Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dinner at Keens Steakhouse

It should come as no surprise to Reggie's readers that he is a steak lover.  Yes, Reggie adores tucking into a juicy, perfectly cooked steak—preferably a thick New York strip cooked medium rare—and he is a happy man, indeed, when the subject of the meal is beef.  For Reggie loves not only steak, but also beef tenderloin, prime rib, pot roast, and a great hamburger, too.  Among these beefy choices, though, it is steak that really gets his juices flowing and his stomach growling.  There have been times in Reggie's life that he would have happily dined on steak (or at least beef) at every dinner of the week.  But he didn't, and he doesn't, for all the reasons that are all too well known by his patient readers for him to (tediously) enumerate here.  No, this post is about the pleasures of eating steak, and not about why one shouldn't make it the centerpiece of one's daily diet.

Keens Chophouse around 1915
Image courtesy of Keens Steakhouse

These days Reggie tries to limit his consumption of beef to no more than once a week.  And that means that when he does eat beef, he is choosey about the quality that he consumes—no measly supermarket-bought, shrink-wrapped, styrofoam-packaged steaks for Reggie.  If he's going to limit his consumption of steak to only a sometime thing, it had better be for one worth waiting for: a thick, butcher-bought, paper-wrapped, dry-aged slab of marbled beef blisteringly seared over a hellishly high heat and then finished roasting to juicy perfection in a furnace-like oven.  That is how the best steakhouses here in New York do it, and how my friend and fellow blogger Lindaraxa instructs her readers to prepare it on her blog.  As far as Reggie is concerned, Lindaraxa nails how to perfectly cook a steak at home.  He encourages you to check out her method for doing so (along with the rest of her blog, which is full of excellent, mouth-watering recipes, among other things).

The main floor dining room at Keens
(Note the pipes hanging from the ceiling)

Image courtesy of same

Over the years Reggie has eaten his way through most of the great—and not so great—steakhouses in New York City.  He's braved the testosterone-fueled brawl at Sparks, where the hideous Gay '90s whorehouse decor and gruff-beyond-belief service is part of the fun.  He's eaten at the bare-bones, charming-as-a-bus-station Smith & Wollensky (also known as Smith & Expensky) and its more refined, uptown sister, the Post House.  He's tried Wolfgang's, the Bull & Bear, Bobby Van's, and many of the more recent additions to the city's steakhouse scene, including Porter House, BLT Steak, and Quality Meats.  The first steakhouse he remembers eating at in New York was the venerable Palm, where his older brother Frecky took him when he first moved to the city in the early 1980s.  There are only a few old-line steakhouses in New York that he hasn't tried over the years, most notably Peter Luger's (which requires a treck to Brooklyn and where the cash only/no reservations policies puts a damper on one's enthusiasm for trying it), Gallagher's, and the Old Homestead.  Those, too, shall come in good time, he suspects.

The upstairs Lambs Room private dining room
(Note the pipes hanging . . . )
Image courtesy of same

But there is one steakhouse that Reggie used to eat in long ago that he has only recently returned to for the first time in many years and where it was such a pleasing rediscovery that he intends to return to it regularly going forward.  For it may have become, after only just one (re)visit, his new favorite steakhouse in all of New York.  It is Keens Steakhouse, just off of Herald Square, around the corner from Macy's immense, and storied, flagship store.

That little fellow on the far right looks suspiciously
like my dear Pompey . . .

Keens is New York's oldest steakhouse, having first opened its doors 125 years ago.  Originally part of the private Lamb's Club, the restaurant opened to the public in 1885 and has been going strong ever since, serving generous portions of chops, seafood, and steaks to its happy patrons, which have included the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Lilly Langtry (who sued the then all-men's restaurant in 1905 to admit women and won), J. P. Morgan, Stanford White, Babe Ruth, Will Rogers, and, more recently, Reggie.

Once known as Keens Chophouse, the restaurant changed its name to Keens Steakhouse in the 1990s in an effort to attract a broader clientele who supposedly didn't know what a chophouse was (!).  Needless to say, Reggie doesn't approve of the name change, but he forgives the restaurant for doing so nonetheless, despite his mild exasperation that they felt compelled to.

