December 1, 2014

[Retro Roadmap] Donohue’s Steak House in New York City

  • By: Beth Lennon
The mirrored bar back has been reflecting the faces of Donohue’s patrons since 1950.
The mirrored bar back has been reflecting the faces of Donohue’s patrons since 1950.

The cobalt-hued pachyderm holding court in the middle of the back bar at Donohue’s on New York City’s Upper East Side may be holding his trunk aloft in an attempt to keep his martini from spilling, but this lucky pose has served his station well. Donohue’s, once one of any number of neighborhood cocktail and comfort food joints (from when comfort food was known just as food) lining the sidewalks of New York, has had the continued good luck to escape the gentrifiers’ grip, much to the benefit of patrons wanting a classic cocktail and a hearty meal.

Family owned and operated, this classic bar was opened by Martin Donohue with his son Michael in 1950. Michael’s daughter and current owner Maureen Donohue is the third generation, and there are nieces in the wings learning the ropes to keep this tradition going strong.

Maureen’s father oversees the family from the vintage photo of him hung above the bar, while Maureen keeps an eye on her patrons, many of whom have been coming to Donohue’s for decades and are now treated like extended family.

The cozy dining space tucked in back of the bar seats little more than 30, the bar half that number.
The cozy dining space tucked in back of the bar seats little more than 30, the bar half that number.

Not a new place pretending to be old, Donohue’s is the real deal. The mirrored back bar hasn’t changed since that opening day, and the gleaming chrome cash register is still in use. The button tufted booths in the dining area may be seen in some of the more trendy establishments cropping up nowadays, but they’ve always been here at Donohue’s.

Even when something has gone awry -- a leak from the upstairs salon or a careless TV crew damaging the mahogany bar -- Maureen has insisted that the repairs and replacements stay true to the space.

No beer on tap at this classic bar -- stick with the cocktails and you can’t go wrong.
No beer on tap at this classic bar -- stick with the cocktails and you can’t go wrong.

At the bar, if you insist, you might get an “of the moment” cocktail such as a cosmo, but most patrons know to stick to the classics: Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and martinis that taste like martinis, not flavored vodka. Served in civilized-sized barware that hasn’t changed in style since Donohue’s opened, it is possible to have a martini with lunch and head back to work, instead of around the bend.

Daily specials are listed on the chalkboard, in addition to the traditional menu with classic fare.
Daily specials are listed on the chalkboard, in addition to the traditional menu with classic fare.

The food at Donohue’s is as no-nonsense as the drinks with nary a compote, emulsion, or wasabi-encrusted anything to be found on the menu. Appetizers Maureen’s father would recognize include “Individual Can of Sardines” -- not served in the can but rather plated on a bed of iceberg with a palate-cleansing parsley sprig on the side -- as well as consommé. Of course they have steak (with potatoes, naturally), but gravy-smothered meatloaf and hot turkey sandwiches top the list of popular offerings, in addition to the simply broiled seafood.

Original owner Michael Donohue would recognize many of the dishes still on the menu including the sardines served not in a can but on a bed of greens.
Original owner Michael Donohue would recognize many of the dishes still on the menu including the sardines served not in a can but on a bed of greens.

Everyone is welcome at Donohue’s, but the majority of the folks entering the cozy space are neighborhood regulars.

“I know the names of about 99% of the people who come in here,” says Maureen with a smile. And while she could rattle off a long list of famous folks who have dined or drank there, she seems most happy when she’s calling a friendly welcome to a dear gent who has been dining at Donohue’s for decades.

A slice of nostalgia still survives on the busy streets of New York City.
A slice of nostalgia still survives on the busy streets of New York City.

Donohue’s sidewalk awning sticks out like a stop sign or perhaps a leg stuck out to trip you, reminding you to stop hurrying down the sidewalk and take a moment to step back in time, to a quieter, more civilized era. All you need to do is walk in the door, and by the end of your visit to Donohue’s you’ll be one of the regulars that Maureen remembers. Suddenly the big city isn’t so big anymore; you’ve experienced a real, authentic New York City moment.

Want to see Donohue’s up close? Check out Mod Betty’s video of her visit:


Donohue’s Steak House


845 Lexington Ave
Manhattan, NY 10065
(212) 744-0938

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