James Conley of NY’s Keens Steakhouse on Sidewalk Dining Ambience and Changing Preferences - Wine & Spirits Magazine

James Conley of NY’s Keens Steakhouse on Sidewalk Dining Ambience and Changing Preferences

Keens Steakhouse has been an institution in NYC’s Herald Square district for more than a century, counting Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and Albert Einstein among the members of its Pipe Club. The restaurant still maintains a collection of more than 90,000 numbered pipes, some 40,000 of which adorn the dining room ceilings. James Conley has become something of a Keens institution himself, having worked as its service director for 19 years before becoming the wine director in 2018. Conley stayed with the restaurant through shutdown, though he lost some of his wine-savvy waiters. “Now I’m just a full-time manager who does some wine when I can find time. Being the service director was helpful; if I’d been strictly the wine director it might have been different.” 

During the shutdown, Keens relied on its longstanding reputation for steaks to offer takeout, delivery and national shipping. “Nationwide shipping has been a big boon for us,” says Conley. “We went with Goldbelly to ship steaks and burgers overnight. There are days that we could have 30 orders, and it’s expensive, but it helps us maintain the restaurant.” Keens has its own dry-aging room, and the shipping program allows them to continue buying meat and sending it out in top condition after dry aging, without risk of losing valuable inventory. 

Keens reopened for outdoor dining in late June and brought back indoor service at 25 percent capacity from September 30 to December 14. “December is normally one of our busiest months, and we were building good momentum, but then we were shut down again. I get it, it saves lives, but in terms of commerce, it was disastrous.”

Now Keens is back to outdoor dining only, and while they’ve built a semi-enclosed structure along the curb, it’s quite a leap from the epitome of a typical Keens experience, according to Conley: “A lot of what Keens adds is this beautiful setting, with the wood paneling, and when people are dining indoors, they’re sort of excited to be there. When you’re out on the sidewalk, it’s just a place where you can get a bite to eat.” On some nights, Conley might find himself talking Cabernet one moment and fending off a panhandler the next. “We’re trying to extend the brand of Keens, and that’s why I’m there all the time, but it’s really a different world.” 

Conley says Keens’s markup has always been moderate, so he hasn’t had to adjust pricing much, but he has added some lower-priced wines, like Domaine De L’Ermitage 2018 Menetou-Salon (#3 BTG, $11). Other wines, like Matias Michelini Mendoza 2018 Esperando a Los Barbaros Malbec (#10 on bottle list, $36) and Bodega Sur De Los Andes 2012 Mendoza Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon (#7 on bottle list, $36) have been on the list for some time. “We’re trying to run through our inventory rather than create new invoices,” Conley says. He would typically pour both a Prosecco and a Champagne by the glass, and sales would be about even, but not in 2020. Mongarda 2018 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Extra Dry Sparkling was his #5 by-the-glass, and Champagne didn’t make the list. “I guess Prosecco sounds better when you’re sitting out on 36th Street with a garbage truck going by.” 

Cabernet Sauvignon always has a big following at Keens, but wines like Harlan Mascot ($280) have been displaced by more moderately priced selections such as Dancing Hares 2016 Napa Valley Mad Hatter Cabernet Sauvignon, Conley’s biggest new success at $130 a bottle. “It’s a heavyweight, ripe cab from Cali that appeals here.” Conley made other adjustments, like running a Ghemme or a Langhe Nebbiolo rather than a Barbaresco. “A lot of our clients are going to be casual clients. They’re not coming for a destination dining experience, but because we’re open and we’re near their hotel. They’re not going to spring for a $90 bottle when they’re sitting outside, but they’ll trust me on a $55 dollar bottle.” Still, says Conley, “We’re grateful for everyone who comes, and for every second we have a table full instead of empty it’s a win, because we’re trying to keep people employed.” 

All the same, Conley, like most restaurant staff during the pandemic, has had to absorb a lot. “I’ve had more people call me very bad names and say cruel things to me since COVID, maybe after I’ve asked someone to wear a mask indoors, or after telling someone they’ve had too much to drink. Everyone has had a bad year, and times are fraught, but I would just say that people would do well to be kind. Those of us who work in restaurants are just trying to make a living.”

is the Italian wine editor at Wine & Spirits magazine.

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