Matches from Keens, showing "Miss Keens"
from a painting in the restaurant's bar

Keens has been in the same building on West 36th Street since it first opened, and its rooms are a fantasy of late-nineteenth-century paneling and decorations, with every square inch of its walls covered with paintings, stuffed animal trophies, flags, memorabilia, and bibelot.  But what makes Keens' decor particularly noteworthy is that every inch of its ceilings are covered with rows and rows of old clay churchwarden pipes, hanging on hooks and ready to take down for a smoke.

The type of clay pipe that hangs from Keens' ceilings
Image courtesy of Antiquity Period Designs, Ltd.

Well, once upon a time, that is.  For not only is smoking in restaurants now illegal in New York (and has been since 2002), but the practice of pipe smoking has pretty much gone the way of the Dodo bird.  Keens was once a place where its patrons not only smoked, but were encouraged to.  Customers were able to buy inexpensive, long-stemmed, clay churchwarden (or tavern) pipes at the restaurant, which would then number and register the pipe and log it into a book that listed the customer by name and where their pipe could be found hanging from the ceiling, waiting for them when they returned.  There are over ninety thousand clay pipes hanging today from Keens' ceilings that once belonged to former patrons.  Entering the restaurant one feels as if one is crossing through Alice's looking glass and stepping back into a colorful nineteenth-century ragtime world of robber barons, Boss Tweed politicians, theatrical impresarios, and the likes of Diamond Jim Brady.

Keens patrons smoking pipes, ca. 1924
Image courtesy of Keens Steakhouse

I first went to Keens in the mid 1980s when I attended bachelor parties and "smokers" there.  For those of my readers who are not familiar with the term "smoker," it refers to the pastime, now largely extinct, of men getting together for a stag evening of drinking, victuals, and smokes (be they cigars, cigarettes, or pipes), and, in the case of the ones Reggie attended, a capella singing.  For Reggie was for several years of his early tenure in New York a member of the University Glee Club, America's oldest all-male post-collegiate glee club.  Reggie would join friends and comrades of the Glee Club in Keens' private dining rooms, often in black tie, where we would wile away the evening singing Glee Club favorites, smoking, drinking, horsing around, and eating ridiculous amounts of the restaurant's signature beef.  It was a lot of fun, and I have many fond memories of it.

A beefsteak banquet held in the Lambs Room at Keens in 1938
Image courtesy of same

But once I left the Glee Club I no longer had much reason to go to Keens anymore, except for an occasional bachelor party or an evening spent dining there with friends in the restaurant's public rooms.   Not long ago, though, I decided to give Keens a try once again, since I figured it would likely be a worthy subject of a Reggie Review of the type of authentic, old-line restaurants that I have written about previously on this blog, including the '21' ClubJack's Oyster House, and the Pine Club.  So I called up my friend Magnus and arranged for Boy and me to meet him and his partner Michael there one night.

We all loved our dinner at Keens!

A postcard of the upstairs Lincoln Room at Keens
This is where we ate during our visit
(Note the pipes . . . )

The restaurant attracts a more varied crowd than I remember or am accustomed to seeing in other steakhouses around town.  Of course there were the expected tables of six or more men gleefully digging into plates piled high with beef and all the trimmings that one sees in every expense account steakhouse in the city.  But there were also plenty of tables of couples out for the evening, and I'd say that around at least thirty to forty percent of the restaurant's patrons the night we were there were women, which is pretty high as far as these types of places go.  Also, Keens has a fairly high quotient of female waiters on staff, at least relatively speaking.  So, for the beef-lovin' ladies among my readers who haven't been to Keens yet, head on down, as you'll feel more than welcome and at home there, unlike in some of the more aggressively manly joints in this town.

