Monday, April 6, 2009

Keens Steakhouse

Keens Chop House (est. 1885)
72 W. 36th St. (between 5th & 6th Aves.)
Open daily except Christmas.
M-F 11:45a-10:30p; Sat 5:00p-10:30p; Sun 5:00p-9:00p

Not much has changed at Keens since it opened in 1885, except the name change from "Chop House" to "Steakhouse" in 1995. Nevertheless, to satisfy the traditionalists, they kept the "Chop House" sign intact. Keens is the antithesis of most New York City restaurants. It's a dark, low-ceiling place near Herald Square, Madison Square Garden and Penn Station that serves artery-clogging meats with abandon. Their signature "mutton chop" (actually saddle of lamb) keeps cardiologists in business, yet Keens has remained a runaway success for generations.

The menu touts the Mutton Chop as a specialty – but it’s a ruse. That was all in the past. Since not long after the end of WWII Keens has served lamb chops, not mutton, in spite of what the menu says. The lamb comes from an animal 10 months old, which is older that most lamb served in restaurants, but not old enough to be called mutton. The restaurant does serve a cut that resembles mutton on the plate (you’ll understand why side whiskers are called “mutton chops” at first glance). Stick with the aged beef and lamb dishes (the lunch menu fried chicken salad being an exception), and apple crisp (other desserts are blah). Instead of dessert, however, why not enjoy a flight of single malt scotches (200 varieties on offer) at the end of the meal?

Today, Keens is the only survivor of the once-famous Herald Square Theatre District. In an age which tears down so much of the past, it is comforting to find one landmark that continues.

Yet Keens is known for more than its food. They own the largest collection of churchwarden clay pipes in the world. Keens displays thousands of these pipes on the ceilings of their dining rooms, which ramble over two floors of three connecting town houses. The tradition of checking one’s pipe at an inn had its origins in 17th century England where travelers kept their clay at their favorite inn – the thin stemmed pipe being too fragile to be carried in purse or saddlebag. Pipe smoking was known since Elizabethan times to be beneficial for dissipating “evil humours of the brain.”

The Keens pipe tradition began in the early 20th century. The hard clay churchwarden pipes were brought from the Netherlands, and as many as 50,000 were ordered every three years. A staff pipe warden registered and stored the pipes, while pipe boys returned the pipes from storage to the patrons. The membership roster of the Pipe Club contained over ninety thousand names, including those of Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Will Rogers, Billy Rose, Grace Moore, Albert Einstein, George M. Cohan, J.P. Morgan, Stanford White, John Barrymore, David Belasco, Adlai Stevenson, General Douglas MacArthur and “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Today, most of these pipes are displayed on the ceiling (click on the photo below).

A Keens specialty: a flight of after-dinner scotches.

1. The prices are gentler in the pub, where a more casual menu offers sandwiches, burgers and salads.
2. The clubby, masculine bar is not to be missed (first photo of this post).
3. The Bullmoose Room is considerably quieter than the noisy Lambs Room.

No comments: