Do not call to make a reservation and then ask if Sam or Harry will be in that night. They are present every night, in a painting of jazz musicians hanging on the back wall of this elegant, noisy, expensive steakhouse where the servers know that a gimlet is made with gin. In 1990, Michael Sternberg, Sam's grandson, and Larry Work, Harry's nephew, opened what many food critics consistently call Washington's best steakhouse. Serious eaters in the nation's capital have been thanking them ever since.
"We wanted a place that was fun," Sternberg says, "where people could come in and let their hair down and have a great meal, great service, great wine and great cigars and all the things that go into having a wonderful time. I think what separates us from the crowd is the amount of coddling that you get here as a customer."
Sam & Harry's "wet ages" their steaks. That, Sternberg says, makes steaks a little milder than dry aging and more widely appealing. The kitchen uses an infrared, Southbend broiler that maintains a constant temperature of 1,600 degrees that immediately sears the steak, locking in the juices.
Clearly, all of this makes ordering a prime-aged steak--ideally the bone-in strip "signature" steak--a must. But first try the crab cakes appetizer, of which one diner commented, "All crab, not at all greasy." Ration your appetite by not eating too much of the superb rye or pumpernickel-raisin bread, then slap a fork on the seemingly oil-free "onion crisps." "Mom's mashed potatoes" are primo comfort food, carrying virtually as much cream and butter as spud. A unique russet and sweet potato au gratin is available as well as the usual mutantly large baked potato. The three grilled, double-cut lamb chops make sheep cloning unnecessary, and an entrée of four grilled chicken breasts in a rosemary jus will provide sandwiches for a couple of days beyond your visit. Some days, for lunch, I just stop by for a remarkably fresh salad.
The wine list has more than 400 selections, not all of them always available, with a particularly impressive choice of Zinfandels and Merlots. Sternberg perfectly selected a 1994 Pahlmeyer Merlot from Napa to accompany our dinner.
Desserts include fresh berries, plump Chilean blackberries being the most impressive. The carrot cake has a thick cream-cheese frosting, but if you want just one dessert for a table of six or more, then order what one server calls a "giant Ho-Ho." The individual "turtle cake" is a tower of brownie, whipped cream, caramel and pecans, covered with chocolate ganache.
Top off with coffee and a cigar, which Sam & Harry's offers in abundant, cholesterol-free variety, listed alphabetically from A. Fuente (including an OpusX) to Tabantillas, with Ashton, Avo, Davidoff, Dunhill, La Gloria Cubana, Partagas 150 A and others in between, ranging from $6.50 to $35. The selection has grown over the past five years as cigars have become more popular.
"What we really started seeing was a change in people's attitudes," Sternberg says. "If that guy lit up a cigar over there, other people weren't offended anymore. They'd say, 'Ooh, you allow cigars. Do you sell them?' The best advertising for our cigars is someone lighting one at a table."
Alejandro Benes is a businessman and writer based in Washington, D.C.
Sam & Harry's
1200 19th Street
Dinner: About $50 per person, without wine