Once, nobody really spoke about restaurants, at least not in the way they do now. Nobody debated the merits of each dish, no one cared what farm their steak came from, and restaurants were more about hospitality than cuisine.
That time is long gone, but shards of it remain. One is a few short blocks from my front door, and I'm sure to go every chance I get. Some restaurants transport you to a different place. This one promises a different time.
Martin Donohue opened Donohue's Steak House in 1950 on Lexington Avenue near 64th, where it still is today. His son Michael took over a few years later and ran it until his death in 2000. The restaurant then passed to Michael's daughter, Maureen Donohue-Peters, who still owns Donohue's and is there almost every night.
None of them ever changed the place. Not one bit. Why would they?
Donohue's is a single room paneled in brown wood with a checkerboard floor. The front is dominated by an Art Deco bar. Beyond it is the dining room, which has three small tables at its center and five tall black booths along each of the side walls. The back wall has a "specials" board which almost never changes, and probably never has.
I can't attest to the authenticity of everything in the place. But I'd wager it all looks almost exactly as it has for nearly seven decades.
The button-tufted booths are flanked with coat racks and a few age-tarnished paintings hang above. The tables are covered in red tablecloths with paper Donohue's mats at each seat. Instead of a rollup, the silverware is still laid out on each mat with a white cloth napkin folded between.
Nearly all of the menu dates to the Eisenhower administration as well. Steaks are all familiar cuts like NY Strip or filet, with gentle prices that betray a lack of pedigree. The fish would have been equally familiar decades ago, when baked salmon or scrod were in fashion. Everything else -- hand carved turkey, baked chicken, shepherds pie -- is straight from grandma's house.
I typically go for the burger, which is first rate in an "old school" kind of way and served with decent steak fries. I like the meatloaf and gravy too -- one of the permanent specials -- which, with sides of mashed potatoes and peas and carrots, reminds me in a good way of the Salisbury steak TV Dinners of my youth.
I also always sit at the bar, over which Tom the affable bartender quietly presides most nights. Tom seems like he's been there 30 years, though I strangely haven't the courage to ask. Regardless, he's certainly not trying to reinvent the wheel. Aside from a handful of flavored vodkas, if you couldn't get it 60 years ago, you can't get it now.
In this regard, a Maker's Manhattan is occasionally nice, but bottled Budweiser usually does the trick. After all, you're not here for fancy cocktails. Or amazing food, for that matter. It's good, but that's not really the point.
What you're here for is the history and the perspective that comes with it. Donohue's is a living museum. Most patrons know the staff by name because they've been coming for 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years. One even left his two favorite servers a $100,000 tip in his will.
The old guard mostly stay in the dining room where they seem to know everyone already. Still, a "newcomer" can usually find a few regulars at the bar to chat with. Often, whether you want to or not. Either way, there's always a good story to be told.
There aren't many places like Donohue's left. Places from a time and a city that disappeared before most of us were born. I'm glad to have this small piece of it.