This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.[Krieger, 6/18/09]
The name of this sliver of an Upper East Side restaurant—which Smith & Wollensky could eat as a snack—is a bit of a misnomer. There’s steak on the menu, but it doesn’t play the dominant role as it does at most New York beef temples. Given just as much play are such dishes as calves liver, ham served “Hawaiian sytle,” various seafood dishes and burgers and “Roast Maryland Turkey.” (Someone please tell be why turkeys from Maryland are particularly prized.) It has always been thus, as a framed menu from 1950—the year of the Lexington Avenue eatery’s founding—attests. “The prices were right, then,” quipped my blond, Irish waitress as I took in the artifact.
Donohue’s makes more sense when thought of not as a steak house, but a traditional Irish bar with a small “Dining Room in Rear,” as the gold leaf in the front window reads. The long, beautiful, vaguely Art Deco bar dominates the front of the restaurant. Pass along it, and the seemingly hundreds of coat hooks on the opposite wall, to the end of the wood-paneled space and you find a snug grouping of ten black vinyl booths with bright red tablecloths. Low-set sconces barely illuminate the various paintings depicting maritime and French scenes (which is probably just as well). Specials are written on a chalkboard hung beside a working wooden phone booth.
Donohue’s patrons are “all neighborhood people,” according to my waitress. Some of the diners on a recent night could have been there when Martin Dononue opened his doors 59 years ago. An aged newspaperman endlessly regaled his captive companions with old tales of editors, city rooms, and politicians. One short, stout matron wore the biggest hat I have ever seen outside of a church or a funeral. Slim, tottering, ash-blonde ladies in black slacks walked in and out with stooped husbands in tweed jackets.
Who else ate here? Well, uh, how do I put this? The scourge of society.
Bernie Madoff was a fan of the ravioli, apparently, and a decent, but not spectacular tipper. Dennis Kozlowski and his wife bellied up to the bar after being convicted of raping Tyco of $400 mil. This is the Upper East Side, after all. (Donohue’s has a motto, by the way, which I doubt Madoff ever considered—"Generosa virtus nihil timet,” which means "Generous valour fears nothing.")
I expect Kozlowski was allowed to nurse his sorrows as long as he wished. There is no rush to flip tables here. Many diners who had finished their meals before I came in were still there when I left, twisting the stem of the same almost-emptied wine glass. I could have had my coffee cup warmed up until closing time and no one would have said a thing. And I might have, if not for having other plans for the night. Donohue’s is dangerously consoling to the jangled soul. Its dim lighting and dark booths cradle you into a comforting quietude, a place where your boss or the bill collector or the evening news, or even the Federal Marshals, can’t get to you.
—Brooks of Sheffield