The first thing I noticed were the eggs. A cascading pyramidal wire rack of them set in the middle of the bar. Not nuts or pretzels or peanuts or even popcorn, but hard-boiled eggs are the gratis bar snack at Keens Steakhouse on W. 36th Street, quickly alerting you to the fact that this ain’t your normal watering hole. And when my night started, I certainly hadn’t planned on ending up there.
Kevin used to be one of my top drinkin’ and chasin’ skirts buddies, but success in marriage and business has led to us going out less and less. His success that is, certainly not mine. He is my friend with the prodigious Scotch cabinet and so when he proposed meeting for happy hour, there was no way I could turn him down. He suggested The Ginger Man, thinking it would be a perfect place for us to do a little “research.” Not getting down to the dreadful Penn Station/Herald Square area that often–believe me, it is nowadays worse than even Times Square–I quickly jumped at the chance to visit a favorite old haunt.
The beer list at The Ginger Man was as stellar as ever, but the scene was rough, packed with happy hour heroes and bridge and tunnelers waiting for the next train out who wouldn’t know the difference between an Orval and a Duvel, between a dubbel and a tripel. I quickly knew I wasn’t going to enjoy the night when I followed two suited chaps into the bar, one remarking to the other, “This place has become so much better since they outlawed cigar and pipe smoke here.”
The Ginger Man is a large elegant space with fluffy sofas and comfortable leather chairs with ottomons. An aged wood aesthetic gives it a librarial feel meant to act as a gentleman’s (or gentlelady’s) relaxed locale for enjoying a drink, a bite, and, yes, a smoke amidst contemplative conversation, bon mottery, or even reading. Unfortunately, the continual nanny-stating and emasculation of New York has put an end to even smoking in places originally meant for the act. Despicable.
No, sir, the Ginger Man has not become so much better since smoke was outlawed–in fact, it’s become quite a bit worse. At least on weekday happy hours. By politically putting an end to cigar clubs, a place like The Ginger Man has gone from being a refined site where men could “have a few” in an adult manner to just your standard issue bar where bozos get loaded.
The Ginger Man used to never be packed–save a few beer geeks cozying up to the bar to sample all the draughts like a fat girl tests out the newest concoctions at Cold Stone–but on Wednesday at 6:00 it was like a mosh pit. I slowly inched toward the bar, trying to make it through a swarm of people like I was at some Jersey Shore club where MTV might film an episode of “True Life: I’ve Never Read a Book.” I found myself behind an unremarkable idiot. The bartender gave him the you-can-order-now look.
UNREMARKABLE IDIOT: Two Coronas.
Mind you, Ginger Man has the best beer list in Manhattan with countless taps (including cask beer) and hundreds upon hundreds of carefully selected bottles, even some vintage stuff.
BARTENDER: We don’t have that.
UNREMARKABLE IDIOT: OK, Two Heinys then. [He actually said “Heinys” (!!!)]
BARTENDER: Don’t have that either.
The unremarkable idiot’s face dropped in absolute anguish and disgust. He turned around to his buddy, rolling his eyes with a look that said, “Can you believe this shithole doesn’t have those great beers?!”
Kevin finally arrived and we shared Brooklyn Brewery’s new Grand Cru and a Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence before realizing that it was going to take us another half-hour to order a second round. The bartenders were too busy holding hands with the amateurs wanting to know which of the “oddball” beers on the menu were the “lightest.” A question that always boggles my mind. An epicurean like me wants to know which of the brews that I’ve never had before is the most flavorful, interesting, sui generis, complex, mind-boggling, orgasm-inducing, and life-changing. But, your average schmo simply cares about which is the lightest (i.e. easiest to throw down without wincing) and the cheapest. Pathetic.
We had to get out of there quickly before I said something I meant, and Kevin suggested a place down the street that would no doubt be a little less busy and a lot more refined, Keens. I quickly agreed to depart, depressed at what had become of my once-cherished Ginger Man.
