Secrets of Keens
New York City's legendary steakhouse has lots of juicy secrets, from being busted for selling booze during the Prohibition to the mystery painting of the nude Miss Keens who presides over the scotch bar
Peter Luger may be more of a household name than Albert Keen. And the Old Homestead may have a few more years under its belt. But Keens Steakhouse has so many historical collections that it’s the only steakhouse that practically doubles as a museum. Keens sits in the space that housed the original Lambs Club, the first professional theatrical club in the U.S., and was a part of the club from 1878. At the time, Herald Square was Manhattan’s Theater District. The Metropolitan Opera was three blocks north; and the famous Garrick Theater sat just behind Keens. When the Lambs Club moved uptown, the space officially became Keens Chophouse in 1885, and the restaurant immediately became a hangout for theater folk who fancied a smoke, a drink and a chop. Today, it is a dining house that serves the nearby garment trade; sports fans coming to or from Madison Square Garden; theater buffs; politicians and historians; and all lovers of a fine cut of meat. It is also a rabbit hole of fascinating historical artifacts. Here’s a look at some of those pieces — and the restaurant’s lesser-known history.
Who was Albert Keen?
Albert Keen was an Englishman (hence Keens being founded as an English chophouse), and an actor, though likely not a well-known one, according to Keens’ unofficial historian and director of service, James Conley. “He managed the Lambs Club before it became Keens Chophouse,” Conley says. “So it’s hard to imagine that he was that busy as an actor… I would think that running this place would take up most of his time.”
What’s up with those clay pipes on the ceiling?
The ceilings throughout the multi-roomed restaurant are lined with clay pipes — the largest collection in the world, actually, at 90,000 strong. Starting from its days within the Lambs Club, members of Keens’ Pipe Club would be assigned a pipe card and a serial number. As the clay pipes were fragile, the restaurant offered to keep them on the premises and bring them to patrons when they arrived. When a member of the club passed away, the stem would be cracked in memoriam. Famous Pipe Club members included Theodore Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Liza Minnelli, Stanford White, Enrico Caruso and General Douglas MacArthur, whose smokes are preserved in showcases in the restaurant’s foyer. Pipes are also stored in the pipe room, where Conley or general manager Bonnie Jenkins are often called on to search through and retrieve pipes left or passed on by ancestors — Conley says they end up actually finding about one in seven requests, such as this one for a writer from the New York Times. Though the Pipe Club officially stopped assigning serial numbers in the late 1970s, today some customers become honorary Pipe Club members. One lucky patron was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was inducted in 2003, ironically the day before his city-wide smoking ban took effect.
A famous actress took a stand for women’s rights here
Lillie Langtry, a famous British actress and mistress of the King of England, shook up the male establishment at Keens one night in 1905 when she had a hankering for a fine piece of meat. Langtry strolled into the gentlemen-only restaurant and was greeted by waiters with folded arms who refused to serve her. She promptly sued the restaurant and won. Keens cleverly capitalized on the landmark decision with an advertisement proclaiming “Ladies are in luck! They may now dine at Keens.” The restaurant also held a dinner to honor Langtry, serving turtle soup, filet of sole and partridge with currant jelly. The menu from the occasion is mounted just outside the Lillie Langtry room, which commemorates the legendary activist and actress.
