It is a dark and snowy night. I turn the corner at West 36th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York, and enter Keen’s Steakhouse. History, red meat, nudity and brown spirits await me.
Inside, I locate my friend Rosemary. She is my home decluttering guru. Once she organized my kitchen, and today continues to offer counsel on keeping my life clutter free, which is a beautiful thing to have when circumstances get messy. Rosemary is a bit of a cocktail queen – and quite adept at dispensing advice – so I have been encouraging her to embark on a new career as a mixologist. Keen’s was established circa 1885 – and is renowned for its selection of brown spirits – so we are there to soak up the atmosphere, along with a few cocktails. At the door, Keens displays a parchment that lists “The Virtues of Whiskey.”
Rosemary is petite, but a force to be reckoned with. She has staked out a spot at the bar among a team of linebackers who are aggressively pushing in for their drinks. I squeeze my way in. She’s nursing a bit of a cold, and has already ordered an Old Fashioned. I signal the bartender and request a Manhattan Cocktail – my Dad’s favorite drink. I’m carrying on the legacy, as are several of my brothers.
Keen’s has a notable history as a chophouse, and a haunt for actors and celebrities of all kinds. The British actress Lillie Langtry got into a row with Keen’s over a mutton chop at the turn of the last century, and the likes of J.P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, John Barrymore and Babe Ruth have frequented the spot. At the front door, encased in glass, is a collection of clay pipes that belonged to some of the most famous patrons.
Above the bar, framed by rows of whisky bottles, is a large painting of a buxom, totally naked woman lounging in a provocative pose. At first, I think it’s the Manhattan Cocktail, but yes, the woman is completely au natural. Under the painting is the inscription “Miss Keens.”
My imagination runs wild. Who was she? The owner? The owner’s paramour? A Lady Godiva wannabe? And what might have inspired her to take it all off? There must be a scandalous “only in New York” story behind this salacious portrait. But, at this point we suddenly realize we are starving and are distracted by the pub menu.
I point out to Rosemary that Miss Keens actually has a menu item named after her – the Miss Keens Burger. Listed below that is what sounds like a rather ordinary “Hamburger.” We ask the bartender how the two are different, fully expecting the burger named after the voluptuous Miss Keens to be an extravagant treat. Oddly enough, the Miss Keens Burger is the low carb menu item. It comes stripped naked without a bun (I suppose there’s something oddly poetic about that) and a side salad. But, the lowly “Hamburger” comes with fries and can be dressed up anyway we like it. We decide to order a hunk of Stilton Cheese melted on top. The kitchen staff is even nice enough to split the burger in half making it easier to share. The combination of savory beef and pungent Stilton is intoxicating.
As we are leaving, I ask the bartender, “So, who was Miss Keens, anyway?” He tells me nobody is really sure. The owner liked the painting, bought it, place it above the bar, and christened it “Miss Keens.”
Only in New York, indeed.©2012 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved