Friday, April 15, 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land

For my inaugural post, I would like to write about two things *: 1) My favourite bar, and 2) About being a ruiner.That made up word means exactly what it sounds like – someone who ruins things. In preparation for this little coeur-à-coeur, it may not be the worst idea to hearken back to this piece of sageness about drinking in bars where you do not belong. And subsequently, should you choose to turn up at my favourite bar you will be well schooled in how not to be an asshole, saving me the trouble of having to be very rude to you.

I like to drink at Keen’s, an old-fashioned English chop house (they changed it to steak house some years ago because the Americans were confused) that’s been in existence since 1885. Their signature dish is the mutton chop and their bar has one of the finest single malt whiskey collections in town. Back in the day, Keen’s was a gentleman’s establishment in what was then the heart of the theatre district. And while women could be present they would not be served. Lillie Langtry sued the fuckers in 1905 for women to be served there and won. To show that there were no hard feelings, they named a room after her. The place is packed with all kinds of American history including the program president Lincoln was holding when he was shot, and paintings by Alexander Pope (no, the other one). Also taking pride of place are the clay churchwarden pipes left over from when it was a pipe club. You will find pipes signed by such diverse fellows as Buffalo Bill, Douglas MacArthur, Stanford White, Rube Goldberg, Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Albert Einstein. Members had their own pipes and on furnishing their card, a nice young man would locate their pipe, clean and pack the bowl and hard working guys sit and have a pint and a smoke and eat charred cow.

This is a very masculine place. Just so you know how manly it is, the presiding feature of the bar is a painting of a naked woman recumbent on a sofa draped by a lion skin (after Goya) called Miss Keen’s. And though there are no urns, it is art. Generations of young males have been shaped into manhood under her impervious gaze as their fathers and bosses have glared at them for ordering mixed drinks in the middle of rush hour, or when bartenders have given them the stink eye for being so crass as to order an Irish Car Bomb. It’s a very Manly Bar. In fact, it’s such a sausage fest, that on occasion even guys feel their weens shrinking when they enter into the testosterone-polished warm glow of the sanctum that is Keens. And though they have many women working there and a tough as nails female general manager who can make grown men cry, the main bar is served only by bow tied, waist coated men. A fact that is somehow strangely re-assuring even to a feminist and super gay girl like me. So, it is definitely a guy’s bar. Not by any particular policy, but out of sheer habit (and also by sheer accident of being so close to Penn Station). The greatest downside to Keens is the after office and LIRR crowd that infests it between 1730 hours and 2030 hours. Also the MSG crowd who come for their damned games and Dave Matthews concerts. But don’t let that put you off the place. That would be like hating your dad for smelling of acrid smokes and Old Spice and being born in 1948.

When I first started going there in 2003, I was sometimes the only female patron, and often definitely in the minority. There was definitely a certain imposing quality to its history and its masculine air. No worries. I was there to drink my way through the entire Scotch list (over 200 single malts!) and people know not fuck with that kind of intensity. I was raised to adulthood there by the knowing and knowledgeable bartenders – steering me towards bottles I might have been a little reticent of and sneaking me a taste of the $100 a shot stuff that a student on a $300 a month budget could definitely not afford. And on occasion setting me right, on my private life, with no more than a look of pained disbelief. Keens is my favouritest bar in the whole world (you can tell I’m serious because I’ve allowed myself an ungrammatical turn of phrase). Except for the occasional sports fans and the passing corporate douchery, this has always been a great place to have a quiet drink, and talk whiskey, and in the more colourful moods have a classic cocktail mixed impeccably and served – without any phony waxed moustaches and poncy gartered sleeves involved. There have been only two places I have had a perfect Martini. One was at Keen’s and the other was at the Harbour Bar at the Taj Palace and Hotel, Bombay (more about this some other time).

Like all bars where the people working actually love their work and love their product and are not self-conscious about their image, the folks at Keen’s are perfectly willing to embrace any serious drinker regardless of age, sex, profession or vocation. This means that despite its guy-ness and its old money-ness Keen’s will love you even if you’re nominally an outsider. And if you’re a regular, bar tenders will know what your usual is and will set you up even while you’re still settling in.

In the last few years, though, Keeen's has suffered a few blows: voted best bar for adults by NY Mag – ironically the crowd that drew was a bunch of just out of college yuppie frats; spotlighted in Esquire magazine as part of their where celebrity chefs eat out feature; no more cigars if you win the trivia contest; and the lowest blow of all, showcased by Anthony Bourdain in Disappearing New York. All of which has meant that a regular at Keens now has to contend with all kinds of bozos wandering in and out of there.

