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Prime Steaks

John Mariani
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

(continued from page 3)

Assuming that there will be an adequate, if not plentiful, supply of good beef in the future, what is it that distinguishes one great steakhouse from another? In the case of a restaurant like Smith & Wollensky, the attraction of a great wine list is significant, but offering a wide menu of soups, salads, seafood and an array of desserts by an Austrian pastry chef gives it a wider audience, including more women than go to traditional steakhouses.

This additional female-customer base is certainly the case at Chops in Atlanta, where designer Pat Kuleto married elements of traditional steakhouse decor to rather glamorous, subdued lighting some women feel comfortable in. The Capital Grill steakhouses in Providence and Boston promote family dining, and the grand restoration of the cavernous boiler room of the Providence train station has made the restaurant as much an attraction as a place to eat.

At Bern's Steak House in Tampa, the decor has been called everything from kitschy to bordellolike, but in addition to stocking the world's largest wine list--2,500 pages, with more than 300 dessert wines--owner Bern Laxer grows his own organic vegetables and herbs, has specially built water tanks for live fish, offers more than two dozen caviars and serves more than 65 different kinds of dessert each night in a series of upstairs dessert rooms (each of which have two television monitors so that customers can watch The Simpsons or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). There's also a pianist who takes requests via closed circuitry. Last but not least, Bern's measures out vermouth out by the eyedropper for Martini drinkers.

At the Chicago Chop House, they do an extraordinary bar business and feature a Prime Rib No. 1, which is charred before roasting and takes on a wonderfully succulent flavor.

Morton's of Chicago has always prided itself on having a distinct Windy City style, and the original, opened in 1978, was characterized by owner Arnie Morton as a "comfortable saloon." Morton himself had been director of Playboy's worldwide dining operations, and the restaurant had a definite Midwestern masculine bravado that continues to this day in the 29-unit chain, now owned by Quantum Restaurant Group Inc. Unlike the no-frills look of Palm and the extravagance of Bern's, the Morton's restaurants are built around a clubbish atmosphere of dark woods and subdued lighting accented by Leroy Neiman prints (Neiman was Playboy's quintessential sports artist) as well as historic photos of the city in which each restaurant is located.

New York's Old Homestead is unique for offering Japanese Kobe (actually wagyu) beef, an incredibly rich meat from a steer that is fed on beer and gets massaged by hand every day. Even at $100 per one-pound steak, the restaurant sells plenty, although their $20 sampler portion is a much saner way to taste something that tastes closer to pure butter than beef.

Even competitors of Peter Luger admit that the porterhouse served at this Brooklyn institution is the finest in the world. Part of Luger's appeal is the adventuresome trip to get there, through some of the rougher, tougher parts of Brooklyn, where an attendant has to watch your car or hold a cab for you. Luger's waiters, who will usually dissuade you from ordering anything but porterhouse, slice the steak in thick slabs for everyone at your table. It comes with some overly sweet steak sauce on the side, good creamed spinach and crispy fried potatoes.

"We never use boxed meat [from a] Cryovac," says Luger's president and family member, Marilyn Spiera. "My mother, Marsha Forman, who is 78, and my sister Amy Rubenstein and my daughter Jody Storch still go down to the meat markets and pick out only what we feel is the absolute best. A lot of the meat they now sell as 'Prime' wouldn't even be graded 'Choice' 35 years ago. But to get the best Prime porterhouse and keep our prices reasonable, our food costs are astronomical: for every pound of meat we buy, after trimming and discarding, we get half a pound left to serve. When we were audited over sales taxes, we had to show the auditors our food costs because they couldn't believe they were so high. Frankly, if we were in Manhattan, where rents are sky-high, we couldn't survive and keep the same quality we now serve."

Ruth's Chris is famous for the sizzling platter on which your steak arrives, and the chain depends heavily on its name recognition and consistency of product so that steak lovers will know exactly what they're getting, whatever city they're in. "We know it's a big challenge for us to try to crack the New York market," says Fertel, "but we also believe that those customers who love our steaks in New Orleans or Washington, D.C., or Orlando will love them just as much when they go to New York."

There have been some other new ideas in the steakhouse field that are gaining momentum. In Houston, Michael and Glen Cordua have made churrascos--marinated beef grilled over charcoal--a namesake mainstay at their two Churrascos restaurants, and in New York, the lowly but beloved Parisian cut called the onglet (or hanger steak) has become all the rage at places like Les Halles. Other bistro-style steakhouses, like New York's Steak Frites, feature the rib eye, one of the juiciest, fattiest cuts preferred outside New York. But no matter how it's served, what it's accompanied by, who's eating it or what it costs, American steaks still satisfy a primal need. As Pat Cetta says, "Steaks are a lot like sex. Every once in a while you need a little."

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