It’s a familiar scene: Exhausted by a long flight and frazzled by jet lag, a traveler checks in, takes a long shower, dons a hotel robe, reclines on the ginormous crisp-sheeted bed, and picks up the phone to order a club sandwich.
The trope is so common among actual travelers that the double-decker creation accounts for a significant proportion of hotels’ room service sales. In recent years, that meant up to 25 percent across Dorchester Collection hotels, for example. Its allure is time-tested, its components comfortingly benign: three slices of toast, chicken or turkey, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, and bacon, which achieve sandwich greatness when spiked with a cellophane-wrapped toothpick.
Even before COVID-19 made for anxious travel, “the disruption to your food habits caused by travel, time changes, and dining out makes eating something familiar much easier,” says Jay Coldren, managing director of Eat+Drink for hospitality consulting firm Streetsense. “So [the club] seems like a safe choice for many travelers.”
Frequent traveler and food blogger Evan Saunders agrees. “I’m constantly in a new environment thriving off its surroundings,” he says, “but sometimes I just need something that allows comfort to wash over me in an awesome wave. For me, that has always been the club sandwich.” Saunders founded the blog Club Sandwich Reviews in 2010, and has since reviewed more than 200 club sandwiches in more than 150 cities from Bogotá to Istanbul. No, he’s not sick of them.
Since COVID-19 hit the hotel industry, the comfort and privacy of room service are even more attractive to anyone still traveling, and the club remains a constant you can depend on in most corners of the globe, no matter how battered by the pandemic. But for those who can’t travel now, the sandwich also represents a carefree, pre-pandemic way of life. The coronavirus has put the no-nonsense meal out of reach, and the inaccessibility of something previously so, well, accessible is yet another stark contrast in the pantheon of weird. Today, the image of a hotel guest diving into a club sandwich isn’t just cliche; it’s nostalgia for a time that is now gone.
The century-old club sandwich had a pretty good run, and it was a favorite snack of voyagers and vagabonds since its beginning. One of the dish’s several origin stories claims the name derives from the double-decker club cars that began running on U.S. rail lines in 1895, and then, the sandwich gained popularity in the white American high-society clubhouses of the early 1900s. The Saratoga Clubhouse in Saratoga Springs claims it invented the sandwich in 1894, though at least five years earlier, the Union Club, then located on Fifth Avenue in New York City, prepared something similar consisting of “two toasted slices of Graham bread, with a layer of turkey or chicken and ham between them, served warm.” In either case, the sandwich grew in the realm of aristocracy, giving it a whiff of old-timey luxury (and little in the way of inclusion) that, apparently, matches well with the smells of bacon and mayo. In 2010, the French newspaper Le Figaro dubbed it the Rolls-Royce of the sandwich genre (though, given its American origin, a Cadillac might’ve been a better metaphor).
Americans traveling abroad then spread the sandwich to the rest of the world in the early 1920s, along with other trends like cocktails and jazz. It was popular in places like Harry’s Bar in Venice, which has served a version since 1948 that’s domed like an erupting volcano. But it was in fancy hotels across the U.S. that the club sandwich found its ultimate home.
In 1931, when New York’s Waldorf Astoria moved into its ostentatious Art Deco digs, the club sandwich appeared on the opening menu at the hotel restaurant Oscar’s, where it was even served with a knife and fork. “The typical business traveler has always been short on time and has needed a portable lunch option,” says chef Marc Ehrler, vice president of culinary Americas for Hilton, which owns the Waldorf Astoria. The club was also a natural fit for the Waldorf Astoria’s fanciest new perk, room service, which the hotel is widely credited with introducing to America. “Room service was a luxury for travelers,” says Ehrler. “Eating in your room was something unique and really special.” As the room service trend spread to other hotels, the club sandwich went with it. It was an easy win: quick to assemble, remained fresh, transportable up an elevator to hotel rooms — basically, it’s hard to screw up.
The sandwich eventually found its way to more egalitarian eateries too — neighborhood diners, airport restaurants — making it popular among a broader swath of sandwich lovers. Yet, even as the club became more accessible, it retained its aura of indulgence. A club is not the kind of thing you make yourself, despite the fact you likely have all the necessary ingredients on hand. It’s just not as magical if you stick in the little toothpick just to take it out again. Rather, a club is something that’s best served to you by someone else, at a country club, a hotel restaurant — or, better yet, in bed (that ultimate luxury). “It’s that special treat one can offer himself,” says Adam Smith, executive chef at the Coworth Park hotel in Ascot, England. “That has become symbolic of staying in a hotel.”
But why is what’s essentially a pile of everyday cold cuts considered so opulent? “For me, the third slice of bread gives the club the height it needs to impress as it hits the table,” says chef Michael Santoro of the iconic Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The simple format of a club sandwich also leaves room for chefs to get creative (within reason), adapting the sandwich based on guest preferences, local food traditions, and seasonality. Santoro, for example, serves four different club sandwiches to diners on the Polo Lounge patio: classic turkey, salmon with sauce gribiche, lobster and coral mayonnaise in brioche, and an obligatory California version with avocado, of course.
Despite chef attempts to zhuzh it up, the sandwich’s staid formula is ultimately the secret to its success. Ehrler says, “We’ve seen chefs switch up the ingredients but still maintain the integrity of the original creation, the one we can recognize at any hotel.” The club is a chance to engage in a century-long tradition, a relatively affordable, three-decker luxury (notwithstanding the $130 “platinum” club with Iberico ham and white truffles once served at Cliveden House hotel in Taplow, England).
For more than 100 years, the club sandwich has been a sturdy, protein-packed beacon of dependability. No matter how unpredictable the world got, eating the sandwich felt like everything was going to be okay. These days, there are no such guarantees, and most of us aren’t traveling at all, let alone ordering one from room service. All we can do is hope its steadfastness will preserve the sandwich through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. When it is eventually time again to check in, throw on a robe and call down for a club sandwich. Just don’t forget the tiny jar of mayo.
Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal.