There’s no denying the cinematic spirit of Christmas in New York. When a classic institution like Keens Steakhouse is decorated for the holidays, meeting there for a round of Martinis is worth the hassle of navigating the slippery sidewalks filled with shoppers funneling in and out of the flagship Macy’s in nearby Herald Square. There’s a brief sense of relief when you open the door on 36th Street and are enveloped by the scent of charred, aged meat and the ambient glow of the bar, but grabbing a seat shortly after can be a bit of a contact sport, as everyone in the city seems to have had the same idea. Keens is always busy.
One of New York’s oldest steakhouses, Keens first operated as part of the Lambs Club, a private theatrical society, until Albert Keen, a theater producer, took over in 1885 and made it an independent restaurant. Located in what was, at the time, Manhattan’s thriving theater district, Keens is a two-story operation composed of several dining areas. Upstairs, you’ll find the Bullmoose Room, the Lambs Room, the Lincoln Room and the Lillie Langtry Room (named after the actress who successfully took Keens to court in 1905 to allow women in the then-men-only venue). Downstairs are two other dining areas: the pub room and the main bar.
The bartenders, in crisp white shirts, red wine–colored vests and neckties, work under the eternal gaze of Miss Keens—the subject of an oversized painting of a nude woman in repose that is the centerpiece of the bar—fielding drink orders, running tabs and ferrying burgers and plates of prime rib hash from the kitchen to waiting guests as the Knicks game plays on the TV at the end of the bar.
Keens’ head bartender, Manolo, was born in Havana and lived in Cuba for the first 25 years of his life before moving to Miami. While working in bars in Cuba and Miami, Manolo estimates, conservatively. that he shook up at least 100 Mojitos a day. When he moved to New York, he was ready to accept a job at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel when the manager of Keens called him about working there, and he’s been a fixture behind the main bar for the past 14 years. He may have traded Mojitos for Martinis and mutton chops, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. We recently checked in with Manolo before service to learn more about a typical shift during the holiday season.
How did you first get into tending bar?
In Cuba, I used to work at a place called Jazz Cafe and got experience making frozen Daiquiris, Mojitos [and] rum and Cokes. Traditional Cuban cocktails. Then when I moved to Miami, I was pretty much making the same kind of drinks. So I went to ABC, an American bartending school, where I had to make, like, 28 drinks in five minutes. I learned more about American cocktails, but once I moved to New York, it was completely different. It was the real thing. I had to pretty much completely start over and relearn everything I thought I knew.
Were you familiar with Keens before you started working here?
No, I had never heard about it. When I came here for the first time, I was so impressed with the history of the space and the old-school waiters and bartenders working the room. When I first started working, it was much quieter, and we only had four bartenders. Now we have 10, and we all rotate between the main bar and the two service bars, but I’m mostly behind the main bar downstairs.
What do you love about working here?
I love how busy we always are, and the way service is run is unique but always consistent. We have the largest single malt collection in New York City, over 300 bottles, and I’ve had the chance to learn so much about that category. It’s just a solid place to work. It’s hard to get out of here. People stay a very long time.
How would you describe your bartending style or philosophy?
I would describe myself as a classic bartender. Very solid, fast, friendly. Outgoing but very professional. I put professionalism before everything.
What advice would you give to a young bartender entertaining the field?
Learn your drinks. Learn your booze. Learn how to deal with people in high-pressure environments. Try to be nice all the time, even if you’re having a bad day.
Is there anything in particular about being a steakhouse bartender that sets you apart?
Like any restaurant bar, you have to know your menu and you have to deal with food service. But in this case, you just have to be very patient. Even if someone’s having a bad day and they’re being rude to you, you have to keep it professional and be consistent all the time. Things here don’t change too much, and people expect that sense of consistency.
There’s so much history in every square inch of Keens. Do you feel like you’re also serving as a museum docent to guests?
Oh, all the time. People want to know what’s up with all the pipes hanging from the ceiling. Most people ask me about the painting behind the bar. Every single customer asks me, “Who’s Miss Keens?” And then I have to explain [that] there was no Miss Keens, and that it’s a replica of La maja desnuda by Francisco Goya that was done by a New York City painter in the early 1900s. There was never a Miss Keens. But, I would say the most popular artifact on display in the whole restaurant is the blood-stained playbill Abraham Lincoln was supposedly holding the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. I bring so many guests upstairs to the Lincoln Room to show it to them.
What’s a typical shift like for you at Keens?
I usually start behind the bar at 4:30 p.m. and I’ll be busy until 8:30 p.m. Nonstop. Every night. The kitchen closes at 10:30 p.m. and the bar closes at 11:30 p.m. But we’re constantly busy all year long—nonstop.
The main bar at Keens is first-come, first-serve, and it can get pretty competitive and at times stressful to find a seat. Do you have any tips for people hoping to secure a barstool?
The best time to get a couple of seats at the bar is after 9 p.m. We get a big crowd from the Knicks and Rangers games at [Madison Square] Garden and, combined with people stopping by after work, we just get slammed.
Is there a lot of day drinking at the bar?
I’ll open the bar at 11:45 in the morning, and I’ve got people ordering Martinis. That’s why I love New York. They’ll order a Martini and grab a hard-boiled egg from the rack on the bar. They’ll eat their egg, have a drink, order some food and start their day.
What do you charge for one of those eggs?
No charge. They’re free. The reason we have those eggs on the bar is that back in the day in the late 1800s when they opened the bar, in New York City you had to offer [free] food in order to get a liquor license. Hard-boiled eggs were the easiest thing to have on hand all the time.
I remember you used to send out free hot bar snacks. How does that work?
Post-pandemic, we no longer do that. But from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday we’d have a particular dish on a particular day—Scotch eggs on Tuesday, ribs on Wednesday, wings on Thursday and fresh shrimp on Friday.
What are the most popular drink orders at the bar at Keens?
Manhattans, Martinis and Old-Fashioneds. Those are three most popular, and most powerful, drinks we make here. For Martinis, most people order vodka, dirty. And everybody wants a blue cheese olive: We make ours here by hand, every day, one by one. For our Old-Fashioned, we use a peel from an orange and get the oil from it and add it to the glass with a bar spoon of simple syrup and two dashes of bitters. Then add three ounces of Old Overholt rye, stir over ice, then add a lemon peel and a cherry. It’s my favorite drink to make here. It’s the best Old-Fashioned in the city.
You mentioned your extensive single malt Scotch list. Do people come here specifically to check it out?
Customers come from all over the world to drink from our collection. They’ll actually have checklists to mark what they have tried. And we’re constantly adding to it; we recently added 30 new bottles. Prices vary depending on the house, the distiller, the age statement or how popular they are, but they all keep going higher in price.
Have you noticed the clientele changing much since you started working here?
When I started here, it was a different crowd, mostly older people and longtime regulars. We don’t do any marketing or advertising, but we’re getting more popular than ever now, and that brings in a younger crowd. People want to stop in and have a drink at Keens. They may have seen us on Billions or the Food Network. When Anthony Bourdain was still with us, he brought a lot of people here over the years. It’s still the only place in New York City where you can get a mutton chop.
How often do you change the trivia board behind the bar, and what do you win if you guess the answers correctly?
There’s three questions that we change every weekday; the one on Friday stays up over the weekend. You have to answer all three correctly without using your smartphone. Back in the day, you’d win a cigar, even though you can’t smoke in the bar. After the cigar, we switched it to a free house beer, but post-pandemic, we don’t have a prize. Just a round of applause. Daily, we have one to three people who guess all three questions correctly.
What do you like about working at Keens during the holiday season?
I’ve worked every Black Friday at Keens, and I would always see people come in with all of these red shopping bags from Macy’s. So many red bags. But this year there wasn’t a single shopping bag from Macy’s. I guess it’s all online now. Cyber Monday. Who knows? But the amount of people who will come through the doors in December is incredible. As soon as I step behind the bar, I’m busy all night long. But I love Christmas in New York. I grew up with no Christmas in Cuba. I didn’t get my first Christmas tree until I moved to New York. And now I go into full Christmas mode. I just love the energy of the city during the holidays.