Dining

Classic Table: Keens Steakhouse

Where sustenance and sustained ritual have stood the test of time

What happened to the apostrophe?

Dunno.

Who is "Miss Keens" and what's she doing reclining nude upon that lion skin rug, as depicted in the very large oil painting presiding over the bar?

Who can say?

Keens Steakhouse, née Keen's English Chop House, has been around with one name or another since 1855. It has earned its mysteries.

About the famed mutton chops, we know this: They weigh 26 ounces, are perennially perfect, faithfully flavorful and framed by great handlebars of golden, fire-crisped fat.

Manager James Morelli | The infamous pipes
It hardly matters that they're not mutton at all these days but saddle of lamb. Would you really know the difference? Well congratulations, farmer; go back to your farm. This is a Manhattan steakhouse. It's a put-on-a-tie, oak-paneled place where, blessedly, nothing has changed since Chester A. Arthur was president and someone figured out that blue cheese dressing is what iceberg wedges were made for.

Do they serve the best beef in the city? Oh, shut up. New York has entered its Post Steakhouse Period. There's so much good stuff out there you don't need to go the creamed-spinach-and-grumpy-waiters route to find it. For pure beef bliss, go to Estela for whatever Ignacio Mattos is doing to a ribeye that day, or uptown to Betony for their crazy short rib, or out to Bushwick for Blanca's miraculous porterhouse--aged forever, cooked patiently over priceless Binchotan.

A place like this is revered for sustained ritual more than mere sustenance. Keens has managed both forever, and the grub remains good down to the hot fudge sundaes, served in giant goblets, we order every time. (When they served their millionth mutton chop back in 1935, it was headline news in the Times.)

How to feast: bacon, the legendary mutton, prime rib hash
About that most distinctive of Keensian decorative touches, the old clay pipes that line the ceiling: They are remnants of a time when a gentleman left his personal pipe at his club for convenience's sake. On view, among the tens of thousands, are pipes belonging to Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Buffalo Bill Cody.

We called famously knowledgeable funny person John Hodgman, who, in addition to being the only member of the Pipe Club we knew, was also alive and could comment on the pleasure of having his signed smoking instrument in the Keens collection.

Hodgman was on en route to a Keens lunch when we rang. "Sometimes I see it in the glass case near the door; sometimes I don't," he said of his own pipe. "I try not to panic when it is not visible, but I have to confess: It is only when I see it that I am absolutely sure that I am alive."

For the rest of us, it's enough to know that Keens will always be there, ready with its mutton, collective memory and other people's pipes--the ur-ideal New York steakhouse.

Keens Steakhouse 75 W. 36th St. New York NY 10018 212-947-3636

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