The earliest New York steakhouses took on two forms: the chophouse – modeled after English taverns where you could order cuts of meat with mugs of beer – and beef banquets – political fundraisers that served all you could eat buffets of meat. The three oldest steakhouses in New York City elevated the standards of steakhouse cuisine and dining and remain a vibrant part of the restaurant scene today.
“Meat has the capacity to satisfy something inside of you that no other food – at least for me – does,” says William Rodgers, executive chef at Keens. “I think that’s why steakhouses have been able to be in business for 150 years. It’s pretty good!”
Established in 1837 in the Financial District, Delmonico’s was the first restaurant to offer a fine dining experience in New York. Charles Ronhafer, one of Delmonico’s earliest and most noted chefs, brought innovation to New York dining from his native France.
Billy Oliva, executive chef since 2008, is well aware of Delmonico’s legacy.
“The 1800s were times you sat at a table and you ate what everybody else was eating. They [Delmonico’s] were the first restaurant to start an a la carte menu. They were the first restaurant to use a printed menu. The first restaurant use table clothes, the first restaurant to hire women, the first restaurant to allow women to congregate. As far as I’m concerned, they created the restaurant scene in America in the way that we know it today.”
“He [Charles Ronhafer] wrote The Epicurean (1894), which today is probably one of the first cookbooks written in America. So I guess you would describe Charles Ronafer as one of the first celebrity chefs in America, noted with inventing many of the dishes that we’re famous for here: Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, Chicken à la King, Lobster Newburg.”
Visit Delmonico’s official website.
The Old Homestead
The facade of the The Old Homestead, established in 1868, is almost as famous as the quality of its meats. Above its entrance lives ANNABELL, an almost life-sized cow replica that keeps watch over the steakhouse. Known for the size of its steaks, The Old Homestead was a trendsetter in the restaurant practice of serving large portions.
“This restaurant, believe it or not, was the creator of the doggie bag,” explains Marc Sherry, who co-owns restaurant with his brother Gary. Their grandfather Harry Sherry was the original owner.
“We treat this as not just a business, but our home. We have a lot of pride in the restaurant, and a lot of great memories and great stories.”
The original menu of The Old Homestead lists steak for a dime and beefsteak for a nickel. “The most interesting part about the menu was that the most expensive thing was chicken. How times have changed,” quips Sherry.
After Delmonico’s and The Old Homestead, Keens is the third oldest steakhouse in New York. It started in 1885 and is still at its original location, in what used to be the Herald Square Theater District. Keens steaks would become just as famous as the artifacts lining its walls, including the largest collection of clay churchwarden pipes in the world, which number about 90,000. Smoking tobacco after dinner was once a tradition among men of status. Restaurants like Keen’s would store and prepare clay smokers’ pipes for its noted members, from President Teddy Roosevelt and Babe Ruth to contemporary celebrities like Tom Hanks.
A pipe storage room on the third floor is full of pipes cubicles, and once those became full, additional pipes had to hang on the walls and ceiling. Each pipe was assigned a number. The elite diners would purchase a lifetime membership to the restaurant and receive a card with their name and pipe number.
“It’s like a museum here, there are so many interesting artifacts,” says Executive Chef William Rodgers. “You know I’ve been here for 10 years and I haven’t seen every photograph on the walls.”
Visit Keens’ official website.
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