Keens is one of New York’s oldest steakhouses, but its most famous dish isn’t beef

  • Keens Chophouse is one of the oldest steakhouses in New York.
  • The restaurant is most famous for a dish of aged lamb, called the Mutton Chop.
  • Keens serves more than 400 orders of Mutton Chops each week.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Taryn Varricchio: New York is home to plenty of notable steakhouses. But few can say they have served the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Babe Ruth. This century-old restaurant is full of fresh beef, but its most famous plate isn’t steak. People seek it out instead for a dish of aged lamb called the mutton chop. This is Keens Steakhouse, and it’s been standing here since 1885.

Customer: I brought my nephew, and he had the mutton chop. I said, “It’s big, you might wanna share it.” He said, “No way.” And he devoured it. It was outrageous.

Taryn: We’re in Midtown today, just a few blocks away from the Empire State Building, and we knew we had to head to Keens Steakhouse for a few reasons. One, they’re one of the oldest restaurants in New York. Two, they make these legendary mutton chops, which is this aged cut of lamb. And three, they have 90,000 pipes on the ceiling, but we’ll get to that later. So, let’s go ahead inside and learn a little bit more about this historic chophouse.

Keens English Chophouse originally spawned from the Lambs Club, a theatre group dating back to the 1870s that still exists today. The restaurant became a meeting place for actors, playwrights, and publishers and the go-to spot for a quality mutton chop. Mutton chops used to be a popular meal in American restaurants in the 1800s, inspired by menus at English chophouses in Europe. It’s said that American soldiers ate mutton chops often during World War II but had grown tired of the meat and its musky flavour upon returning to the US. So mutton fell out of favour, but Keens continued serving it and built a reputation as one of the only places to make the plate and do it well. In 1935, the chophouse had served its 1 millionth mutton chop.

Why do you think the mutton chop in particular, though, became so synonymous with this restaurant?

Bonnie Jenkins: Well, I think that people also like to try something that’s unique and that it’s become a signature dish here, ’cause you don’t see it on every menu. And so when they come, they try it, you know, and say, “OK, that’s great.” And, “I can’t even believe the size of it,” when it’s put in front of them.

Taryn: Each mutton chop is made up of a sheep’s loins, tenderloins, and belly flap and weighs about a pound and a half. It’s just seasoned with salt and popped into the broiler for each side to brown, allowing the natural sugars in the meat to caramelize.

And about how many orders of these mutton chops do you guys do in a day or a week?

Bill Rodgers: In a day, maybe 70, 80. In a week, hundreds and hundreds.

Taryn: Chef Billy Rodgers says customers who enjoy lamb will likely enjoy mutton, too.

Would you describe this as a gamier meat or a gamier flavour?

Bill: It’s…you know, if you like lamb, you’re gonna love this. It is a crosscut saddle of mature lamb or sheep. It’s about a year-plus in age. That’s what makes it mutton, as opposed to lamb.

Taryn: If you’ve never had lamb, particularly, or mutton before, especially, this is a fattier piece of meat. It’s very easy to cut into; it’s very easy to bite into; it’s just very soft. It does not need salt; it does not need pepper. This is so juicy in itself, so flavorful on its own.

And, of course, you can also get steak. The sirloin is another popular order at Keens. But quality red meat isn’t the only reason the steakhouse is considered an institution. The restaurant is host to one of the largest collections of clay pipes in the world. Back in the 17th century, it was an English tradition to check one’s pipe before sitting down for a meal. And once finished, patrons would call for a pipe warden to return their pipes.

Who are some of those early famous faces that have had pipes here?

Bonnie: Well, I guess the earliest, Babe Ruth. Teddy Roosevelt, Will Rogers, it goes on and on.

Taryn: The steakhouse’s list of loyal customers has grown considerably since Babe Ruth visited. Stop in on a normal day and you’ll find tourists and longtime regulars alike.

Customer: This is my table.

Customer: This is our go-to.

Customer: Table 87. I come here, and I say, “I want my table.”

Taryn: How did you first hear about Keens, or why did you start coming?

Customer: I don’t know. It’s just a New York institution. You know? You look around, the history, the pipes, the photos. It’s the place to be.

Bonnie: People come from around the world. Emails from around the world about how they will be coming and where they’re coming from. So, really, to be a destination for those people is a special thing, which we really try and live up to their expectations.

Customer: If you see everything, all of the photographs on the walls, you could just go back in time and realise that where you’re sitting, where you’re dining, where you’re having a beautiful glass of wine is where so many decades of so many people have had the pleasure of enjoying it.