Delmonico’s, opened on William St in 1827, actually has. Sort of: Though it spawned a series of New York City steakhouses, popularized the “Delmonico’s cut,” and currently operates as a steakhouse at the William St location, the original Delmonico’s started out as America’s first fine-dining, French-style restaurant. Beef was largely absent for its first few decades. “For the most part,” says Paul Freedman, a Yale history professor and author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, Delmonico’s early menus featured “game [...] wild ducks, terrapin, and French dishes of an elaborate and elegant sort.”
But as beefsteak dinners disappeared in the first half of the 20th century, and Prohibition vanquished Delmonico’s wine revenue, the city entered a golden age of steakhouse dining, and the Franco-first fine-dining restaurant found its second life as a steakhouse. Like Delmonico’s, the original NYC steakhouse that originally wasn’t, each longstanding establishment has contributed its own defining paradox to the archetype that Ruth Reichl, writing for the New York Times in 1994, codified as “a gruff, comfortable sort of place where people could revel in everything they liked about themselves.”
Peter Luger (1877) developed what Fussell calls “the contradiction alive and well in Brooklyn,” wedding high-end steak to low-end manners to achieve “that wonderful combination of the most chic and the most prole.” Keens (1885) perfected the gentleman’s club ambience that inspired a bevy of copycats, but it actually began admitting women 15 years before they won the vote. (Though, to be fair, it took a lawsuit.) The Palm (1926) hung caricatures of its celebrity customers on its walls, which drew hordes of non-celebrity customers hoping to catch a glimpse. Gallaghers (1933) put its dry-aging cooler out front, a brilliant touch of Broadway showmanship (it’s in the Theater District, after all) that nevertheless makes it harder to regulate the meat inside. Sparks (1966) was a mob joint, and for a time, legitimately dangerous -- Gambino crime bosses were gunned down on its steps in 1985, allegedly on John Gotti’s orders -- so of course it was a thrill for regular folks to dine there.
Smith & Wollensky’s paradox is anachronism. Despite its heritage-heavy decor, in his mid-50s, Danny Kissane is older than the joint itself, making it a mere adolescent compared to the more aged New York City steakhouses. This is by design. “We want you to think it’s been there for 150 years,” says Michael Stillman, president and founder of Quality Group, the establishment’s parent company.
(It’s probably no coincidence that Stillman’s father, Alan, founded Smith & Wollensky after creating T.G.I. Friday's, the chain that, until recently, commodified nostalgia as a differentiating factor for its strip-mall pubs.)
So why do this city’s steakhouses tend to cluster on the fault line of paradox? “America is contradictory about everything,” says Fussell, and as one of its oldest traditions, NYC’s steakhouses are witness to that. How many steakhouse customers, she ponders, even “know where their steak comes from, or care? That’s part of it. They don’t want to know, they just want the bragging rights: ‘I went to Peter Luger’s last night.’”
Mark Schatzker, a producer and author of Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef, agrees -- a steakhouse steak is often secondary. “The best steak you get in a city will not be at a steakhouse,” he says. “Most of the steakhouses in New York source what I would call ‘commodity beef,’ from the major packers,” which means it’s finished on corn, rather than grass. Commodity beef isn’t necessarily “bad”; in fact, it’s what allows you to walk into Smith & Wollensky, order a 2lb rib steak that Danny Kissane has lovingly dry-aged for 30 days, and get out for under $60. It’s all the convenience of American consumerism, in meat form.
But in the past 30 years, tastes have changed. According to the US Department of Agriculture, Americans are eating less red meat than ever before. When they do, they’re paying attention to its provenance. “Local” & “grass-fed” are in; “anonymous feedlot” is out. That puts NYC steakhouses in a “no-win” situation, says Schatzker. “They have to serve so much steak [to make a profit] there’s not a large enough source of what I’d consider really good beef, for them to serve. And if there were, it would be very, very expensive, and that sort of busts their model.”
In New York, the cultural shift away from steakhouses is even more poignant. Your Instagram feed, for example, is probably not crammed with porterhouse porn. And to more critical eaters, the false equivalency of age and quality wears thin. “Peter Luger? You can have it,” wrote Anthony Bourdain in a 2010 essay for The Guardian. “Just because it's a ‘New York institution’ doesn't mean you want to eat there.”
So where does that leave the NYC steakhouse, and -- as Schatzker jokes to me -- the “somewhat ossified, Trumpian institution” it has become?