At 5:30 on a Monday night, I was at the bar at Donohue’s Steakhouse (845 Lexington Avenue, 212-744-0938), sandwiched between a low-level lawyer with a Budweiser and an English businessman drinking a glass of red wine and finishing the last of his green peas. A few seats down, a married couple with a combined age of at least 150 was enjoying the last of their martinis and broiled fish. And the rotary phone was ringing off the hook.
In just 10 minutes, that phone, which has been mounted on the wall since 1950, had rung north of a bakers dozen times, until it was answered by an attractive young waitress.
“Donohue’s,” she said.
Located below a store that promises “classic brow threading” and two doors down from a Hale and Hearty, Donohue’s recalls the era of Mad Men, a time when people would dress up before going to an airport. Martin Donohue opened the restaurnat in 1950, only to have it taken over by his young son Michael just a few years later. “[Martin] gave each of his four sons a restaurant to run,” says Maureen Donohue, the third generation owner after Michael, who was her father, passed away just a few years ago. “I started working the books when I was 12. I’ve been working here ever since.”
With a vivacious laugh and an easy smile, Maureen works hard to keep Donohue’s the same way it has always been. The clubby back room sports wooden walls, a checkered black and white floor, red tablecloths, and jet-black booths — it feels vibrant and classic, like Sinatra or early Sidney Lumet films. The paintings lining the walls — showcasing winter time New York scenes — were most likely purchased by Maureen’s mother at Macy’s, just before the restaurant opened (though no one can remember for sure).
Still, the restaurant does not feel dated or old or kitschy. “Yeah, it’s an old school place, but it’s more of a neighborhood place,” said the English gentleman sitting next to me. And Donohue’s is a melting pot of the finest elements of the Upper East Side.
The night I was there, a short and round bald man with a bowtie sat in one booth, a group of 40-something Wall Street bankers — one wearing a large pinkie ring and another with one of the largest white pockets squares I’d ever seen — sat in another. Two older Jewish couples were just beginning to work the bread course, opening ice-cold individual butter packets. There was not a tourist in sight, and everyone seemed to know each other.
“How was your vacation, my dear?” One regular called out to Maureen.
“I would say I know 99 percent of our customers by their first name,” says Maureen.
Other regulars include Cardinal Dolan, author Gay Talese, and 90-year-old Andrew Rosenthal, who still dines here daily, the unofficial mayor of Donohue’s. “We don’t have many private parties, but when we do, it has to be in the contract that he can dine here during the party,” said Maureen. “He usually orders fish.”
And prior to permanently moving just outside of Butner, North Carolina, Bernie Madoff would dine weekly at the bar with his wife Ruth; their apartment was located just across the street. “Even after all that happened, Ruth would still come and eat by herself sometimes,” a longtime employee said.
The locals come for the simple food, dated in its plating but really good. You can order calf’s liver or fresh broiled trout or the famed corned beef and cabbage, available only on Thursdays. If you want a steak, it will come with a baked potato and side of vegetables. The burger, formed from steak trimmings, is excellent.
To start, it would be a wise choice to order their house salad. Composed of romaine, shredded carrots, and onions, it gets a large dollop of blue cheese dressing on top. It looks like something that would be served in the first class cabin of an airplane in 1950, but it tastes like it was prepared by someone as skilled as Paul Bocuse. It’s utterly fantastic.
If you’re not eating, you can still enjoy Donohue’s old-school vibe and charm; just grab a Manhattan or an old-fashioned at the bar.
Today, four of Maureen’s nieces work part time at the restaurant, carrying on the family legacy. With any luck, it’ll last for generations to come.