The upstairs Moose Room private dining room at Keens
Reggie attended numerous "smokers" and bachelor parties in this room
(Note the . . . )
Image courtesy of same

We started our dinner with a round of delicious, icy cold Martinis (well, Boy and I did; Magnus and Michael were more restrained) while tucking into the house's signature (and complimentary) old-fashioned relish plate and basket of hot rolls.  I ordered a plate of shucked oysters (perfect) for a first course, followed by a sixteen-ounce New York strip steak, and we had sides of french fries, roasted brussels sprouts, and escarole for the table.  My steak was one of the best that I can remember eating in New York in recent years: thick, juicy, flavorful, and cooked to perfection.  Try as I might, I couldn't finish it, as I am not accustomed to eating so much beef in one sitting.  At least it wasn't the usual grotesquely large, twenty-something-plus-ounce rib eye that one sees on most steakhouse menus in these parts.  Boy was able to polish off his more appropriately sized eight-ounce filet mignon.  In other words, while the portions are generous at Keens, they are not absurdly so.  We finished our dinner by sharing an order of tiramisu, which was the only disappointment of the evening, but not so much of one that we didn't finish it, nor did it diminish our pleasure in the meal.  However, I should have known better than to suggest ordering this dessert at Keens, which is not the sort of place that comes to mind when daydreaming of Italian cuisine—by a long shot.  No, I should have ordered something more expected for such an establishment as Keens, where I would be confident that the house would excel in it, such as cheesecake.  I'll remember that for the next time I go there.

The lovely "Miss Keens" hanging in the bar
Image courtesy of same

All in all, the four of us were very happy with our dinner at Keens, and each of us agreed as we got our coats and prepared to leave that we had a great time there and looked forward to returning again soon.  Even though dinner at Keens is on the expensive side (count on spending at least one hundred dollars a head), it is well worth it.

Mints are thoughtfully
provided as one leaves Keens

Reggie recommends that you try Keens Steakhouse when you are in New York and hungering for a memorable steak dinner.  Not only is it a terrific destination for such a meal, but Reggie understands that it is also a popular place to go for dinner before attending a game or an event at nearby Madison Square Garden.  While you are unlikely to ever see Reggie darken the doors of that particular venue (with the exception, perhaps, for the Westminster Kennel Club dog show), you are more than likely to find him again at Keens one night soon, delightedly tucking into a steak dinner.

Tell me, what is your favorite steakhouse?

Keens Steakhouse
72 West 36th Street
New York, New York 10018
(212) 947-3636

Please note, Reggie has not received anything in return for this review, nor does he expect to.  He is writing it solely for the pleasure and edification of his readers.


  1. I, too, am painfully aware that I ought not to be eating such things -- not that it stops me.

    But where twenty or thirty years ago I would go to the Palm (or in New York, Luger's), nowadays I buy the meat from the one good butcher in town (invariably, a two inch porterhouse, front face cut) and cook it myself. Because -- to quote Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys --if I'm going to put something in my mouth, I want it to be the best.

    In the country, this means using an outdoor grill that burns wood (and cherry is all we use out there). In the city, I usually sear the steak in an iron pan and finish it in the oven at 450. (If there's company underfoot, I will sometimes just broil it -- with a great broiler, the difference is not very noticeable, particularly if the steak is sliced and reassembled for serving.)

    The key thing is the quality of the meat, and it will be expensive. (It will cost more at the butcher than it would at the restaurant.)

    Of course, even the best home-cooked meal won't substitute for crowd therapy, if that's what you're looking for. But friends can be a surprisingly adequate substitute for noisy strangers, and often more agreeable when they're being fed for free.

    P.S. Reggie -- Martinis again. This pudding of yours is getting a theme!

  2. Dearest R, I am sure that it will come as no surprise to you that I do not have a favourite Steakhouse, or indeed a non- favourite Steakhouse as I have never eaten at a Steakhouse ever. The closest I can claim to eating in such an establishment is Conran's 'The Chophouse' just by Tower Bridge.
    Such a pity, in my view that the term 'Chophouse' was not retained by Keens as it seems just the sort of establishment which would merit such a title and would serve to make it stand apart from other such restaurants.
    Although your steak sounded delicious, for preference I should choose a slower cooked cut such as blade of beef. I am sure, however, That Keens would excel whatever choice is made.

