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The Good Life

The Pipes of History

The standout steakhouse Keens is decorated with tens of thousands of clay pipes harkening back to the smoky days of yore
By Mervyn Rothstein | From The Sopranos | 20th Anniversary, March/April 2019
The Pipes of History
Photo/Courtesy of Keens

They look like birds in flight. A giant flock, tens of thousands of them, thin and white, gliding across the ceiling at, of all places, a Midtown Manhattan restaurant.

A closer look reveals that they are pipes—churchwarden pipes—with long, svelte stems leading to the bowls, reminders of the renowned 134-year history of Keens, the popular and highly rated steak- and chophouse on West 36th Street near Herald Square. There are 45,000 of them hanging on the ceiling and the walls, with an equal amount in the restaurant’s storage area.

These pipes were made for smoking, and that’s what Keens’ diners did for decades, its rooms filled with the fragrant aromas of its patrons’ tobaccos of choice. The rich and famous, the powerful and elite, and the average Joe alike would arrive for dinner, tuck into giant mutton chops or aged steaks, and afterward call for their pipes, carefully numbered and stored in-house, and light up to continue their conversations over smoke.

Among those renowned who had their own pipes here—which are visible today behind glass on the restaurant’s walls—were Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, Will Rogers, Babe Ruth, General Douglas MacArthur, George M. Cohan, Enrico Caruso, Diamond Jim Brady and Albert Einstein.

Keens, a New York City institution, is decorated with more than 45,000 clay pipes accumulated over the landmark’s 13-decade run. They adorn the walls and nearly every inch of the ceiling.
Keens, a New York City institution, is decorated with more than 45,000 clay pipes accumulated over the landmark’s 13-decade run. They adorn the walls and nearly every inch of the ceiling. Photo/Daniel Krieger

When Einstein, for example, was contemplating the nature of the universe, he would often do so with a pipe between his lips. For the master 20th-century scientist, a pipe was something special. Smoking one, he is reported to have said, contributed “to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.” Even when he gave up smoking, he was said to chew on an empty pipe. And one place Einstein would enjoy his pipe—as more than 90,000 other fellow humans would relish theirs—was at Keens. “It’s a special thing to be in a place that has been around all these years,” says Bonnie Jenkins, who has been general manager of the restaurant since 1997. “It really does have that feel that it’s the real deal. It’s not just pretending to be something.”

Indeed, visiting the restaurant these days is a bit like traveling back in time to a remnant of the late 19th century—it dates from 1885—while at the same time experiencing a place consistently rated as among the top steakhouses in all of New York City.

The restaurant, which can seat up to 300 diners, retains its yesteryear ambiance with its dark oak-wood paneling, frosted-glass windows, and leather banquettes and booths. More than 500 artifacts festoon the walls, including more than a century’s worth of newspaper front pages, theater playbills, vaudeville posters, cartoons, photos, lithographs and paintings. One is reputed to be the playbill (complete with bloodstains) that President Abraham Lincoln received when he arrived to see the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington in April 1865, and was holding when he was shot. (Next to it is a framed newspaper article apparently proving the playbill’s provenance.) There’s an authentic British Royal Coat of Arms carved in oak, an 1880s color lithograph from the Broadway play Peck’s Bad Boy, and a menu autographed by Joe DiMaggio.

The restaurant has four upstairs rooms, each with a theme. The Lincoln Room displays the presidential-assassination playbill, and also has many political cartoons on the walls. The Lambs Room, the largest, features a sizable 1898 painting of a tiger by the American artist Alexander Pope, as well as photographs of the Shakespearean actors who created the original Lambs Club. The Bull Moose Room honors Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party, with a massive head of a bull moose hanging over the fireplace. It has Civil War relics and an interesting birth chart from 1903, which shows that a baby was born every three minutes on the Lower East Side, compared to one every three weeks on the Upper West Side. The Lillie Langtry room honors the actress who successfully turned what was a men’s-only dining establishment into a place women could frequent. In 1905, attired in satin gown and feather boa, she was refused entry. She sued, and eventually won. After the suit, Keens, to offset any bad publicity, took out an ad that said, “Ladies are in luck—they can now dine at Keens.”

Well-dressed Keens patrons chewing on their churchwardens at a 1940 gathering.
Well-dressed Keens patrons chewing on their churchwardens at a 1940 gathering. Photo/Courtesy of Keens

Keens has been known for its pipes, as well as for its food, from its beginnings. Back in the early days of Keens, an era when smoking was ubiquitous in restaurants, you could get your own pipe, as well as a yearly membership in the eatery’s Pipe Room, for $5. Each pipe had a number on the bowl, unique to its owner. Diners received a membership card, a lifetime membership, with pipe number and name.

The tradition of leaving one’s pipe at an inn or restaurant dates back to 17th-century England, the restaurant says. Unlike a sturdy briar, the thin, clay churchwarden pipes—each measuring about 15 inches long, with a long, slim stem and delicate bowl—were far too fragile for travel. Keens offered to keep them on the premises and bring them to patrons when they dined. A pipe warden guarded the collection of delicate pipes, and pipe boys would carry the appropriate ones to the tables when you wanted to smoke after a meal, often a lunch or dinner of what became the restaurant’s signature dish, a two-pound mutton chop.

