I’ll readily admit that steakhouses generally don’t get me all-fired-up. Despite my love of red meat and creamed spinach, I find them over-the-top, stodgy, and generally uninspired. However, a recent dinner excursion to Keens Chophouse has me totally and completely enamored with the concept of the classic New York and only New York old-school steakhouse. Keens has been in business since 1885, and even longer if you count it’s prior affiliation with the Lambs Club, a theater and literary group. For those 125-ish years, it has remained in the pretty magical Herald Square location that it continues to occupy today. Sure, the surrounding neighborhood has transformed from a thriving theater and arts district into the grimy Fashion District a smidgeon too close to Penn Station no-mans-land, yet Keens Chophouse is a culinary beacon worth visiting.
The dining rooms, of which there are an astonishing number in the bi-level space, are dark, cozy, and charming. They have the creaky luxurious feel of beautifully-refurbished antiques and the palpable history of many many years of use. Despite the general buzz of large parties and the ability to walk on in without a reservation, the rooms at Keens manage to exude the feeling of an exclusive private club. The ceilings are low and the walls paneled with rich dark wood; intricate brass lanterns hang from the ceiling, illuminating the rows of black-and-white photographs, framed yellowing documents, and gilt-framed oil paintings clustered together on every inch of wall space; banquettes of brilliant crimson and chocolate leather line the walls, pressed close against tables swathed with crisp white tablecloths. It’s all marvelous and intimate – no sign of cookie-cutter chain steakhouse decor here. Perhaps the most extraordinary design feature of Keens though, and what it is certainly famous for, are the rows upon rows of clay pipes that hang from the ceiling. In total, they number over 50,000 and are true relics (the story can be found here).
The food is what you would expect from a steakhouse – plenty of meat, plenty of seafood, and a few classic sides. It’s a USDA prime-only steakhouse, and the meat is just fantastic. Choice abounds – aged prime sirloin, king’s cut, t-bone, porterhouse cuts for two or three, short ribs, filet mignon, and, most wonderfully, chateaubriand. The chateaubriand, the most tender and flavorful cuts of tenderloin, serves two – and it’s a buttery, juicy, immensely rich marvel. Topped with the truffled creamy mushroom sauce, it’s a slice of heaven. The kitchen also offers its famous mutton chops, hulking and gargantuan, a slice of New York epicurean history, as well as pick-your-own lobsters, double lamb chops, buttermilk chicken, a classic preparation of the increasingly rare dover sole, and of course an array of traditional appetizers (crab cakes, oysters Rockefeller, iceberg lettuce with Stilton blue cheese dressing – which is just perfect – and shrimp cocktail). You know the drill – if you’ve ever been to a steakhouse, chain or not chain, the menu is familiar. At Keens though, the food tastes … homemade, authentic and loved; it doesn’t smack of assembly-line ‘production;’ there is real heartfelt cooking going on here.
Well, I’ll just come out and say it then: Keens is my favorite steakhouse in New York (of those that I’ve visited so far) and perhaps of all time. Dining at Keens is a pleasant, seamless, unique, and traditional experience – one worth trying at least once. The service is just perfect – present and attentive but not bothersome; and the combination of dim lighting, incredibly affordable wine, and truly wonderful food easily lulls you into a satiated state of happiness.
Perfect For: anniversary meals, showing your parents a slice of classic New York City, blowout client dinners, after-work scotches, a night out with the boys