There’s no denying the cinematic spirit of Christmas in New York. When a basic establishment like Keens Steakhouse is embellished for the vacations, assembly there for a spherical of Martinis is definitely worth the trouble of navigating the slippery sidewalks full of buyers funneling out and in of the flagship Macy’s in close by Herald Sq.. There’s a quick sense of aid whenever you open the door on thirty sixth Avenue and are enveloped by the scent of charred, aged meat and the ambient glow of the bar, however grabbing a seat shortly after is usually a little bit of a contact sport, as everybody within the metropolis appears to have had the identical concept. Keens is at all times busy.
One in every of New York’s oldest steakhouses, Keens first operated as a part of the Lambs Membership, a personal theatrical society, till Albert Eager, a theater producer, took over in 1885 and made it an unbiased restaurant. Positioned in what was, on the time, Manhattan’s thriving theater district, Keens is a two-story operation composed of a number of eating areas. Upstairs, you’ll discover the Bullmoose Room, the Lambs Room, the Lincoln Room and the Lillie Langtry Room (named after the actress who efficiently took Keens to court docket in 1905 to permit ladies within the then-men-only venue). Downstairs are two different eating areas: the pub room and the principle bar.
The bartenders, in crisp white shirts, purple wine–coloured vests and neckties, work below the everlasting gaze of Miss Keens—the topic of an outsized portray of a nude girl in repose that’s the centerpiece of the bar—fielding drink orders, working tabs and ferrying burgers and plates of prime rib hash from the kitchen to ready company because the Knicks recreation performs on the TV on the finish of the bar.
Keens’ head bartender, Manolo, was born in Havana and lived in Cuba for the primary 25 years of his life earlier than shifting to Miami. Whereas working in bars in Cuba and Miami, Morales estimates, conservatively. that he shook up not less than 100 Mojitos a day. When he moved to New York, he was prepared to just accept a job on the Mandarin Oriental Resort when the supervisor of Keens referred to as him about working there, and he’s been a fixture behind the principle bar for the previous 14 years. He might have traded Mojitos for Martinis and mutton chops, however he wouldn’t have it every other method. We lately checked in with Morales earlier than service to study extra a couple of typical shift through the vacation season.
Manhattan (Hudson Yards)
Years within the business:
Variety of bars labored at:
Drink served most frequently: Mojito (again in Cuba and Miami), Outdated-Original (at Keens)
Favourite drink: Gin Martini, dry, out and in vermouth, lemon twist.
Favourite bar(s): Worker’s Solely, Zou Zou’s, wine bars
How did you first get into tending bar?
In Cuba, I used to work at a spot referred to as Jazz Cafe and obtained expertise making frozen Daiquiris, Mojitos [and] rum and Cokes. Conventional Cuban cocktails. Then once I moved to Miami, I used to be just about making the identical sort of drinks. So I went to ABC, an American bartending faculty, the place I needed to make, like, 28 drinks in 5 minutes. I realized extra about American cocktails, however as soon as I moved to New York, it was utterly completely different. It was the actual factor. I needed to just about utterly begin over and relearn every part I assumed I knew.
Have been you acquainted with Keens earlier than you began working right here?
No, I had by no means heard about it. Once I got here right here for the primary time, I used to be so impressed with the historical past of the area and the old-school waiters and bartenders working the room. Once I first began working, it was a lot quieter, and we solely had 4 bartenders. Now we have now 10, and all of us rotate between the principle bar and the 2 service bars, however I’m largely behind the principle bar downstairs.
What do you’re keen on about working right here?
I really like how busy we at all times are, and the way in which service is run is exclusive however at all times constant. We’ve got the biggest single malt assortment in New York Metropolis, over 300 bottles, and I’ve had the prospect to study a lot about that class. It’s only a strong place to work. It’s laborious to get out of right here. Individuals keep a really very long time.
How would you describe your bartending fashion or philosophy?
I’d describe myself as a basic bartender. Very strong, quick, pleasant. Outgoing however very skilled. I put professionalism at the beginning.
What recommendation would you give to a younger bartender entertaining the sector?
Study your drinks. Study your booze. Discover ways to cope with individuals in high-pressure environments. Attempt to be good on a regular basis, even for those who’re having a nasty day.
Is there something particularly about being a steakhouse bartender that units you aside?
Like several restaurant bar, it’s a must to know your menu and it’s a must to cope with meals service. However on this case, you simply need to be very affected person. Even when somebody’s having a nasty day they usually’re being impolite to you, it’s a must to preserve it skilled and be constant on a regular basis. Issues right here don’t change an excessive amount of, and folks count on that sense of consistency.
There’s a lot historical past in each sq. inch of Keens. Do you’re feeling such as you’re additionally serving as a museum docent to company?
Oh, on a regular basis. Individuals need to know what’s up with all of the pipes hanging from the ceiling. Most individuals ask me concerning the portray behind the bar. Each single buyer asks me, “Who’s Miss Keens?” After which I’ve to clarify [that] there was no Miss Keens, and that it’s a duplicate of La maja desnuda by Francisco Goya that was achieved by a New York Metropolis painter within the early 1900s. There was by no means a Miss Keens. However, I’d say the most well-liked artifact on show in the entire restaurant is the blood-stained playbill Abraham Lincoln was supposedly holding the evening he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. I carry so many company upstairs to the Lincoln Room to point out it to them.
What’s a typical shift like for you at Keens?
I often begin behind the bar at 4:30 p.m. and I’ll be busy till 8:30 p.m. Nonstop. Each evening. The kitchen closes at 10:30 p.m. and the bar closes at 11:30 p.m. However we’re continuously busy all yr lengthy—nonstop.
The primary bar at Keens is first-come, first-serve, and it could actually get fairly aggressive and at instances aggravating to discover a seat. Do you’ve any suggestions for individuals hoping to safe a barstool?
The perfect time to get a few seats on the bar is after 9 p.m. We get an enormous crowd from the Knicks and Rangers video games at [Madison Square] Backyard and, mixed with individuals stopping by after work, we simply get slammed.
Is there numerous day consuming on the bar?
I’ll open the bar at 11:45 within the morning, and I’ve obtained individuals ordering Martinis. That’s why I really like New York. They’ll order a Martini and seize a hard-boiled egg from the rack on the bar. They’ll eat their egg, have a drink, order some meals and begin their day.
What do you cost for a kind of eggs?
No cost. They’re free. The explanation we have now these eggs on the bar is that again within the day within the late 1800s after they opened the bar, in New York Metropolis you needed to provide [free] meals in an effort to get a liquor license. Onerous-boiled eggs have been the simplest factor to have available on a regular basis.
I keep in mind you used to ship out free scorching bar snacks. How does that work?
Submit-pandemic, we not do this. However from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. each weekday we’d have a selected dish on a selected day—Scotch eggs on Tuesday, ribs on Wednesday, wings on Thursday and recent shrimp on Friday.
What are the most well-liked drink orders on the bar at Keens?
Manhattans, Martinis and Outdated-Fashioneds. These are three hottest, and strongest, drinks we make right here. For Martinis, most individuals order vodka, soiled. And everyone needs a blue cheese olive: We make ours right here by hand, each day, one after the other. For our Outdated-Original, we use a peel from an orange and get the oil from it and add it to the glass with a bar spoon of straightforward syrup and two dashes of bitters. Then add three ounces of Outdated Overholt rye, stir over ice, then add a lemon peel and a cherry. It’s my favourite drink to make right here. It’s the most effective Outdated-Original within the metropolis.
You talked about your intensive single malt Scotch checklist. Do individuals come right here particularly to test it out?
Clients come from everywhere in the world to drink from our assortment. They’ll even have checklists to mark what they’ve tried. And we’re continuously including to it; we lately added 30 new bottles. Costs range relying on the home, the distiller, the age assertion or how in style they’re, however all of them preserve going increased in worth.
Have you ever observed the clientele altering a lot because you began working right here?
Once I began right here, it was a special crowd, largely older individuals and longtime regulars. We don’t do any advertising or promoting, however we’re getting extra in style than ever now, and that brings in a youthful crowd. Individuals need to cease in and have a drink at Keens. They might have seen us on Billions or the Meals Community. When Anthony Bourdain was nonetheless with us, he introduced lots of people right here through the years. It’s nonetheless the one place in New York Metropolis the place you will get a mutton chop.
How typically do you modify the trivia board behind the bar, and what do you win for those who guess the solutions appropriately?
There’s three questions that we alter each weekday; the one on Friday stays up over the weekend. You must reply all three appropriately with out utilizing your smartphone. Again within the day, you’d win a cigar, although you’ll be able to’t smoke within the bar. After the cigar, we switched it to a free home beer, however post-pandemic, we don’t have a prize. Only a spherical of applause. Each day, we have now one to 3 individuals who guess all three questions appropriately.
What do you want about working at Keens through the vacation season?
I’ve labored each Black Friday at Keens, and I’d at all times see individuals are available in with all of those purple buying baggage from Macy’s. So many purple baggage. However this yr there wasn’t a single buying bag from Macy’s. I suppose it’s all on-line now. Cyber Monday. Who is aware of? However the quantity of people that will come by means of the doorways in December is unbelievable. As quickly as I step behind the bar, I’m busy all evening lengthy. However I really like Christmas in New York. I grew up with no Christmas in Cuba. I didn’t get my first Christmas tree till I moved to New York. And now I am going into full Christmas mode. I simply love the power of town through the holidays.