Friday, March 8, 2013

Dinner at Donohue's Steak House

I realized recently that it has been a long time since I've done a restaurant review here on Reggie Darling.  It's not that I haven't been going out to eat, Dear Reader, but rather I haven't felt all that compelled to write about the restaurants I've found myself in lately.  Don't get me wrong—they have (in most cases) been good restaurants, and in some cases they have been very good restaurants.  But each has lacked a certain, well, something to inspire me to take pen to paper (so to speak) and write about it.

Donohue's Steak House on busy stretch of Lexington Avenue
on New York's Upper East Side

That is until last week, when I had the good fortune to find myself tucking into a tasty dinner at Donohue's Steak House, located on Lexington Avenue in the East Sixties.  Donohue's is an intimately-scaled (some would say diminutive), old-fashioned chop and fish joint beloved by neighborhood regulars and others for its authentic, of-another-era, New York dining experience.

The bar scene as one enters Donohue's.
It is advisable to get there early in order to stake out a bar stool
among this crowd of hard drinking regulars

Donohue's keeps 'em coming by serving stiff drinks and straightforward, classic American fare that hasn't changed all that much since the Donohue family first opened the restaurant's doors in 1950.  The decor appears to date from then, too, with black, button-tufted vinyl upholstered booths, red table cloths, and black and white checkerboard floors.  I understand the interior has been refreshed over the years, but the Donohues have kept it true to how it originally looked.

Donohue's dining room, before the evening's rush.
Note tufted vinyl booths and paper place mats on red table cloths

Donohue's wood paneled walls are hung with landscapes of the "painted by a real artist" variety, along with a framed newspaper clipping or two about the restaurant dating from when Robert F. Wagner, Jr., was the city's mayor.

Donohue's is one of the breed of old-school, old-style, authentic American restaurants that are particular favorites of Reggie's, whose ranks have been sadly depleted in recent years.  It is cut from the same cloth as the late, lamented Gino's, which used to stand only a few blocks south of Donohue's on Lexington Avenue.  I am happy to report, Dear Reader, that Donohue's appears to be going like gangbusters these days.  I hope it remains popular and in business for many years to come.

Donohue's chalkboard menu says it all:
You can have it baked, roasted, sautéed, or broiled!

I first ate at Donohue's twenty five or so years ago, when I was taken there for dinner by my friends Preston and Digby, who lived (and still do) in the nearby Manhattan House apartment building.  It was with Preston and Digby that Boy and I dined there the night when I took the photographs for this story.

Chopped iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, a
few shavings of carrot, and a
dollop of creamy blue cheese dressing
(liberal application of black pepper suggested!)

I remember being delighted during my first visit to Donohue's to find myself transported back to the "I Love Lucy" era, which even at the time (it was the late 1980s when I first went there) seemed impossibly long ago to me.  I loved it!

Please note sliced carrot and curly parsley garnish
accompanying Reggie's perfectly cooked prime sirloin steak

Not surprisingly, the food served at Donohue's—while very tasty and very satisfying—is honest, basic fare.  There's nothing fussy, frothy, or trendy about it, and that's just how its patrons like it.  I'd characterize the kitchen's output as a couple steps up from pub fare.  The restaurant's chalkboard menu pretty much sums it up, listing entrées of steak, pork chops, chicken-pot-pie, broiled fish, and broiled scallops.  You can get an order of lamb chops there, too.

The table's Holy Trinity of Heinz Ketchup,
Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce,
and A.1. Steak Sauce

Donohue's entrées come with the expected sides of mashed, fried, or baked potatoes, or white rice.   You'd get a funny look if you asked for brown rice there.  Reggie wouldn't be surprised to learn that the vegetables served at Donohue's arrived on the premises frozen.  Mind you, Reggie is not complaining—he likes frozen peas!

The view of Donohue's dining room, looking towards
the front of the restaurant and bar

Part of the fun of going to Donohue's (as it is for any restaurant, for that matter) is the people watching.  As I mentioned before, Donohue's is popular destination for many who live in its UES neighborhood, any number of which have been regulars there for many years, and some of whom may even remember the restaurant from shortly after it opened.  It is not unusual to see several canes hanging among the coats there.  But not everyone sitting in Donohue's booths is a card-carrying member of AARP, Dear Reader, for the restaurant is a favorite of patrons under forty, too, who—like Reggie did when he was that age—appreciate the restaurant's strong drinks, hearty, reasonably-priced food, and "other era" charm.  Our friends Courtney and Lowell, who are probably one of the hippest young couples we know, are fans of Donohue's.

Leaving Donohue's, one is delighted by the multi-colored fairy lights
that decorate the bar area of the restaurant

One needn't be budget-minded to appreciate Donohue's, though.  I once saw David Rockefeller, who lives around the corner, eating dinner there one night.  And our friends Preston and Digby told us they had once seen Kitty Carlisle Hart dining there with Elinor Gordon, the subject of an earlier post of mine.  I once sat in the next booth to a young man who was at the time much in the news for having allegedly violated securities laws, and who was packed off to prison for it shortly thereafter!

