A night out at a steakhouse is not a cheap affair. Before you know it, you've spent 50% of your paycheck on a juicy porterhouse, a pile of creamed spinach, a stack of onion rings… and that seafood tower for six that you ordered for just two people. (Hey, no judgments here.) But just because a steakhouse is pricey, doesn't mean it's actually good. There are plenty of subpar restaurants out there willing to take your hard-earned money for a mediocre piece of meat.
But it's tough to figure out the excellent steakhouses from the ones not even worth taking a Tinder date to, seeing as they all basically have the same items on the menu. So we turned to Dan Huebschmann, a regional chef for Chicago's Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse (aka The League's hangout), for help. He has spent over a decade working in the steak business and says that if you spot any of the red flags below, you should find a new spot for dinner.
The menu is laminated
If you think a steakhouse's menu is laminated because the staff doesn't want it to get dirty, you're right! But it's also because the menu is rarely updated. Not a great sign. "Laminated menu cards are a huge turnoff for me," he says. "It should make you wonder if you're getting the freshest food." A good steakhouse prints its menu out every single day.
The wine list doesn't have variety
If a steakhouse doesn't have a lot of variety on its wine list, it is often a sign that the restaurant is trying to rip you off. (Especially if one of those options is Franzia.) "A super-high-priced wine list along with minimal by-the-glass offerings is a red flag," Huebschmann explains. "I was at a famous steakhouse in New York City, and they only had a few choices by the glass. They were driving me to get a pricier bottle, and it was frustrating." If a server is steering you to buy a bottle you don't want, we recommend asking for the finest glass of tap water instead.
The server can't answer questions about the meat… or anything else
While your server is probably not taking your order and then cooking your meal, that doesn't mean they shouldn't know what's in your dish and how it's prepared. "Any steakhouse that has staff who take pride in what they're doing are going to be able to deliver some sort of base outline of what goes into each dish," Huebschmann says. "And if they don't know, they should immediately volunteer to find out." So if you want to know about the beef and whether it was grass- or corn-fed (hint: you do!), they should be able to help.
The menu doesn't have much information on the cuts of beef
Picking out a steak is sort of like shopping for a car. Not only do you need to know the basic style you want (the type of cut), you also need info about the specific model (in the case of steak: the marbling of the meat and how the cow was raised). If the restaurant doesn't have much in the way of descriptors of the steak on your menu, Huebschmann says "that would point to a restaurant trying to pass something off that's not great." The more info, the better.
Its center-cut steaks are weighed down with cheaper cuts
If you order a center-cut steak -- aka one of the tall, perfectly round cuts of steak you see on cooking shows because they are so flawless -- you better get a center-cut steak. While center cuts aren't necessarily more flavorful than other cuts, steakhouses can charge much more for them because of their visual appeal. Unfortunately, Huebschmann says some steakhouses will cheat you out of meat. "Chain steakhouses might charge $50 for a filet and tout it as center-cut," he says. "But it often has a 'chain' attached to it, which is a small side muscle that connects it to the exterior of the tenderloin. It's not a 100% center-cut filet, and they're charging you too much for it."
The dishes are made using crap ingredients
Asking your server about the dishes will go a long way in determining if the steakhouse is a flaming trash heap. Huebschmann says if the mac & cheese is made with a béchamel sauce using premium cheeses and king crab, then it's unique and probably worth the price. But if you find out it's a processed cheese, you might as well save your money and make a box of good ol' Kraft when you get home. While this means you have to be the annoying customer that asks your server a million questions, it's better than paying a ton of money for crappy food. Just be sure to tip your server a little extra for being so patient with you.
The staff has a bad attitude
A restaurant's front- and back-of-house staff should be excited to make sure your night is top-notch. "Everyone's attitude translates into the food," Huebschmann says. "If the staff is unhappy, angry, and not treating you politely, I imagine they're also cooking angry and the food will come out like crap." He notes that if a place has a bad energy, you'll be able to spot the bad vibes from the moment you walk in and talk to the host. If you get those vibes, walk the hell out -- no piece of meat is worth enduring crappy service for.
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