Donohue’s Steakhouse opened in 1950; sixty-six years later, it remains a fine example of the Janus-faced cultural kluge of mid-century New York. Sleek, pitch black banquettes sit atop a checkerboard floor; tables draped salaciously in red linen are positioned beneath oil paintings of ships at sea, mounted against dark wood-paneled walls; the bar has sleek Art Deco curves under a tangle of branches and a shroud of Christmas lights — possible renegades from the holidays a few months back — sparkle in a room that is otherwise dimly lit. It all at once harkens to the stately home of the old world, the prohibition speakeasy, and the two-martini lunch of the postwar boom.
Regrettably, this sort of room is now most often found in trendy downtown neighborhoods where enterprising restaurateurs painstakingly recreate the look and feel of bygone eras, or at least attempt to. What they lack entirely, though, is the loyal clientele that has aged along with the restaurant, and the lumpen menu that has sustained each over the decades. Donohue’s — an actual old restaurant, not one that’s merely pretending to be one — has both.
On its menu we find a collection of American vernacular classics like Yankee pot roast, turkey and stuffing, liver and onions, and, not surprisingly, a hamburger. There are some steaks and chops on there too, but in the contemporary sense of the term, Donohue’s is a steakhouse in name only. If anything, the expansive menu most resembles that of a diner, but one has been unsullied by modern food trends, blessedly bereft of things like wraps and panini. The menu here serves as a far more illustrative historical document than that of your average greasy spoon.
So does the hamburger, which, much like the room, is frozen in time, excepting the $15 price tag. It differentiates itself from a flat-top diner burger — it is tall and cylindrical and is broiled like a steak — and it betrays its vintage in its composition. Donohue’s patty is far leaner than contemporary burgers, although in its heyday, its buxom dimensions were probably considered rather extravagant. This is especially true when compared to some of the fabled burgers of the mid-century era, those at Hamburger Heaven or the Prime Burger for example; themselves elevations on what White Castle had popularized in the decades before.
Reportedly, the burger at Donohue’s is fabricated from scraps from the restaurant’s steaks, but I’m somewhat skeptical of this fact, for a couple of reasons. I can’t imagine they sell enough steaks to leave sufficient trim, for one, not with so many other things on the menu. But more importantly, the meat tastes too perfectly like a hamburger to have ever been something else: it tastes mostly like shoulder clod, also known as chuck, the classic cut for hamburger, which to me tastes like a certain optimism.
Biting into Donohue’s plump, broiled patty, served on a well-burnished generic white bun, inspires me to suppose that I know what it was like to eat one in the decade that the restaurant first opened. The rush of fat and salt, the gentle tang of the American cheese, the acridity of the charred exterior, ceding to the heft and sweetness of the rosy meat inside. To eat this burger is to feel the seeming limitlessness of America’s ascension during the postwar boom years, when beef became cheap and burgers, once the product of austerity, evolved into symbols of prosperity in their size and construction. How modern it must have all felt, and how decadent!
It was, after all, in that era that 21 Club rolled out America’s first gourmet hamburger, and Nat King Cole christened the cheeseburger at P.J Clarke’s the "Cadillac." The burger at Donohue’s might not have quite the pedigree of those places — it is perhaps not a destination burger in the same sense — but it embodies this spirit of its age every bit as much. If you love New York and want to get a fleeting evocation of the way things were during the 1950s and 1960s, and perhaps more importantly, you want to sit amongst the very same people who lived through those eras, then Donohue’s Steakhouse should be at the top of your list.