Do you remember several years ago when some New York restaurants actually had their patrons dining on beds? That short-lived phenomenon is just one of many dining fads that have come and gone over the years. The William S. Miller Papers housed at the South Street Seaport Museum Library and Archives provides a glimpse into one fad that experienced a heyday in New York City and other cities across the country from the mid-nineteenth century through World War I: The Beefsteak Dinner, or “Beefsteak.”
Beefsteaks were initially all-male gatherings, with small groups of men gathering in rustic taverns or dingy cellars where, sitting on crates or stools, they would sing, tell stories, eat steaks, and drink ale with abandon. In these “dungeons,” etiquette was set aside. No knives or forks were allowed. The participants ate tender morsels of beef steak, accompanied by gravy-sopped slices of bread, with their hands, wiping the grease on large napkins or aprons.
In addition to dinners thrown by individuals for small groups of friends or business associates, there were Beefsteak Clubs that met regularly in restaurants or clubhouses. Dinners were also thrown by businesses and political and fraternal organizations.
Although there were a number of venues for Beefsteak Dinners throughout New York City, beginning in the 1890s, the carpenter shop of William S. Miller on East 40thStreet was a popular and well-known place to enjoy this entertainment. Miller, a well-known carpenter and builder, followed in the footsteps of his father, Anton W. Miller, who was, by some accounts, the “father” of the New York City Beefsteak. Known as “Uncle Billy,” Anton Miller was the affluent proprietor of a tavern at the corner of Market and Monroe Streets in Lower Manhattan originally known as Shannon’s Corner.
The earliest beef steak dinners held at Shannon’s Corner were organized by The Birth Day Union, an association of thirteen men dedicated to the memory of George Washington. William Shannon, the original proprietor of the tavern, was a charter member of the association, which met annually on Washington’s Birthday.
“Uncle Billy” Miller was renowned for his beefsteaks, which he personally broiled to perfection on a hickory wood burning stove. As Miller’s, his tavern became a popular meeting place for Beefsteak Clubs from around the city, and elsewhere.
Newspaper clippings in the Seaport Archives collection report the gatherings of many of these clubs, including the Wall Street Club, the Dry Goods Men’s Club, and the Staten Island Beefeaters. Many give detailed descriptions of the gatherings and name the participants and their occupations. One newspaper article from the 1890’s raved “Will anybody who has ever eaten one of Uncle Billy’s beefsteak dinners forget it? The very remembrance makes one’s mouth water. The picture sticks in the memory – Uncle Billy on his low stool before the fire, with his broiler and his big shakers of pepper and salt, his face beaming, the guests seated about on boxes and stools and kegs; the big pewter tankard of ale that never got a rest for a moment.”
Upon his retirement in 1888, Anton removed the wood-burning stove from the tavern and placed it in the cellar of William’s uptown carpentry shop, where he continued to cook the occasional beefsteak dinner for groups of friends. He also cooked for dinners scheduled in advance by individuals and organizations. His selectivity was acknowledged by William who is quoted as saying, “It pleases father to be asked to do it, but it isn’t everybody he will cook for.”
William Miller kept up the tradition after his father’s death.
Included in the collection are letters to William Miller from business leaders, club presidents, and individuals requesting his preparation of Beefsteak Dinners. One 1894 invitation from Miller himself invites members of an organization to “the enjoyment of Beefsteak and Ale, to be prepared and devoured in old original style.”
In later years, Beefsteaks became coed affairs. Instead of “dungeons,” the dinners were held in hotels, restaurants, and even on apartment building rooftops.
Eventually, women not only attended dinners hosted by William Miller but also contacted him to make arrangements for dinners. Correspondence addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Miller” indicates that William Miller’s wife was involved in preparation of dinners in later years.
Noted writer Joseph Mitchell, who chronicled New York City life and culture in his New Yorker magazine articles, memorialized Beefsteak Dinners in a 1939 essay entitled, “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks.”
Beefsteak Dinners continue today, albeit in a tamer fashion, in some New Jersey communities, usually sponsored by local service organizations and social clubs.