Two unmissable New York steakhouses

Iconic Manhattan restaurants Keens and Smith & Wollensky offer juicy sides of theatrical and fashion history alongside monumental pieces of meat

Keens Steakhouse
Keens Steakhouse

“So none of the girls here eat anything?” asks size six Andy (Anne Hathaway), the hapless heroine of The Devil WearsPrada. “Not since two became the new four, and zero became the new two,” replies art director Nigel (Stanley Tucci), after assuring her that “cellulite is one of the main ingredients in corn chowder”.

You might think that New York’s Garment District – running roughly from 34th to 42nd Street, either side of Seventh Avenue – would be a more or less restaurant-free zone, with just an occasional vending machine dispensing skinny lattes and alfalfa sprouts.

Far from it. Take historic Keens Steakhouse, in the old Herald Square theatre district, a stone’s throw from Macy’s: vast slabs of dry-aged beef play supporting roles, but it’s the restaurant’s famous mutton chop that takes centre stage. 

Back in 1905, actress Lillie Langtry – denied access to the steakhouse because of her gender – sued Keens, won, then swept into the restaurant in a feather boa and ordered the mutton chop. (Ms Langtry had a robust appetite for many things: Rules, in London, established in 1798 and equally popular with carnivorous thespians, has a cocktail bar upstairs, where she conducted trysts with Edward VII.)

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Keens’ theatrical heritage is evident on its walls, with old playbills and grainy black and white photographs of once famous actors. A late-Victorian painting of a voluptuous nude – nicknamed Miss Keens – hangs over the bar; and from the ceiling is suspended the world’s largest collection of clay churchwarden pipes: 90,000 of them.

Keens’ mutton chop is actually a 26oz saddle of lamb, mutton’s juvenile counterpart – a Barnsley chop they call it in Yorkshire – and it dominates the plate, with just enough room for a token helping of cabbage and a puddle of roasting juices. Plenty of crisp fat embraces two chunky eyes of meat, each a perfect pink: tender, juicy and flavoursome. Add a side order of fries, finish with a hot fudge sundae, and you could go from size zero to size six in an hour.

Actually, a vast slab of meat turns up in The Devil Wears Prada too: a rib steak, ordered from Smith & Wollensky for “dragon lady” editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), to be collected and placed on her desk. Smith & Wollensky is another iconic Manhattan steakhouse, a freestanding green and white temple of beef, but it is way over on Third Avenue. I myself would have ordered from Keens, but perhaps Ms Priestly was – typically – just being difficult.

In any case, she decides to go out for lunch instead, and a frustrated Andy dumps the steak in the sink, breaking the plate in the process. I do not normally cry during movies, but seeing such a fine piece of prime American beef going to waste, I had to reach for the tissues.

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