When a smoker died, his pipe’s stem would be ceremonially broken. Friends would gather at the restaurant and sometimes smoke the pipe together. Then they would break the stem of the pipe so no one else could smoke it.

Today, with smoking no longer allowed inside New York City restaurants, current members become honorary pipe members. They can buy a pipe for $35 (plus tax) and sign it. Keens orders about 1,000 every year, general manager Jenkins says. Most are made in Holland by a company called Royal Delft—Keens is the only customer. Pipes can no longer be stored at the restaurant, but people buy them as keepsakes.

Keens (no apostrophe) Chophouse, as it was first known, was the creation of theater producer Albert Keen. Before 1885, the West 36th Street restaurant, in the thick of what was then New York City’s theater district, was part of the New York version of the Lambs Club, an organization of actors, composers, comedians and other theater folk that had originated in London and that Keen managed. After Keen opened the independent restaurant, it became known as a theatrical hangout. Performers from the Garrick Theatre nearby would sneak out at intermission in makeup and costume to gird themselves for the second act.

The Keens of 2019 is known for the high quality of its steaks and chops. But the modern version of the legendary mutton chop is most definitely muttonless, actually a 26-ounce, two-inch-tall saddle of lamb, on the bone. “Sometimes it’s slightly bigger, sometimes slightly smaller, though they are weighed,” Jenkins says. The change occurred not long after World War II, she says, when mutton fell out of favor among American diners, and top-quality mutton became difficult to find. So by the late 1940s, lamb became the more palatable option.

Keens has a long list of whiskies, with around 240 single-malt Scotches alone.
Keens has a long list of whiskies, with around 240 single-malt Scotches alone. Photo/Daniel Krieger

The lamb that makes up Keens mutton chop is definitely a little older than spring lamb, so it has a stronger flavor. “We shoot for about 10 months, and that’s mostly for size,” says Jenkins. “You want to get a good-size mutton chop.”

The mutton chop and Keens are inseparable. “There were always accolades behind the mutton chop,” Jenkins says. “It was always sort of unique to Keens.” The one millionth serving of the two-pound mutton chop was sold in 1935. It was devoured by Warren T. Godfroy, an insurance man who had been a customer for a quarter century. A procession accompanied the dish to the table, with an employee in a Beefeater costume playing a bugle.

Now of course it’s Keens Steakhouse and there are many other choices, though “Chophouse” remains on the sign outside. Traditional and highly rated steakhouse fare—filet mignon, sirloin, prime rib, porterhouse—make up much of the menu, and are a reason for the restaurant’s almost universal high ratings.

Keens is known for its drink as well as its food, particularly its menu of Scotches, a collection begun by George Schwarz, its late owner. The restaurant claims that the thick list (see sidebar) is tops among Manhattan restaurants.

The bar area contains many photos from parties that happened at Keens. One from August 29, 1908, shows the United States Olympic team (all men) at a table. Over the bar itself rests a painting of a reclining and very nubile nude woman—“Miss Keens,” named by Schwarz—staring forthrightly at the drinking patrons. It’s a typical saloon painting from the late 1890s. No one knows who painted her.

The long story of Keens nearly came to an end 40 years ago. In 1978, Keens was close to shutting its doors for good, racked by the economy and old-age disrepair. New York City itself had been on the verge of financial collapse—three years earlier, its Daily News newspaper had announced in large black letters on page one that President Ford had told the city to “drop dead,” and the crisis had affected businesses throughout the Big Apple.

The theater district had long moved to Times Square, the Metropolitan Opera, which had been four blocks away and provided many a patron, had moved in the 1960s to Lincoln Center, and old-style restaurants had lost some of their allure. Guard dogs sat in the restaurant after it was closed.

Diners tuck away at the beef and lamb under the gaze of those old pipes.
Diners tuck away at the beef and lamb under the gaze of those old pipes. Photo/Evan Sung

To the rescue rode Schwarz, a Frankfurt, Germany-born physician and restaurateur who fled from Hitler as a child and owned the successful One Fifth and Elephant & Castle in Greenwich Village, and his wife, the Austrian-born artist Kiki Kogelnik. They had an architect look at it who said it would be no trouble to renovate. It turned out to be huge. The renovation took three years, and cost more than $1.4 million. There was a longer bar, new floors and air conditioning, and cleaning for those endless pieces of history on all the walls. Schwarz died in 2016, Kogelnik in 1997. Today, the restaurant is part of Schwarz’s estate.

Keens is once again busy, a New York institution, with diners who tuck away at the hefty servings of beef and lamb under the gaze of those old pipes. When asked, the restaurant will attempt to find the pipes of yesteryear for the owners, relatives or descendants of pipe owners. People call or write, either looking for their own pipe, or perhaps a churchwarden once owned by a loved one. The search isn’t always easy. The 1970s renovation and a long-ago fire affected the ease of recovery, so having the number available is usually essential. “If you don’t have it, it’s nearly impossible, because the records aren’t in the best of shape,” Jenkins says. “It’s a little like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Those “needles,” even now, remain worth finding, and the sight of those bird-seeming objects on Keens’ ceiling and walls elicits smiles, nods of recognition at their illustrious owners, and a mood of excitement at the sense of history, the remembrance of pipes past, that the restaurant evokes. The Victorian English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote that “a pipe is the fountain of contemplation, the source of pleasure, the companion of the wise.”

At Keens, you can find 90,000 of those companions.

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