Oh, if Miss Keens could talk. From her cozy perch upon a lion's-head divan, she of little clothes and stoic guise calmly watches over the drinkers who pile into her barroom nightly. What would the sultry brunette muse of Keens Steakhouse have to say about the clientele she sees?
"Keep it down!" perhaps.
I have fond college-age memories of grabbing dinner here in with my dad, but before my most recent visit I hadn't been in years. I was curious, in a city where well-made cocktails have become the norm, if the bar at Keens—in so many ways a throwback to Old New York—had been left behind. Was it still a safe bet for a great drink in an area where such a thing is hard to come by?
The answer is, it's complicated. For the bar at Keens is no secret to the tourists, pre-theater-goers, dolled-up singles, and working stiffs of Herald Square. Penn Station's saucier commuters pre-game here before catching trains. Suits with expense accounts whet their appetites on martinis here before circling steaks. When I arrived around 5 p.m. on a recent Monday, the pitch in the room was bumping up against crass. All the stools were taken, as was much of the standing room behind them. Evidently, even so early in the workweek, while diners in the neighboring rooms clog their arteries with Keens's legendary mutton, a similar drama plays out at the bar, with pushy patrons standing in for plaque and cells. A first lunge toward a pair of vacating seats was thwarted by a bartender, who said he'd promised the prime spots to two young ladies. (We gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed they were regulars.) In time, we claimed one and then a second stool; and at that point, as drinks arrived, the well-worn charms of Keens began to work their magic.
The 1885 building holds a trove of memorabilia. The ceilings in the dining rooms are famously lined with long-necked clay pipes, harkening back to the days when Keens was a pipe club. Taxidermy, oil paintings (of which "Miss Keens' is one), and even a suit of armor decorate the sprawling, winding space. Several pieces in the Keens collection of quirky antiquity spill into the barroom, making the walls a rich visual playground.
Speaking of stunning visuals, behind the bar sits another of Keens's extensive collections: many, many bottles of Scotch. Simply by virtue of having this much whisky to choose from, Keens qualifies as an important New York drinking destination, at least if single malts happen to be your thing. But I was far more interested to see what the bartenders were capable of. And after turning me away from an open seat, they were already behind in the count.
The cocktail menu at Keens, I was surprised to see, is fairly solid—a thoughtful selection of classics, a seasonal mulled wine, a house Bloody Mary (all drinks are $13). There isn't much modernist daring, but that would probably seem out of place here. The Last Word is a bold, bracing cocktail with which to kindle your evening. Plymouth gin, Green Chartreuse, lime, and Luxardo maraschino liqueur are given a hard shake and strained into a martini glass—a regrettable vessel if you're amid the standing scrum. But if you like the spirited play of citrus and botanical flavors, this is your move.
As the evening progressed, the gentlemen behind the stick gradually earned back our good graces. For how busy the bar was, they remained friendly and attentive. None of them wince at orders for Cosmos and flavored vodka on the rocks. They liberally dole out tastes of unusual Scotches to guests they recognize. And at one point, they passed out these complimentary plates of tuna on toasts—a tasty upgrade over more run-of-the-mill salty bar snacks.
One of the misses on the cocktail menu is the Tiger Lily, a one-dimensional blend of gin, elderflower liqueur, and Peychaud's bitters, topped with sparkling wine and orange peel. Nothing else seems to get past the blunt, syrupy floral flavor of the elderflower.
By contrast, one of true winners of the 11-drink list is the Improved Highland Cocktail. So-called improved cocktails (such as the Improved Whiskey or Improved Gin Cocktail) take the basic build of a cocktail (spirit, bitters, sugar, water) and enhance it with one or more modifiers. Here Keens works within its comfort zone, mixing Dewar's Scotch with absinthe, maraschino, simple syrup, and bitters. This is a delicious, complex, muscular drink, with distinct layers of malt, smoke, and anise. It felt like a great discovery, much the same way Keens itself can be when this living piece of history is free to show off its old-school charm.
About the Author: Roger Kamholz is a food journalist living in New York City. Before moving to NYC he covered the Chicago food and drinks scene for four years. In addition to Serious Eats, Roger's writing and photography has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, Refinery 29, Grub Street, and Chicagoist. Check out more of his work at rogerkamholz.com.