Look, I still love The Ginger Man and certainly don’t begrudge them for making some bank–heck, it’s not like they are doing anything wrong. They still don’t have any beer worse than, say, Guinness and it’s not even like they’re offering absurdly cheap macro deals to attract the thirsty moron element. I guess the issue is the fact that that part of town really has very few decent bars for an after-work tipple. Nevertheless, I will only go there again at off-hours when I can lounge at the bar, getting the full attention of the knowledgeable bartenders while having a chance to carefully peruse the menus and discuss my current and future beer selections with them. Damn shame, really. Oh well. At least I didn’t see any one doing shots and “Woohoo-ing.” But it’s only a matter of time I’m afraid as drinking culture continues to devolve.
On the one block walk over to Keens I was a bit nervous about my first visit there. I’m the kind of guy that wears a black t-shirt, jeans, and Nike Shox literally every single time I go out. In my mind I pictured Keens an upscale place full of fat cats in expensive suits sitting on maroon poly-foam-backed barstools, young tarts bouncing on one of their knees as they sipped on three-finger pours of Scotch more expensive than my monthly cable bill. I love that kinda old-school, 21 Club, “Sweet Smell of Success” New York City when men truly were men, not simply allowed to act that way, but expected to. Best exhibited currently by “Mad Men”‘s Don Draper. Of course, I’m only admiring and romanticizing the good of the era while completely ignoring the bad–the blatant misogyny, the latent alcoholism and lurking emphysema, the lack of quality television options, and being forced into always doing masculine handiwork as opposed to just hiring blue-collar help–but it’s my fantasy and I’m not a nice person any how.
Keens, a New York institution since 1885, is famous for at least three major things, of which I will address in this order: their pipe collection, massive Scotch menu, and muttonchops.
First, the pipes. Back in the olden days, Keens was a members-only establishment where both Average Joes and celebrities alike would go to smoke pipes, churchwardens specifically. The men were allowed to store their pipes at Keens much like rich duffers keep their golf sticks at the country club nowadays. To this day, Keens keeps on display some 50,000 former members’ pipes, a prominent place held for the personal ones of the celebrities that once smoked there. I spied the churchwardens of such Vice Blog favorites as George Herman Ruth, Albert Einstein, and Will Rogers.
And, of course, to continue the strange prank being played on our liberties, you are no longer allowed to smoke pipes in Keens! (I truly look forward to the day in a few decades when we will go to “bars” to drink iced tea, alcohol no longer allowed; and go to steakhouses to eat tofu tenders, meat long since outlawed. It’s coming folks, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
We sat down at the bar amongst a few dozen men that were certainly nailing the first part of the “fat cat” term correctly, though the ubiquity of worn and wrinkled JoS. A. Bank suits told me that the overall term wasn’t quite accurate. I began to study the biblical-in-size Scotch menu. I may know my beer and even my bourbon, but my Scotch knowledge isn’t that sharp. Kevin went with a Bunnahabhain from the Islay region and he seemed pleased. I, being a huge “Lost in Translation” fan and wanting to have a relaxing time, decided to make it a Suntory time, 12 year to be exact. Unfortunately, Bob Harris (as portrayed by the great Bill Murray) steered me wrong as I didn’t enjoy the Japano-Scotch much at all. A wincing bite to it I thought, and carelessly crafted.
For dinner, I went with the cheeseburger, a half-pound softball that has been criticized in many channels for being too large to eat, but I found it just swell. Flawless melted cheddar with a nice soft bun and quality onions. Kevin smartly went with the signature muttonchops, a 26-ounce hunk of lamb (not sheep) served with a delicious mint jelly to compliment the gaminess a bit. Absolutely phenomenal and about as manly of meal as they come, both visually and gastronomically.
Kevin had to get home early to tuck his wife and Cornish Rex cats into bed so we didn’t have time for a second Scotch. Or at least we didn’t think we did. The bartender, a surprisingly young chap resplendent in his mixologist’s apron and starched white tuxedo shirt, began speaking with us about glorious Scotch. At first, I wondered why a surely snobby bartender dispensing liquid at an average of $15 per ounce would talk to two schlubs like us. Though with a quick glance around the bar it became apparent. Sadly, though we were the youngest and perhaps poorest guys in the joint by twenty years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of net worth, we surely knew the most about Scotch in the place. For you see, we were the only ones in Keens drinking it!
