Last March, while we were researching and writing The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook, we headed to the Big Apple with our sons, Danny and Noah to check out a few Mad Men haunts and to wander the streets of midtown Manhattan around Madison Avenue. We’d been so immersed in the world of 1960s New York, we wanted to see and feel and smell the city where Don Draper and Roger Sterling drank their cocktails and dined with their clients.
Shortly after checking into our hotel room, which offered an expansive view of midtown, we joined the throngs that pulsate through the streets of New York like blood flows through arteries. It was a kick to pass many of the hotels, bars and restaurants featured in Mad Men: the Waldorf-Astoria, the Roosevelt and P.J. Clarke’s among them.
Our first destination: the Grand Central Oyster Bar, located one level down from the street in Grand Central Station at 42nd Street and Park Avenue. To say Grand Central is a train station is like saying St. Peter’s Basilica is a church. Grand Central Station is a spectacular piece of architecture that conjures the golden age of rail travel when the rich and famous and powerful hitched their private coaches to trains bound for Miami, New England, Chicago and points west.
The Oyster Bar, which opened in 1913, is a cavernous, bustling place, a series of domed spaces with a centrally located bar. It has served the freshest oysters in New York to presidents, high rollers such as financier “Diamond Jim” Brady, and weary travelers alike. When Don Draper and Roger Sterling take an extended and well lubricated lunch in season 1, episode 7 (“Red in the Face”), this was their likely destination for they each downed two dozen oysters that day.
Like Don and Roger, we opted to try a selection of fresh oysters our waitress recommended. But we were really there to taste the Oysters Rockefeller, and when this dish arrived, we were surprised at how different the current recipe is from the Oyster Bar’s 1960s recipe. Today the Grand Central Oyster Bar serves Oysters Rockefeller in a bed of creamed spinach and glazed with hollandaise sauce; in the Mad Men era, each oyster was coated with a spinach, shallot, parsley bread crumb topping (with a hint of alcohol) baked and served right in the pan. This is the recipe we chose for our book because was our goal was to include only recipes authentic to the period.
Our next stop (the one the steak-loving boys were eagerly anticipating) was Keens Steakhouse, formerly Keens Chophouse, on West 36th Street, the restaurant where Don, Pete Campbell and Pete’s jai alai obsessed friend Horace Cook retire for dinner one night. (Season 3, Episode 4, “The Arrangements.”)
The spacious, high-ceilinged Keens depicted in Mad Men doesn’t resemble the real one, however. (That’s Keens pictured just below the title of our blog.) Keens, founded in 1885 in what was then the Herald Square Theater District, is far more intimate and clubby. Its low ceiling is lined with tens of thousands of clay churchwarden pipes, each numbered and carefully catalogued by a pipe warden so pipe boys would be sure to deliver the right smoking device to each one of the 90,000 members of the Pipe Club, a group that originated at Keens in the early 1900s. In the foyer at Keens there are pipes on display used by such luminaries as Theodore Roosevelt, General Douglas MacArthur, Will Rogers, and Babe Ruth.
Judy isn’t a steak-eater, but savored the crab cakes. Peter and the boys enjoyed thick, juicy, perfectly prepared sirloins. The main courses were just a bonus; we came for Keens’ legendary Caesar Salad, the recipe for which is unchanged since the 1960s and which Executive Chef Bill Rodgers kindly shared for our book.
Fully sated, our final stop for the evening involved a different kind of mad men (and women): we had tickets to take in a more modern day New York experience: Saturday Night Live (thank you, Tom).
Walking back to the hotel at one in the morning, the streets were still very much alive and we reflected on how much New York has changed since we grew up in the city’s suburbs decades ago. The city is safer, cleaner and more electric than ever. But plenty of old New York – the iconic eateries, the classic buildings, and the street characters that are such an integral part of the city’s vibe – remain.