I’m not begrudging Keens its extra success. The folks there work hard and do a great job, and whatever increases their pay is aces in my book. But I can’t help but grumble about the extra noise and stupidity generated by all the tourists and trendsters who come to gawk at what they feel is kitschy outmodedness. And who don’t know how to order a drink at a bar 30 feet long and three deep manned by two.

But the blow it has suffered that actually pains me the most is the increased presence of women.

Oh, dear. Wherever could I be going with this line of thought? Well, I’ll tell you: To the moon, Alice. To the moon! I am taking this moment to talk specifically about women in what is traditionally a masculine space, because at Keen’s I am one of few women in a masculine space. I don’t know if it’s because so many women are not enculturated in bar etiquette, or if it’s a class-specific cultural thing where girls are expected to drink only certain things and in certain ways. But I feel like my side (that would be the women) has been letting me down.

Listen, I get it. There’s a 20 foot painting of a naked lady on a lion skin. The bus boys wear leather aprons. Bar snacks include boiled eggs. Most of the customers are dudes in power suits and power ties standing around in exclusionary circles and wondering how to deal with the fact there is no Coors Light at this bar. There are too many guys. There’s too much corporate. It’s a sausage fest. The waiters address you as sir or miss or ma’am. All the Coke comes in bottles. There’s no Stoli Razberi. I get it. It’s a strange and alien environment. But it’s that way for a reason. This is an old school bar. This is where the movers and shakers of old New York used to come to sit in the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms and make deals. This is where the reporters and editors of The Herald used to knock back a few. This is where business men would ogle chorus girls and starlets away from the baleful gazes of their respectable wives. This is where companies would hold annual dinners to show their appreciation to their employees by treating them to Grade-A slabs of steak and a great pint. This is where D. W. Griffith secretly rehearsed the cast of his first Paramount Film in. And in more modern times, it’s where guys like Don Draper had a quiet whiskey to get away from work. You’re here on sufferance – just like I would be on sufferance at a Hell’s Kitchen leather daddy bar, or in a working man’s bar in Woodside. So respect the environment **. Don’t point and giggle and make a general fuss. Don’t flag the bartender if you don’t know what you’re drinking. And please for the love of god or whatever it is you believe in, don’t have your friends yell their orders across people’s heads when it’s as noisy as a marketplace, and then complain about getting Coke and Jack when your buddy wanted Diet Coke and Jack. Because the bartenders while efficient do not fucking have super hearing (also, in this situation, please think twice before ordering a Sex on the Beach or whatever heinous thing with “cute” names). Don’t ask what the eggs are for (they’re eggs, they’re for eating). Don’t lean against the bar and leave your coat all draped over the bar stools – some of us are here to drink and part of that involves actually looking the bartender in the eye as we sip our heaven’s brew of distilled sunshine and compare notes.

Oh sure, they’ll mix you anything you want, at any time– the best Sidecar, the best Martini, the best Manhattan. They’ll give you all the beer and Jack and Coke you want. They even have a pretty decent wine list. They’re a bar, that’s what they’re here for. But please pay attention to what’s happening around you first. It is a place of thinking and drinking. Neither of which can be truly enjoyed when you bring the atmosphere of a hen party or sports bar in there with you. I know it can be truly disconcerting to arrive at a place that seems a little out of time – after all, who’s expecting Victoriana in the cultural wilds surrounding Penn Station and Madison Square Garden – and so staunchly the opposite of who you are. But making a spectacle of yourself where you’re already an outsider will not exactly endear you.
Keen’s is a great bar. The bar tenders are professionals who know what they’re serving and enjoy their work. It has history: earned history, not slotted in by a canny designer. It has class. Most of all it has style. The polished wood and the leather banquettes, the wooden refrigerator cabinets, the naked ladies – they’re not kitsch, they’re for real. You wouldn’t like a picnic atmosphere inside St. Patrick's Cathedral even if you were the most annoyingly screechy atheist in the world, because places like that matter in our lives. Places where people know your name and have your glass and place set for you by the time you’re done hanging your coat. Places where a broke-ass foreign student can sit down and learn about Scotches, Bourbons and life, and make friends with federal judges, experimental theatre artists and corporate lawyers alike. Places where the manager always finds a table for a regular despite the raggedy jeans. Old school places the folks serving you will actually take care of you. Not because you’re a flash tipper but because they appreciate your interest in their work. A place like this is a gem. And hard to come by.

So if all you’re seeing is a gentleman’s club (no coy euphemisms) where there’s a painting of a naked lady. For the love of what’s good, stay away. Go to Hooters, or the roof top bar at the Gansevoort or wherever. You’re better off there.

* Okay, maybe three things.

** You know, this advice goes for the guys, as well.

All images in this post © A. Das.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful paean to class. Thanks Das.