Nearly 20 years after Langtry’s visit, a women’s movement against Prohibition started at Keens
There were eventually two other branches of Keens: one at the historic Ansonia on the Upper West Side and one on West 44th Street (both now closed). According to Conley, Keens was busted, at more than one location, for selling beer illegally during Prohibition. The 44th Street location, which was eventually shut down for selling booze, happened to also be the site of a formation of a women’s group against the Volstead Act in 1922. The New York Times reported on the first assemblage of the Anti-Fanatic League of Women. Their purpose: to “vigorously oppose the nomination of and election of all persons who favor prohibition and blue laws.” The president of the organization was Miss Elisabeth Marbury, a famed theatrical and literary agent of the time, who represented notables such as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
The legendary mutton chop is not actually mutton
It’s a lamb chop. A giant one, at 26 ounces. And probably the best that the city has to offer. But whether it is or isn’t mutton really depends on your definition of “mutton,” says Conley. “Some people consider a one-year old lamb to be mutton. It’s not a spring lamb. It’s a bigger animal and that is essentially what we have, a one year-old Pennsylvania lamb.” Frank Bruni got to the bottom of what he cheekily called the mutton lie. Either way, the mutton has been the most popular order since Keens’ inception, so much so that by 1935, the one millionth (real) mutton chop was sold. “A gentleman came in and ordered a mutton chop and they had people with heraldic trumpets hiding in the back,” Conley recounts. “They came out and blew a fanfare and they bought his dinner.” After World War II, however, mutton apparently fell out of favor, and when the new regime took over in the late 70s, they changed the chop to the more in-favor lamb.
A Pope hangs out in Keens
Alexander Pope, that is. A giant oil painting of a tiger by the renowned American artist is the centerpiece of the Lambs Room. If you look closely, a mouse is lightly painted in the foreground — an interesting spin on the Lion and Mouse fable. Conley says that Pope was usually known for animal portraiture of horses or hunting dogs, so this one is particularly rare. The Lambs Room also serves as a theatrical hall of fame, as it is also decorated with photographs of 19th century actors such as David Belasco and Ellen Terry. Historic theater posters and antique playbills round out the collection, including one from a Wild West show with Buffalo Bill Cody that lists Annie Oakley as the girl “wing-shot.”
There’s a shrine to Honest Abe here
The entire Lincoln Room was built around one impressive artifact: the program the President was holding in his hand when he was assassinated on April 15, 1865. A newspaper clipping hung beside the framed program tells the story of how it came to Keens: A young man who was working at Ford’s Theater had taken it from underneath Lincoln’s chair. “Then he left the employ of Ford’s and lived the life of a vagabond down-on-his-luck,” Conley explains. “He eventually ended up in New York, met a theater owner who gave him a job and a second chance in life.” The young man gave the theater owner the program, and the theater owner, years later, gifted the program to Keens, knowing the restaurant had a large collection of theatrical memorabilia. Another great relic hung in the Lincoln room — a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address. Appropriately, when the film Lincoln opened in 2012, director Stephen Spielberg and actor Daniel Day-Lewis celebrated by dining in the Lincoln Room at Keens.
A medical doctor and a pop artist saved Keens from obscurity
Amid a bankrupt city, Keens fell on hard times and closed in 1977. One snowy night the following winter, radiation oncologist George Schwarz (who also dabbled in the restaurant business) happened to be walking by the abandoned steakhouse with his wife, famed pop artist Kiki Kogelnik. Kogelnik was immediately taken with the building, remarking that it looked “magical, almost like a castle,” says Conley. The couple made the project their passion, lovingly restoring it and reopening in 1978. It has been thriving under Schwarz’s ownership ever since.
Their “secret” to great steaks
It’s a combination of long-term relationships with meat purveyors; hand-selecting the USDA prime beef; on-premises dry-aging for three weeks; and the steadiness of chef Bill Rodgers, a two-decade veteran of the Keens kitchen, and his team. “We have a lot of expertise in house,” Conley says. “There is a lot of working knowledge and a lot of craft in getting things right.” Prior to Keens, Rodgers worked in the kitchens of greats such as Barry Wine at the Quilted Giraffe and Thomas Keller at Rakel.
The mystery of Miss Keens
A lovely, reclining, unclothed woman keeps watch over the scotch bar (which carries 300 varieties of single malt bottles). She is “Miss Keens,” the title chosen by owner George Schwarz, who found the portrait and thought it fit right in with the steakhouse’s décor. (It does). No one knows who the artist is; no one knows who the beauty may be. But plenty at the bar love to invent histories over drinks. And she also appears on the menu, honored with the “Miss Keens” burger. In homage to Atkins dieters, it’s a bunless burger ($17.50) — served nude, of course.
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