Exploring the Secrets of Keens Steakhouse (and the bar)

Known as New York City’s legendary steakhouse, Keens Steakhouse is smothered in juicy secrets. From the ceiling lined with clay pipes to the mysterious painting of the nude woman over the Scotch bar, it’s certainly worth checking out. First opening its doors in 1885, it stood the test of time for over 130 years. Once described as “world renowned,” the restaurant grew to become legendary with the new Millennium.

The bar at Keens Steakhouse.
The bar at Keens Steakhouse.

Comfortable and classy, the environment of Keens is rich with history. Every room in the steakhouse displays some kind of record of America’s or New York’s younger days, and there are hundreds of pieces visitors can spend hours looking at, sometimes discovering something new that they missed the last time. As for the types of guests the steakhouse attracts, they’re a very diverse and fun crowd.

“The guests at Keens come from all walks of life and from all over the world,” said general manager Bonnie Jenkins. “There are families, business guests, couples, people visiting the U.S. from overseas and from other parts of the U.S., bachelor parties, people whose families have been coming here for generations who pass the tradition down, and young people who want to experience a place that is largely unchanged for over 100 years.”

One of the first stops for many is the impressive bar, which holds over 610 spirits, nearly 300 of them being single malt Scotches. There’s also a great selection of American Whiskeys, Cognacs, and Armagnac.

As for the most commonly ordered drinks, Jenkins said most customers go for the ones that stand the test of time.

“The most popular drinks are the classics such as Manhattans, Old Fashions and martinis,” she said. “Our Bloody Mary is a big favorite as well and is made with balsamic vinegar.”

Aside from the bar being stacked with anything you could possibly imagine, it also offers delicious freebies if you’re feeling hungry. From 5:30 to 7 p.m. on weekdays there’s a different snack up for grabs. Past offerings included meatballs, barbecued spareribs, and drunken shrimp, in addition to the hard-boiled eggs and pretzels that are readily available.

One thing that certainly doesn’t go unnoticed during a visit to Keens is the painting of the unclothed woman keeping watch over the bar. Her name is “Miss Keens,” a title chosen by owner George Schwarz, who found the portrait and thought it fit in with the steakhouse’s décor.

“Miss Keens is a typical saloon painting from the late 1890s,” Jenkins said. “It’s a mystery who painted her and many have been intrigued enough by her that they have tried to figure it out and have shared their research with us, and although they are theories, we are still not sure.”

Although no one knows her background, Miss Keens also appears on the menu, honored with the Miss Keens burger, a burger served nude, without a bun.

When it comes to the ceilings lined with clay pipes—another one of the big mysteries of the steakhouse—Jenkins said it was a tradition to store them at a favorite inn or tavern back in the day, because if they were carried a long way, they’d break. As the clay pipes were fragile, the restaurant offered to keep them on the premises and bring them to patrons when they arrived. The pipe membership began at Keens and the restaurant had to employ pipe wardens and their assistants. Patrons were given a membership card with their name and pipe number on it, and at the end of their meal, the pipe warden would present their pipe. 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.

“During my tenure at Keens I have been able to locate pipes for various members or their family members who have come across a loved one’s pipe card and has asked us to locate it for them,” said Jenkins.  “Although, we cannot locate them all, when you do, it is a really special and unique moment to share in.”

For more secrets of Keens or to uncover more hidden treasures at New York’s most amazing places, visit NewYork.com.

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