A lingering last look back through Donohue's window.
Reggie rather loves the venetian blinds and the
DINING ROOM IN REAR painted on it

While Reggie is not what one would call a regular at Donohue's, he is always happy to find himself there dining with friends, and he always leaves it satisfied—liquored-up, contentedly full, and ready to totter off to bed.  For those among his readers who appreciate the pleasures of such old-school dining establishments, Reggie highly recommends it.


Please note, Reggie has received nothing in return for writing this review nor does he expect to in the future.  He is writing it solely for the pleasure of his readers, which is why he writes this blog in the first place.

All photographs by Reggie Darling

40 comments:

  1. Lovely to see a holdout still making it these days... I am often in that area and will have to try it.

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    1. Hello AR -- Do give it a try, and please tell them that Reggie sent you! Thanks, RD

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  2. I find places like Donohue's truly relaxing. There is comfort in a menu that requires no trust in the chef's creativity and vision. Sometimes I just prefer the simple and known even though I would call myself a bit of a "foodie".

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    1. Hello Kerry -- thanks, I consider myself a bit of a "foodie," too, and I think that's why I like (and appreciate) Donohue's. It is a pleasing alternative to the city's temples of gastronomy, and, when in the mood for such thing, it certainly "hits the spot." RD

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  3. A good addition to my list of places to eat in NYC.

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    1. Hello Meg,
      Donohue's is certainly worth a visit when you're fatigued with the culinary pyrotechnics that have taken over so many other restaurants here in town. Rgds, Reggie

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  4. I am sorry I read this post so late in the afternoon seeing that I already took out pork chops to grill outside. Today we hit 60 degrees!

    I can never make a salad with creamy blue cheese that tastes as good as the ones they serve at the chop houses. The one above looks like a winner. Exactly what I would have ordered. Damn, now I want a steak...with fries (and catsup!)

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    1. Dear One: I am confident that you will enjoy supping at Donohue's when you come to New York one day (hopefully soon). Given your encyclopedic knowledge of the history of cooking, you will most assuredly "get it." Thanks, RD

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  5. Donohue's looks great,

    Great steaks, and fairy lights ,what else does one need?

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    1. Hello smr -- I believe the fairy lights are left over from a Christmas decoration that proved so popular with the regulars that they now keep them up year 'round. Thanks, RD

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  6. I love places like this. Here in Charlotte is a place called Beef and Bottle that is very similar. They even still have a bowl of matches (gasp) by the bar. Great review!

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    1. Hello MOS: I love the name "Beef and Bottle," as it pretty much sums up what I look for in such a place! Matches are fast-disappearing here in NYC, 'though I almost always try and snag a book or two when I can. RD

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  7. Those certainly are reasonable prices for today...looks delicious!

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    1. Hello AT: Thanks, Donohue's is a pleasant alternative to the more celebrated restaurants in town, and the perfect place to go when one is in a comfort-seeking mood, and longing for familiar surroundings and uncomplicated, old-style cooking. Even if you have never been there, you will likely experience a sense of deja vu if you are so fortunate as to find yourself there one day. RD

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  8. Yes, a neighborhood favorite! I've never tried the chicken pot pie, maybe a good choice on a cold winter evening.

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    1. Hello DTC: I, too, have not tried the chicken-pot-pie at Donohue's, but I ate that very dish only last night at one of my favorite cheap-n-cheerful Irish pubs, Finnegan's Wake on First Avenue at 73rd. When at Donohue's (the once or twice I year I find myself there, that is) I usually opt for the steak, which is mighty good. Boy had the scallops and thought they were fine. Reggie

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  9. If you're willing to venture into Midtown, at 38th between Park and Lex is Rossini's. It's the Italian version of the place you describe here. Try the artichoke appetizer. I haven't been there since I moved back to DC, but I assume they still have an opera singer on Saturday nights.

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    1. Thank you Alison Burtt for the comment and recommendation. I must look up Rossini's. I already like the sound of it by its name, and I love the idea of the opera singer serenading diners there on Saturday evenings! Reggie

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  10. Mouth watering post for sure, Reggie. Many years ago there was similar place around the corner from The Waldorf between Park and 5th. It was a chop house of sorts, but also serving up great American fare. Maybe Smith & Wolinsky - does that sound correct. Great posts! Steaks look divine.

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    1. Hello Anon: Thanks for your comment. Not sure which chop house you are referring to. Smith & Wollensky (also known as Smith & Expensky) is on 49th and Third, in the opposite direction from what you recall. Incidentally, the Bull & Bear restaurant in the Waldorf is an excellent place for steaks, too. Now that I think of it, are you remembering Bill's Gay '90s? It has since closed and reopened as Bill's, and is getting a lot of very positive reviews. Reggie

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    2. Reggie, something comes back to me that perhaps this place was an Irish chop house. Does that ring a bell. I adore the Bull and Bear. Have you eaten their chicken pot pie - to die for! I will google Bill's. It sounds like a another good place for a hearty meat and potatoes. "Smith & Expensky" - I thought expense was a relative term in NYC. Unless it's the corner botega, it's expensive.

