Noah Brier | June 28, 2022

The Keen's Edition

On chops, hospitality, and the past

Noah here. In the mid-1950s my grandfather had an office near Midtown in Manhattan. He was a salesman and regularly entertained customers at a local steakhouse, Keen’s English Chop House. (He regularly propped my six-year-old dad up on a barstool with hard-boiled eggs and bread while he took his meeting.) Knowing the restaurant (and the man), he almost definitely enjoyed his medium-rare meat with a scotch and a pipe.

Why is this interesting?

Keen’s Steakhouse is a midtown institution. Located on 36th Street near Herald Square, Keen’s is roughly what you’d expect from a steakhouse that served its millionth mutton chop in 1935. Dark woods, dusty corners, and slabs of meat larger than your head have been the Keen’s aesthetic for over a hundred years.

What makes Keen’s different than your average house of meat is the pipes. They hang from the ceiling of the main dining room, covering every inch of the large sunken room. The churchwarden pipes have a long stem and are mostly made of clay. Each one is numbered and signed by its owner, harkening back to a day when ​​a nearly thirty-ounce mutton chop and a smoke qualified as a working lunch.

According to Keen’s, “The membership roster of the Pipe Club contained over ninety thousand names, including those of Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Will Rogers, Billy Rose, Grace Moore, Albert Einstein, George M. Cohan, J.P. Morgan, Stanford White, John Barrymore, David Belasco, Adlai Stevenson, General Douglas MacArthur and ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody.”

As opposed to most modern steakhouses, Keen’s doesn’t feel like an act. That’s partly because it’s been operating (mostly) continuously since the late-1800s and partly because its management is committed to holding onto the unique personality of the place. In 2005 critic Frank Bruni said that “No restaurant in New York City pays the kind of lavish, often kooky, sometimes even touching tribute to the past that Keens does.” 

While that might sound like strange praise, walking the line between nostalgic and sincere is treacherous, particularly in midtown Manhattan. But one of the fun parts of any city with a history like New York’s is visiting strange gems that manage to straddle those worlds seamlessly. Keen’s and its ceiling full of pipes does just that. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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