Keens Steakhouse is a restaurant in Manhattan literally steeped in history. In the late 19th century, the restaurant was frequented by members of The Lambs Club, America’s oldest theater society imported from the UK.
Albert Keen, a stalwart of the Lambs Club, started the restaurant which rose to prominence as a pipe club. In 1885, a membership cost five dollars. This entitled you to a membership in the restaurant, and after your meal, you could request your pipe. A pipe boy would fetch it for you and you could go elsewhere in this establishment to enjoy a postprandial indulgence. This was a place frequented for many years by prominent members of Manhattan, North American and international society. One can still see pipes wed to Babe Ruth, Douglas MacArthur and Bill Gates.
One can see the ubiquitous pipes hanging from the ceiling at Keens in virtually all of their dining rooms. The pipes at Keens are from the Netherlands and are made from clay. The reason pipes were stored here in the first place is prior to the combustion engine, horses or carriages were used for transport. The clay pipes were so fragile, they were incompatible with 19th or early 20th-century transportation. Interestingly, when a pipe club member passed, the member’s pipe was broken at the stem, a symbol of the member’s retirement.
My dining companion (DC) and I came here for lunch but more on that later. Our server suggested we take a tour of Keens. We were lucky to have Gary Bernstein, one of the managers, give us a private tour.
The restaurant was owned by someone other than Keen for 50 years in the 20th century. In the 1970s, the restaurant was bought by an investment firm and all of the memorabilia here was almost sold off piecemeal. The restaurant was brought back to life by George Schwarz, a physician and restaurateur.
Here is a brief video account from Gary, literally a Keens curator. He is very good on camera and gives the viewer a good sense of the history. Gary took us into another of the dining areas, The Lambs Room. This was a dining area that had much memorabilia from The Lambs Club. The Alexander Pope oil is most notable.
We also toured the Lillie Langtry room. In 1905, Lillie Langtry, actress and paramour of King Edward of England, took Keens to court for having denied her access to its gentlemen-only premises. She won her case. What is interesting here is a lithograph of a show in the very early 20th century from the Herald Square Theater District that is featured in the Lillie Langtry room. Fabulous.
We ended this unbelievable grounding in Keen’s history with a tour of The Bull Moose Room, a celebration of Teddy Roosevelt and related memorabilia. Gary cannot describe this any better than he did on this video.
As an aside, we were told that when they hire servers, most being here many years, they reject salesperson types. The restaurant views it as brusk up selling water or liquor here, which is very refreshing. They also serve crew meals gratis. This is old school, excellent, and unfortunately, becoming something of the past in contemporary restaurants. Bravo Keens. Now for our meal. We tried to exert somewhat ubiquitous choices in our menu sampling which was hard given what was on the Lunch Menu and there being only DC and me. Before ordering, our water glasses were never empty which I consider a real plus in terms of restaurant service. Out of nowhere, a pewter water pitcher appeared when our glasses dropped below half full. In retrospect, per our tour, we were never asked if we wanted city, still or sparkling. A breath of fresh air. As part of the old school atmosphere, there was no split charge, unusual for an establishment of this caliber.
The following dishes, with the exception of our main side, are a split portion of a lunch menu item. Before ordering, warm rolls were brought to the table with a huge slab of chilled butter. Old school here we come… We started out with a split portion of the lobster bisque. As the lobster bisque aficionado would attest, there are many different recipes for this. Keens prepares this dish using a roux, a wonderful amalgam of butter and flour that upon cooking, adds intense flavor to soups and stews. Although lobster bisque is usually not on my radar when ordering at a restaurant, this was one of the better I have had. It was creamy, heavy and only made that much better by the flavor only a well-prepared roux can give. Most recommended.
We then moved onto, again, a split portion of the braised short rib salad. This was heaven in a salad bowl with butter lettuce, avocado, tomato, short rib and goat cheese. Another split portion, and another excellent dish.
Who dare eat here and not sample a steak, what the whole contemporary cuisine of Keens is based on. We settled on a 16oz. portion of their prime sirloin. This steak is dry-aged in house for 21 days. Our steak was cooked perfectly. I can say this was one of the best steaks I have ever eaten and the 16oz. split portion, at $56.00, was worth every penny.
All in all, the service at Keens was excellent, the food exceptional all of which was buttressed by an amazing tour from one of the curators at Keens.
For a visitor to NYC or anyone else for that matter, what more could one ask for?
Go here! You will not be disappointed and may experience something extraordinary.