keeping a piece of the city's past alive.
Cross' maternal family is from Kenova, and he moved to Huntington as an infant after his father took a job at International Nickel Company, now Special Metals. After graduating from Huntington High School, he attended Marshall University where he received a bachelor's of science in biology and minored in chemistry and German.
He is aware he took a long and different path than most who enter the restaurant business, Cross said. He said after Marshall he worked at Ashland Oil, the Chesapeake Bay Program through the EPA and owned Huntington Home Health.
It was a call from Rocco Muriale, owner of Rocco's Ristorante, that helped Cross focus on his current path. He said Muriale called him for help after taking over the food and beverage service of the Ashland Plaza Hotel, and after that business stopped, they moved to the location at the Frederick.
"It had been dark for at least a year, and I needed a place to go — I was hooked on the restaurant business by then," Cross said. "Rocco and I came here together, but soon after he sort of backed away." Cross said he stayed with Rocco's Italian-themed menu for a while, but eventually changed to offer a more upscale and unique dining experience. He said one of the things it took him a while to learn was how and where to buy first quality meats, seafood and produce. Nothing but the best for 21 and its guests, he said.
21 at the Frederick is open from 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 5 p.m. until after midnight Friday and Saturday. It is closed Sunday and Monday. Those seeking to make reservations can call 304-529-0222.
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com