    I was, I have to say, very surprised at your choice of Tiramisu for pudding.....a concoction I find delirious to look at never mind eat. But, that not very 1970s?

  3. I remember fondly Christ Cella, which you do not mention and may be extinct. It lacked the environment, lore, and from what I read here, cachet of Keen's, but I fell into it on a friend's suggestion and never saw occasion to launch a project of steakhouse comparisons. There's no question of the validity of the genre and no disputing the mode of preparation you report. A steakhouse, in any case, is not for gastronomic discovery so much as the affirmation of other things; and has one great property which I never encountered in any other style of establishment - it is a superb venue for father-and-son dinners, and I've never known that relationship to emerge from a couple of hours at such a place without the restoration of impregnable good will.

    An extremely handsome, deplorably entertaining posting.

  4. I love a good steak house and Kansas City has numerous ones -- old Kansas City ones (not the chains like Ruth's Chris) and in the little town south of us (Pittsburg (without the H) is a really great steak house that's been there "forever" -- atmosphere hasn't changed in "forever" either but their steaks are memorable -- and the price? Around $20 - $25 which includes a potato and a salad!!!!

    I noticed you mentioned NEW YORK strip -- here on the prairie we call them KC strips!!!! Which seems more appropriate to me since KC was one of the stockyard hubs of the nation for a long long time!

    I love visiting restaurants with you -- you make the visit exciting.

    BTW, the store where I bought the Old Paris called and said that when they were cleaning a cabinet they found more -- could I come pick it up -- I got 4 more tea cups, 2 tea saucers and 4 big saucers!

  5. I have walked to the refrigerator twice since I read this post. *sigh* Nuthin'!

  6. I once had a lovely and memorable Thanksgiving lunch at Keens Steakhouse. There were few other patrons that day, but we were seated next to actor/director Ron Howard and his family. I have never been to Peter Luger's, but it is owned by the family of my friend, interior designer Ellie Cullman of Cullman & Kravis; many testify it is the best steakhouse in all of the boroughs.

  7. Did you ever go to Manero's in Greenwich? We used to keep our boat down the street and would stop there to eat often. They had a meat market next door where yu could buy steaks and hamburger meat very reasonably. The BEST hamburger meat I've ever bought, prime beef no less. They also served the most fantastic gorgonzola dressing on their salads. Never had one as good. I loved that place! Places like The Palm and S&W are good but not as great as Manero's was in those days! (at least in my mind!)

    Thanks so much for the compliment. Here we also take our meat very, very seriously!

  8. @Laurent: It may amuse you to know that Reggie & I had just such a father-son(s),protein-rich feast at Christ Cella, lo these many years ago. Respectfully, Frecky Darling.

  9. A few years ago we did a run-through of various steak houses in Manhattan and concluded that Keen's is the best, and the only one to which we now return. Strip House had more imaginative side dishes, but the meat just did not make the cut. As to portions, the best part is taking a bag home and picking off the bone for the next few days. The old fashioned "beef steaks," as chronicled by Joseph Mitchell, have certainly vanished, and even the semi-annual black-tie table lodges I attend at the Yale Club have become more sedate with the passing years.

  10. When I was thirteen I visited New York city. This was a most special occasion for my thirteenth birthday. My aunt and uncle took me to all the famous sites. The most memorable restaurant experience was Keen's Steak House. A totally delightful and exotic evening for me. I do not recall what I ate, but never forgot the interior, the intimacy of the seating, the very crisp white tablecloths, the low lighting, paintings and framed clippings.
    It was not until a month or so that I returned. It took me fifty three years! It
    was just the same and as special to me now as it was then. I enjoyed a most delicious steak and my favorite, creme brulee for dessert.
    Thanks for your post with more photographs of it's history.

