Cavanagh’s New York: An Original American Steak House

Celebrities came a-dime-a-dozen in 1950s New York. Whether it be Mickey Mantle smacking baseballs into the stratosphere or Marilyn Monroe standing a little too close to a subway vent, anybody who was anybody was spending time in the Big Apple. The city had become the center of the music, sports, and business world all at the same time and every person involved in these industries had something in common: they needed to eat. Originally established in 1876 on West 23rd Street, Cavanagh’s Steak House served New Yorkers until its closing in the 1970s. In serving for nearly a century, the restaurant was around for some of the most important events of the city’s long and storied history. I would like to present this restaurant as a stepping stone for the great ones that would eventually come to the city. Cavanagh’s is, in fact, more than a decade older than the city’s most famous steak house, Peter Luger. 

1870s New York was far from similar to the 1950s. Before big, expensive, and luxurious steak houses dotted every corner of the city, there were “eating houses”. As discussed in this course, these eating houses eventually led to the conception of the traditional restaurant. In 1876, a twelve-table clam-bar named Kenny’s was situated at 254-260 West 23rd Street. The bar was a popular hangout spot for railroad tycoon Diamond Jim Brady and actress Lillian Russell. John C. Cavanagh was 10 at the time and grew to work his way up the restaurant world and buy out Kenny’s.

Cavanagh likely saw the success of restaurants like Delmonico’s or Keen’s, that sold fine beef. The menu for his restaurant would be advertised as “traditional Irish cooking with the finest quality of meats.” In the 1920s, Cavanagh saw prosperity when most other establishments were struggling through the prohibition. At the time, Cavanagh’s did not have a bar (one would later be added) so it was not subjected to the crackdown on alcohol by the U.S government. Tammany Hall politicians usually made up of influential New Yorkers, frequented Cavanagh’s as well as a host of sporting figures (especially prize-fighters). The restaurant would expand following this newfound success by buying the spot next door, another 4 story property. This allowed for more space for large parties, many of which came from the opera house down the street. The customers frequently commented on the atmosphere of the restaurant and the variety of dining options. 

The specific menu that was used in this research dates back to New Year’s 1959. Perhaps the first thing that stands out to one with a modern palette is the appetizer section. Chilled fruit is amongst the most popular appetizers. Also, there are a wide variety of “cocktails”  While shrimp and lobster cocktails can be found commonly in steak houses today, one might have some trouble finding a clam juice or tomato cocktail. The restaurant, like its predecessor, also served a host of oyster/clam dishes. The most familiar dish in this section would be the oysters Rockefeller, a staple still found in many seafood restaurants today. A cooking method that is most definitely not seen in most restaurants today is the boiling of clams in dairy products. Cavenaugh’s offered three ways to have the clams stewed: In milk, half and half, or cream. This is not to be confused with clam chowder, which was also on the menu. Not all appetizers seemed as unappealing as these, with the filet of imported maatjes herring and green turtle soup being notable standouts. 

The menu’s extravagance is truly on show when it comes to the entrees. The seafood and specials section is a hodgepodge of dishes of French, Irish, German, and even Indian descent. Dishes like the Filet of Sole would be directly above a madras curry of shrimp. Perhaps trying to capitalize on the association with European cuisine and fine dining, the prices of these dishes are astronomical for the time. The average weekly salary for an American household at the time was about $100. Something extremely staggering was the difference in prices of seafood dishes and meat. The price of the most expensive seafood item, a swordfish steak at $4.25 is dwarfed when compared to that of the meat. Adjusted to inflation, the 13 dollars paid in 1959 would be the equivalent of $123 for one steak today. While a cut of A5 Japanese wagyu could fetch more than $150 today, the quality difference is evident. The most expensive cuts of steak at Cavenaugh’s were the filet mignon and the sirloin. While these cuts are still present today, they are seen more like a standard than any exclusive cut. The evolution of the dairy industry and the introduction of a more international meat trade meant that more cuts were readily available and different ways of raising cattle led to the introduction of new cuts to the market.

Cavenaugh’s would remain open after it’s owners death and would close its doors as a restaurant in the early 70s. While in some ways the restaurant was stuck in the past (oysters in milk…), its influence seems evident.  Items on the menu, like oysters Rockefeller and broiled prime sirloin, are some of the biggest staples in New York steakhouses today. I believe the restaurant acts as a looking glass into the world of fine dining in New York City in a particularly interesting time in its history. 

Written By: Javier Canto

Originally Published: December 11th, 2020 || Last Updated: March 13th, 2023

A part of Doc Studio’s History of the Food in America Collection

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