Cigar Aficionado

Angelo and Maxie's Steakhouse, New York City

To gauge the cigar friendliness of Angelo and Maxie's Steakhouse, you need look no farther than inside the front door. There, you'll find an outlet of Hampton's Tobacco, a New York chain, offering a revolving selection of 10 or so brands, everything from $9 Don Tomas No. 100s to $30 Partagas 150s.

The cigar motif continues as you pass the handsome (and always crowded) bar to the stunning main room. Designed by the firm of Morris Nathanson Design, the restaurant is a celebration of warm woods and glowing bronzes in an Art Deco style. Words spelled out in foot-tall letters run high along the walls, chanting the true steakhouse mantra--ROBUSTO, BURGUNDY, PORTERHOUSE. They lead through the spacious and noisy main room to the rear of the restaurant, where a separate, enclosed dining room for cigar smokers called Havana Rick's beckons. (New York City law bans smoking in the rest of the restaurant.) With its own bar, dining for approximately 30 people, private lockers at $600 a year--though you have to supply your own humidification device--and a good ventilation system, the room is a cigar smoker's haven.

As is the restaurant itself for meat eaters with an eye for value. The menu (split into two entrée categories--Meat and Not Meat) offers a broad spectrum of oversized steaks, such as a 28-ounce rib eye and a 16-ounce New York strip, each for about $20. The entire menu is a salute to excess: a one-pound lobster cocktail for an appetizer, salads served in what might as well be mixing bowls for $7.50, a three-pound whole roasted chicken for $16.50, a 20-ounce grilled veal chop for $24 and an incredibly dense warm chocolate soufflé for $8, which was big and rich enough to satisfy a small village. Even the drinks are oversized: to some, $7 may seem steep for a martini (though not by Manhattan standards), but it's a 10-ounce martini.

A small (about 130 selections) but well-chosen wine list is an equal value. An elegant 1993 Caymus Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon was a perfect complement to our steaks, and fairly priced at $48. The list also features a well-priced Bordeaux selection, including a 1989 Château Gruaud-Larose for $68, and if you're feeling expansive, a 1988 Ducru Beaucaillou for $105, as well as some less pricey vintages.

In part, the lower prices at Angelo and Maxie's reflect the restaurant's location in the casual Union Square section of Manhattan, an increasingly popular dining area several dozen blocks and a mindset away from its Midtown expense-account counterparts. They also reflect what managing partner Rich Wolf calls the owners' philosophy of lots of good food at two-thirds the price of other New York steakhouses.

Angelo and Maxie's was opened last fall by a dozen partners who, between them, own more than 10 other New York City restaurants. The name of the newest venue comes from "Lullaby of Broadway," the hit tune from the musical 42nd Street, and the restaurant was a huge success from day one; even with a capacity of 220, reservations are strongly suggested any night of the week. But the success has not been without growing pains. Head chef/partner Matthew Lavey's kitchen, facing the dining room through a massive arch, has been inconsistent.

When we first visited Angelo and Maxie's in December, the negimaki appetizer--rolled beef with scallions in a teriyaki sauce--was an exciting start. But the New York strip was overdone and the garlic mashed potatoes were dry. Yet my companion's 10-ounce grilled salmon filet was moist and flavorful, as was her salad, even if they did serve it with the wrong dressing. The waiters in their black slacks, aprons and blue oxford shirts were friendly, though a bit distracted by the huge crowds. When we returned a month later, there was much improvement. A 14-ounce filet mignon came out pink and tender, and the garlic mashed potatoes were far superior to the earlier rendition.

Rich Wolf says the owners' intention was to create a restaurant that focused on value with huge portions, a "fun, unintimidating restaurant." On one visit, Neil Diamond's 1969 hit "Sweet Caroline" came over the speakers, and the packed restaurant's Baby Boomer crowd sang along in unison, tapping out the beat of the chorus on their plates. It seems that Wolf and his partners have succeeded.

--Terrence Fagan

Angelo and Maxie's Steakhouse

233 Park Avenue South(212) 220-9200; fax: (212) 220-9209

Dinner: about $50 per person, without wine