  11. Dear Reggie, you dinner sounds delicious. I went to Keens once in the early nineties and what a stunning place it is. I have made a mental note to go back with The Actor this year. If you're ever in London you must try Hawksmoor at Seven Dials in Covent Garden or in Spitalfields, an area I know you will love. It's been voted the best steak restaurant in England by the food critics xx

  12. My steakhouse regimen is generally limited to Philadelphia...but I have been to Peter Luger' was excellent.
    Great piece on Keens.....I shall have to try it when I am in Manhattan.
    Frankly, my favorite steak is a dry aged prime rib eye I grill myself at home over real hardwood charcoal and accompanied by good mid-August Jersey tomatoes,corn and baked taters.

  13. Sounds like a great night! Maybe a topper at P.J. Clarke's?

  14. Reggie,
    Your description of Keen's reminded me of the family lore that has a clay pip on the ceiling of Keen's with my grandfather Carl's number on it. I am given to understand it was his favorite restaurant. The only evidence I have for his affinity is the presence in my parents' kitchen cabinet of two bowls from Keens, each decorated with what looks like a sprig of holly and a pair of crossed pipes (it is all rather faded now). I have always assumed that they once held a Christmas pudding, though I have no idea why I would think that. I seem to recall them being used for celery or carrot sticks at parties.

    But the point I'm getting to, is that Keen's Chophouse was always spoken of in my family (and my father JUST mentioned it less than a week ago) as a place to get a fine mutton chop. I have never thought of it as a steakhouse. It was a chophouse, and one went there for a mutton chop.

    Your review has made my mind up that I shall save up my gelt and take my father there for a chop of his own.

    Thank you for your delightful review.


  15. Ancient: While Reggie may vary the establishments in which he dines, he never veers from his commitment to do so accompanied (and lubricated) by the delightful cocktail that you so perspicaciously note as a recurring theme in these reviews . . .

    Edith Hope: Yes, the tiramisu choice was, I admit, an odd one. But, given that I had consumed two of the cocktails at the outset of the meal that the Ancient notes, and also a glass or two of delicious red wine with my steak, by the time it came to select what you so delightfully and English-ly refer to as a "pudding" that Reggie's faculties of discernment were, well, somewhat compromised. I agree that cheesecake does sound rather '70s, but NY steakhouses (sadly no longer chophouses) serve retarditaire faire, and cheesecake is one of the city's most beloved and traditional desserts, uh, I mean puddings.

  16. I am afraid I am the ultimate snob in the sense I prefer to eat beef I have raised and put in the freezer. I would however be happy to visit such an establishment when the opportunity
    presents itself! Thanks.

  17. Laurent: Christ Cella closed its doors in the mid-1990s, and is now the site of Ken Aretsk's Patroon, which almost made it into this post but didn't because it is not strictly a steakhouse in Reggie's view. As you will see from my brother Frecky's comment, he and I and our father took such a dinner there as you describe. That was the only time I ate at that establishment, though, as I was appalled at how rude the impatient and surly waiter was who attended us, and that try as I might, I could not get a medium rare steak there cooked to my liking. The first time it came out it was blood raw in the middle, so I sent it back for some more flame, much to the snotty irritation of the waiter who said "that's what we consider medium rare here at Christ Cella," and only reluctantly took it back to the kitchen. It was returned to me no less raw than before and so I sent it back again. The third time it came out, the waiter delivered it to me with a "so there!" satisfaction as it had now been cooked through to being well-done, well beyond medium rare. So, not to be bested by this cretin, I called the maitre 'd, explained that this was entirely unsatisfactory, who agreed with me, and provided me -- at my request -- with a satisfactory, but entirely unmemorable alternative of roast chicken, because by this point I was no longer interested in having steak there that evening. Needless to say, I did not regret it when I learned the restaurant closed a decade later.

    Martha: Yes, I have heard that in your region that such a steak goes by a different name. Whatever you call it, and wherever it originates, it is among Reggie's favorite dishes. He looks forward to one day having a KC strip in the city that gave it such a name. And he is astonished at the $20-25 tariff you cite, since strip steak he ordered at Keens was, I believe, $43, and included nary a side nor a salad in that price.

