In further thinking on the beefsteak’s origin (see my last post here), this 1890 description of a beefsteak party, held by a New York cycling club, is noteworthy. The locale was not stated but was obviously William S. Miller’s uptown carpentry shop. The description of the place corresponds closely to two fine depictions, you can see one here, on a beefsteak history page of the Museum of the City of New York.
The article states that the party locale is heir to the “quaint” establishment “down east”. This was obviously his father’s place, Billy Miller’s tavern. It was situated on Market Street near Monroe Street in New York, in the old 7th Ward near the East River. The area now is dominated by a massive bridge approach and 1930s apartment blocks.
The 1890 writer uses the term “Beefsteak Club” to describe the gatherings at père et fils. The 58th Street Beefsteak Club’s meeting place was the Morgue (a hall), on that street. It was not the only club of that name in New York, clearly, but did Billy Miller originate the name for Manhattan?
This is doubtful. Consider this stylish, 1878 menu of a New York Beefsteak Club, preserved in the archives of the Museum of the City of New York. I see little connection to Billy Miller’s as it offers a most luxurious “beefsteak”. Included are vintage wines, numerous fine dishes in addition to the beef, and a lengthy music program.
Despite the luxury, the meal is within the beefsteak ethos. The tip-offs are the Amontillado sherry and the kidney with the beef, typical offerings of many beefsteaks.
Note too the gridiron design at the top. No beer though. Or was there? What is steinwein, and strawberry blonde?
They were probably beer* but expressed euphemistically with deference to a formal affair where turtle, fresh mushrooms, green salad, and French wines were also offered.
In short, this is a menu of nabobs, not nobodies.
Could such uptown swank have been inspired by Billy Miller’s smoky saloon confabs with their makeshift chairs, MIA cutlery and endless cups of old ale? It seems more likely the 1878 Beefsteak Club took menu and nomenclature from London’s elite Beefsteak Club and chophouses of the order of Simpson’s-on-the-Strand. Modest bars like Billy Miller’s probably adopted the moniker in further imitation, perhaps with ironic intent.
See also the discussion here on the origin of the porterhouse steak from The Market Assistant, etc. (1867) by the American, Thomas F. De Voe. It states that a special cut of steak, originally meant for roasting, was cooked on hickory-wood and served with ale or porter in the port area near the financial district. Patrons included pilots and other sea-going types.
Even if this story, which is quite plausible to our ears, is not a true or the full explanation, it shows that Billy Miller’s cooking of steaks in an antique bar stove was not unique and different proprietors enjoyed reputation for their version.
We feel that the beef-eating heritage which derived from John Bull’s Britain including its long-lived Beefsteak Club(s), in toto probably gave rise to New York’s beefsteak dinners. It may have started with New York society and went downmarket, or vice versa, but we think it likely one proprietor did not invent the thing or the club name in New York. The fact too that a prominent club, the 58th Street one, was composed of a good number of show people suggests to us direct inspiration from the London Beefsteak Club, which had a similar origin.
But Billy Miller and his son clearly popularized the idea due to their deft hand with the steak and the gridiron, and perhaps they introduced the slices-on-bread idea. The quality of their “dock” sherry and probably their ale didn’t hurt either, surely. The 1893 Tribune story I discussed earlier stated “the deponent [i.e., the reporter] saith not” the meaning of such dock sherry. Gillman knows. It was sherry sent to London from Spain and stored a while in its damp cellars, thus to acquire an ineffable quality.
Note re image: the image above was sourced from the website of the Museum of the City of New York, here. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed
*See Ron Pattinson’s comment below which shows the steinwein was almost certainly not beer. Also, see my next post (dated 5/07/16) where I show that strawberry blonde was probably in fact May wine.