Keens Reigns SupremeDecember 1, 2009 By: Jack Robertiello
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Midtown Manhattan offers a plethora of drinking options beside the modern speakeasy and classic cocktail cult bar, most of them saloons. Many of them have the age-old New York saloon feel — and smell — and that’s all right for a meet after work and a quick brew.
But whenever whiskey makers are visiting New York and want to meet, they inevitably pick the same spot: Keens Steakhouse. Founded in 1885 as Keens Chophouse, in the heart of what was then the Herald Square theater district, the dark, low-ceilinged restaurant buzzes from noon through the wee hours, with a brief respite in the mid-afternoon.
The upstairs bar, under a ceiling hung with hundreds of clay pipes known as churchwardens from the days when patrons would fire them up on arrival, is more of an event space than hangout, but downstairs, the main barroom has a customer base that befits its location so close to Herald and Times Squares, the heart of New York’s Garment District and the so-called crossroads of the world.
Hockey fans, malt lovers, bartenders, models, clothing execs, hard hats, Macy’s-bag-laden tourists, cops — everybody goes to Keens. Nobody orders Aviations there; in fact, order any mixed drink beyond a Bloody Mary or a Martini and you’ll prove you don’t much about reading a bar (though they have added such drinks as Sazeracs and Last Words, along with the Omar Bradley — rye, orange marmalade and bitters). At Keens, it’s usually beer, Scotch on the rocks, a chat with one of your cheek-by-jowl neighbors and the occasional howl of disapproval as another New York team screws up on the small screen at the end of the bar. I wouldn’t have it any other way.