  18. Laurent, again: I meant Ken Aretsky (who left '21' to start Patroon), having inadvertently left the "y" out in my hastily written response to your comment.

    Divine Theater: Time to go steak-shopping!

    JJT: I believe that my claim to being a New Yorker will not be fully justified without at least one trip to Peter Luger's during my lifetime. Shall we meet there to dine the next time you visit NYC?

    Lindaraxa: I never tried Manero's. But, based on your suggestion, I was going to stop by their meat market this afternoon as we are heading up to Greenwich later today because Boy needs to stop in to a job site there, and I am going along for the ride. We checked online and found, unfortunately, that they closed their doors in 2006.

    Frecky: Thanks for the reminder of our dinner at Christ Cella. The three of us, you, me, and FD, did eat out rather magnificently here in Manhattan when he used to come and visit us for those "Boy's Weekends."

    Anon 3:28: Thank you for your comment, and you have intrigued Reggie as to what these black tie "Lodge" dinners are you refer to at the YC. I let my membership lapse there a few years ago as I couldn't stand the Home-Depot quality redecoration of the public spaces that made the place look more like a Westin than the venerable club designed by James Gamble Rogers, and which I used to adore.

  19. Judith: Thank you for your comment, and welcome! What a nice story that you write, and how pleasing it is to find (as the both of us did it turns out) that a place we remembered so fondly from many years ago is still as wonderful today upon our return. It's getting rarer and rarer, in my experience.

    Christina: I looked up Hawksmoor on your suggestion, and the one in Covent Garden, in the old Watney-Combe brewery, in particular, looks marvelous! I recall going to an old-fashioned roast beef and chop restaurant near Covent Garden many years ago, VERY English it was, and I thought you might be referring to that, but clearly not. Boy and I are itching to go to London at some point this year, and I shall be sure to demand we go to the Hawksmoor if we are lucky enough to make it there. And, of course, must go back to the Wolseley, too my favorite restaurant in London. Perhaps I might even find my way to Le Gavroche, which I have not yet been to, and have always wanted to try. But by then I'd have nothing left in me pocketbook to eat anywhere else!

  20. Sewing Librarian: You are one lucky lady, indeed!

    MLS: Yes, it is hard to think of anything more sublime than a perfectly home-grilled steak accompanied by the summer's best tomatoes and corn.

    ADG: Ha ha ha! A topper at P. J. Clarke's after such an evening would send him toppling to the floor, I am afraid. No, it is best to pour oneself into a cab bound directly for home under such circumstances, I have learned.

    Dear Jasper: How nice to hear from you. If I had known of your family's fondness for Keens I would have long ago suggested that the four of us--you, Francesca, Boy, and me--meet there for dinner one evening, at least when we are all feeling flush, that is.

    Dear Izzy: To grow one's own food is the ultimate in Locavore I am sure. But should you find yourself in the city of your forebears, I urge you to find your way to Keens, as you will not only enjoy a fine meal there, but you will do so knowing that a certain great grandfather of yours was a known customer there, too. Full circle and all that...

  21. Ah, Keen' is terrific. I have very different memories of Christ mother's favorite steakhouse because the waiter took the lobster out of the shell and saved her from wearing what she considered a loathsome bib. I, of course, loved the bib, loved the picking and nibbling and sucking the lobster from its shell. My father was constant to the New York strip steak, but I remember Mother and I ranged deeply into seafood, including the soft shell crabs and the tiny bay scallops in season. The hash browns were awfully good too. Highly recommend the steak at Patroon's and the service is grown-up and great.

  22. Wonderful post and a nice slice of history -- now I do so long to have a meal there!

  23. Thanks for this extensive article! I really like the picture of the gentlemen with their pipes.
    However, from the article I did not find out what kind of beef you prefer - corn fed or grass fed? dry aged or wet aged?

  24. Your review of "Keens" was excellent. However, if there is a better bar anywhere in Manhattan I would like to know where it is! I'm told that the New York Times food section named the bar at Keens the best bar in Manhattan. Did you miss it? Next time you are there try the "Omar Bradley" one hell of a drink.


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