The Decline And Fall Of The Complimentary Egg

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The tradition of  hard-boiled eggs being offered at a bar goes back hundreds of years, prior, even, to the opening of Keens Steakhouse, which was established in 1885. Of late, however, the quaint practice has run afoul of  increasingly zealous governmental inspections.

Keens bartender Rob Byrnes spoke with the The Transom on a recent early evening. “The restaurant found out that it was something the health department, now, would not allow. They are supposed to be coming soon…so before there was any kind of a problem we replaced the eggs with the wooden eggs,” said Mr. Byrnes. He went on to regale us with lore about how the tradition started in France in the seventeenth century. (The barkeeps at this wood-clad haunt are apparently an erudite bunch.) It was reputedly born  of a surplus amount of eggs and a requirement that establishments serving liquor also serve food. Interesting then, that this long-standing tradition was apparently born out of a necessity to meet legislation and has since met its demise through the same ends.

As way of hewing to tradition, as well as accommodating egg-accustomed patrons, Keens has replaced their real eggs with wooden stand-ins (some left with there natural hue for brown eggs, some painted white)—a preemptive move to pass a health inspection. “We had a lot of regular customers who would come in and just take [the eggs] themselves…We’re definitely not giving out as many eggs today as we were two months ago [when the switchover happened]. It has changed the whole thing of that old tradition.”

And it a tradition that was widespread in New York City, as Mr. Byrnes explained, “I remember my dad saying in the late seventies that when he grew up in the forties or fifties, every bar in the city served hard-boiled eggs,” but this is no longer the case.

Mr. Byrnes even pointed out that “there is a bar that is out of business now that used to [serve eggs],” though he stopped short of attributing the failure to the egg ban.

(Devotees of hard-boiled eggs are not the only clientele affected, it should be noted. The New York Times recently ran an article detailing the untimely passing of the spreadable cheese at Broadway stand-by Sardi’s, which has recently been ordered to remove all snacks from their bar, following an inspection.)

Has anyone ever become ill because of the eggs, we wondered? “No. They were fresh everyday and I’m pretty sure you can leave hard-boiled eggs out for a couple of days,” Mr. Byrnes said.

One customer, who was enjoying a snack-free beverage at the bar, described the move as “ridiculous,” a sentiment that the bartender of six years believes sums up the general feeling on the matter. “I think most people do think it’s kind of ridiculous, that it took this long for them to determine that this wasn’t a good idea,” Mr. Byrnes added.

“The regulars who come in and help themselves to an egg have actually taken one off the bar, walked to the other side of the room and then realized that this is not a real egg.” This perhaps raises the question of the safety of wooden eggs which are surely still a hazard to unassuming customers? “No-one has cracked their teeth yet” though.

Not everyone at the bar agreed with the importance of the egg issue. One lady said, “I’ve got no problem having a drink because I like it. I don’t need an egg to convince me that I’m thirsty.”
We agreed with her, and settled in for a drink.

The Decline And Fall Of The Complimentary Egg