I looked around the bar at the men sipping watery rum and cokes, vodka martinis, Jacks with “a lotta ice,” and even 3.5% ABV Amstel Light bottles and I was repulsed! First, people going to The Ginger Man to attempt to drink Coronas and now so-called men sucking on sweet little rum drinks I’d barely consider having on a cruise ship! Shit, the only people that should drink Captain and Diet are the underage, the female, the poor, and those that don’t like and understand the taste of quality alcohol. And this was occuring at the best Scotch bar this side of…well, fucking Scotland probably, and I would dare wager most Scotch bars in Scotland don’t even have as good of selections, each no-doubt fiercely loyal to its own region’s libations, refusing to carry such a wide, cross-regional selection.
These men at Keens would probably go to Mexico and pass on the fine aged anejo tequila to order a Pina Colada. Would go to a sushi joint and pooh-pooh some sharp sake to order a Coors Light. Would get invited to Churchill’s house and turn down his pour of dry gin, inquiring, “Uh…Winston, by any chance do you know how to make a Chocolatini?” Disgraceful. It’s no wonder the only two fillies in the joint were making eyes with me and Kevin.
The bartender asked us what our favorites were and, as admittedly non-experts like our inquisitor, Kevin mentioned our love for Blue Label, a trite answer but a fantastic blended nonetheless, one we’ve both been lucky enough to have had several bottles worth over our lifetime. The bartender thought for a second, a light bulb went off in his noggin, and he left toward the other end of the bar looking through the ten-rows deep of Scotches–there has to be millions of dollars worth of booze in the joint–to find something special for us.
Let me interrupt to muse for a second about free rounds in New York City. Like Cal Ripken in Baltimore or Tony Gwynn in San Diego, I’ve spent my entire career–of drinking that is–in New York. So though I may learn a thing or two about the ways of other cities while on the road there, my views are coming from afar, from the visitors’ dugout, and I can’t 100% confirm that these rules are national and universal. But I do know the ways of New York drinking. A few years ago a friend moved here from Houston. As I began to show him the ropes I explained the standard de facto unwritten rules of free rounds: in New York, every fourth round is free. He didn’t believe me but soon saw that was most certainly the case. Sure if you’re in a crowded bar or you’re a dick to the bartender or bounce back in forth between different drink-slingers that won’t always work, but it does for the most part.
Now we weren’t on our fourth drink by any means but we’d already spent a lot of money, had shown some nice rapport with the bartender, proven we knew our way around a glass of Scotch, and, well, fuck, it ain’t like he owns the booze.
He returned with a bottle of Scott’s Selection’s Royal Brackla 1976. 1976 as in the year it was bottled. I’d never heard of it but he explained that it was one of the more prominent single malts that is combined with other singles to make the blended Blue Label. Sounded good to me, and the price on the menu for the Highlands region whiskey was something north of $40.
He gave us a one-ounce pour but with such potency that was more than enough to last for a solid half-hour of sipping, just barely touching your lips to the liquor and allowing it sizzle them as it entered your face and shooshed down your gullet with an explosion of warming flavors. Oakiness and cherry are immediately evident, with a sweet maltiness, and perhaps even some vanilla and melon. I wouldn’t dare call it “drinkable,” but for something so complex and potent, goddamn was it smooth. Went down nice and easy and I’ve got to say I enjoyed it more than any glass of Blue I’ve ever had. The bartender confirmed that most people feel the same way. The more single malts I drink, the less I enjoy the softer blendeds.
The Scotch was older than me and much better too. With a firm handshake we thanked the bartender for the free round, left him a hefty tip, and then stole the sissy sixty-year-olds’ jobs and trophy wives.
No, that’s not true, but it would have been a great end to the story. Instead I went home and probably drunkenly updated my facebook page or something stupid like that.