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  11. Well, how come you enjoy eating meat especially as it looks so unappetizing in the photo! You should try REAL sophisticated AND unique urban experiencea of Alaska living.

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    1. Hello Anon,
      Thank you for your unpleasant comment. Unfortunately, photographing food is not one of Reggie's talents. I am not aware of any Alaskan restaurants in New York, perhaps you might recommend one? RD

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  12. Love the review! Although there are so many smart joints, the old ones just have a certain ambiance you can't buy or create. The simple menu is so comforting too... not too many decisions after a long day slogging away at whatever one slogs away at.

    The wanna-bes I hate most are the ones that attempt to replicate menus and patina of the authentic oldies ... there is almost always a "Twilight Zone" wrongness to them. I look forward to giving this one a try next time I am in the hood.

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    1. Hello LPR:
      I'm pleased you enjoyed this review. I agree that many of the "retro" restaurants that have opened in the city have a rather Twilight Zone atmosphere, as you aptly describe it. Even places such as Balthazar, which is one of the most successful, seems too good to be true, which is, in fact, what it is. However, that will not dissuade me from eating there (and I think they serve one of the best breakfasts in town -- their soft boiled eggs are sublime!). Thanks, Reggie

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  13. Does Donohues have those pillowy, pastel mints as you exit? I love chop house food, and my favorite side is creamed spinach. Your photo of the steak looks scrumptious even if not styled.

    My imagined Alaskan food would be dried whitefish, raw seal blubber, and canned vegetables. I bet an Alaskan restaurant would be a BIG hit in NYC.

    xox,
    Yr Sister,
    Hermione

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    1. Dear Hermione,
      Thank you for your supportive comment! Sadly, I do not recall seeing butter mints as I exited Donohue's, although I think they would be the perfect topper to such an evening. Jack's, in Albany, still has them, albeit in individual plastic-wrapped portions. Thanks, Reggie

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  14. Sounds wonderful. Sort of like the Tadich Grill of Manhattan:).

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    1. Hello LPC -- Tadich Grill is not a restaurant I have heretofore been familiar with. However, checking it out on its website just now made my heart leap, amd I long to go there the next time I am so fortunate to find myself in your fair city. Looks right up Reggie's alley! Won't you join me there? RD

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    2. "Tadich's" is not a restaurant, it's a gentleman's relais from the restaurant trail -- at the epicenter of the financial district, it's clubland for when there's no time to scale the hills. Its cousin, Sam's, is of the same character; their predecessor, Jack's, fell at last when a lamentable wave of cleverness captivated an ungrateful generation. Ernie's, immortalised in "Vertigo," and The Blue Fox were treated to the same gratuitous wit.

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    3. Hello Anon: Thank you for your informative comment. In looking at Tadich's website I was reminded more of Galatoire's in New Orleans than I am of Donohue's here in NYC. However, both Tadich's and Donohue's are survivors from earlier times, and proud of it, and are therefore similar in that respect. I believe that is what struck a chord with LPC, a native of the City By the Bay, when reading my post. Thanks, Reggie

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  15. not on the menu....you MUST try their onion rings.

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    1. Dear Anon: Anexcellemt suggestion, thank you! RD

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  16. And what does this mean for our earlier rapture at Keene's?

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    1. Dear Laurent,
      Thank you for your question, I was wonedring if any of my readers might ask. To answer it, the experience of these two chop houses is entirely different, and one goes to one or the other accordingly. I love Keens for its fin-de-siècle atmosphere, storied history, marvelous decoration, and perfectly-cooked steaks. Donohue's is a far less grand, cozy neighborhood joint of the type my parents would have gone to and enjoyed as a couple in their thirties and forties, and occasionally would take me to as a youth. Consequently the associations are ones that verberate for me on a more personal level. One appreciates the spectacle of Keens, the intimacy of Donohue's, and the authenticity of both. Reggie

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  17. All of your posts are so interesting and informative, but I especially love to read about these kinds of joints. We're only able to visit the city once or twice a year for short weekends and don't have much time to find places like this. Hopefully they won't all die out in the next few years. Thanks so much!

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  18. I love your posts! Now I'm hungry for french fries.

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  19. These are the last bastions of this sort in the city that make it great.
    We lived near Le Steak and had many a great dinner there when we lived in the city. I love spots like this that nod to the past.
    I do think that you should consider writing for hire because I am sure that your posts have encouraged a bit of generosity to those around you.
    You are always so genuinely sincere.
    pve

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  20. Your review is spot on. Once places like this are gone, the city's true heart will be gone. @IMissTheOldNYC

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