This is an institution founded in 1885 in New York that is synonymous with good steaks. Mention steaks in New York, Keens Steakhouse will always be there on the list. And New Yorkers are particular about their steaks.
Keens is packed with history, and not just because it opened back in 1885. This Midtown steakhouse used to be home to a famous theatre and literary group, and after that, it was home to a pipe club. On a humorous note, in the main vestibule, it has what it identifies as “dinosaur sirloin,” supposedly a fossil from the Red Rocks area of Utah. It looks like reddish-brown marble, and a sign with it says that in the opinion of Keens, it has not yet been aged long enough to be cooked.
Keens and its Pipes
The membership roster of the Pipe Club contained over ninety thousand names, including those of Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Albert Einstein, George M. Cohan, J.P. Morgan, John Barrymore, General Douglas MacArthur and “Buffalo Bill” Cody – their pipes were shown in a showcase at the entrance to the restaurant.
Pipe smoking was known since Elizabethan times to be beneficial for dissipating “evil homourse of the brain.” The tradition of checking one’s pipe at the inn had its origins in 17th century England where travellers kept their clay at their favourite inn – the thin stemmed pipe being too fragile to be carried in purse or saddlebag.
Dozens of pipes (make that 45,000) still line the restaurant, giving it a warm, unique vibe unlike any other restaurant in the city. It now owns the largest collection of churchwarden pipes in the world.
Once seated and orders taken, a plate of pickles, carrot and celery sticks with a blue cheese sauce and olives would be presented. I have not seen these served in a steakhouse since the 70s.
Most reviews forego the bread, but I consider this as one of the details in a steakhouse that is important.
It wasn’t the bread that impressed me, but the butter. Not a gourmet butter like Le Beurre Bordierm, but it was creamy and delicious with the warm bread.
Chilled Seafood Tray
The New Yorkers know how to make this properly, and Keens’ chilled seafood tray was no exception. The tray of chipped ice came with half a dozen of freshly shucked oysters, four pieces each little neck clams and peeled chilled shrimps and half a Maine lobster thrown in for good measure. Came with all the condiments – cocktail for shrimps, sherry vinegar for the oysters and clam, tartar sauce and clear butter for the lobster.
Prime T-Bone Steak
Keens was originally called a chop house, in recognition of their famous mutton chop, and although that is good and musty and intense, most people are ordering steak. All of their steaks are USDA prime grade, hand-picked and dry-aged on premise. This is a T-Bone for one person, but there’s enough meat for two to share amply.
The dry-aged T-bone is cooked to the ideal shade of pink and has a nice salty crust. The tender filet is very good, but the juicy, slightly funky sirloin is the best part.
The signature order here is the mutton chop, and a pro-move is to ask to pick from the bar menu, where a smaller portion of the mutton chop is available. But don’t get me wrong, the smaller portion is still enough to be shared. It’s a pound cut of relatively old lamb. Keens is the only place in New York City still serving it, old lamb that is, and it seems only fitting to enjoy this lost joy of a previous era in a room covered in grandfather clocks and smoking pipes.
My date loved baked potato, but didn’t like one that has melted cheese on it. Also it came so late in the meal we have almost finished dinner. Fortunately they took it back and reversed it from the bill.
The meats were deliciously moist, tender and cooked perfectly. They were so good that no sauce was needed. A simple dash of salt would be good enough to enjoy the taste of meat that was missing in many of the wagyu and lamb these days.
Artery-clogging proof that not all good things must come to pass, though they may indeed have to adapt to new times by toying with certain traditions, thankfully like banning pipe smoking indoors. Even if you don’t care about Albert Einstein’s smoking pipe, you’ll have a great meal in Keens. Service is attentive and plentiful at dinner service, when various staffers might come by to check on you.
If only I had the chance to visit in the same trip the reverent Peter Luger – a Brooklyn institution that opened two years after Keens with a Michelin star to boast about – I would be able to make a proper comparison. But for now, Keens has the lead.
72 W 36th St, New York, NY 10018
Tel : +1 (212) 947-3636
Visited in Aug 2022