Can the NYC Steakhouse Survive?
It’s hard to imagine Babe Ruth making the trip from Yankee Stadium down to this ratty stretch of 36th St, off the eastern edge of Herald Square, for a mutton chop at Keens. Maybe it’s because of the McDonald’s on the corner, or the gaudy wholesale shops shilling rhinestone-studded blouses, or the legions of tourists wielding selfie sticks like bayonets. These days, the scene is decidedly un-Ruthian.
But before any of that showed up, the Bambino showed up. So did Albert Einstein, J.P. Morgan, and Teddy Roosevelt, who still has a banquet hall named after him -- the Bull Moose Room -- up the back stairs of a labyrinthine Midtown clubhouse whose entrance still stands just a few doors down from the latter-day glow of the Golden Arches. They came to smoke pipes and eat mutton chops. That’s simply what important New Yorkers did at Keens.
New York City was a steak town long before the Babe joined the ranks of Keens’ famous Pipe Club, whose long-stem churchwarden pipes still cover the ceiling there. The Upper West Side was covered with stockyards throughout the 1800s. The city’s infamous Tammany political machine bought its votes in beef well into the 20th century.
And it’s been a steakhouse town ever after. The New York City steakhouse -- dry-aged beef, cranky waiters, Damon Runyan airs -- is one of the city’s most venerable cultural institutions. It’s outlasted the mob, the Dodgers, and even the centuries-late arrival of the Second Ave subway. It is a meaty monument of callousness, self-importance, and abudanza excess that could only exist at the center of the universe. “Steakhouses are not like other restaurants,” Eater’s Nick Solares wrote in 2014, “and New York City steakhouses are not like other steakhouses.”
So, how long has it been since you ate at one? A month? A year? Longer? Maybe you’ve never been to one of these oaken old haunts. Maybe you never want to. After all, the cabernet is expensive, the carpets are worn, and the fact that the waiters are performing rudeness doesn’t really make them any less rude. The dim-lit dining rooms are horrible for Instagram; the wardrobe of choice is Jos. A. Bank by Lipitor. The beef is rarely grass-fed or locally sourced -- and besides, aren’t you supposed to be eating less meat these days?
As New York Times restaurant critic/man of mystery Pete Wells noted in a 2013 blog post, steakhouses “can seem out-of-step with the appetites of modern New Yorkers, who line up to eat blossoms and shoots tweezed into artful disarray over a morsel of protein no bigger than an overcoat button.” As the second decade of this century comes to a close, his words ring truer than ever. The New York City steakhouse faces a prickly paradox. It is too old, respected, and august to die. But is it too esoteric, off-trend, and regressive to live?
Before the New York City steakhouse arrived, there was the beefsteak dinner. “A form of gluttony as stylized and regional as the riverbank fish fry, the hot-rock clambake, or the Texas barbecue,” wrote reporter and novelist Joseph Mitchell in a 1939 story for The New Yorker on the subject. Beefsteaks were basically enormous private banquets, with row after row of tables lined with hundreds of men eating thousands of pounds of steak in a single sitting.
This feasting format -- a bastardization of Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon traditions brought over the Atlantic by immigrants -- became a gluttonous, masculine, essentially New York ritual in the mid-19th century. Fraud, graft, and political patronage made it so. To consolidate and maintain their hold on the city’s government, political and social clubs threw regular beefsteaks, packing banquet halls with thousands of voting-age men, enormous quantities of beef and beer, and not much else. “Knives, forks, napkins, and tablecloths never had been permitted,” wrote Mitchell. Furniture was sparse. Flatulence was not.
“Who wants white table-cloths? That’s femme stuff, pussycat,” says Betty Fussell, food historian and author of Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef, mimicking a would-be beefsteak host. “The point was to eat big,” she explains, and to celebrate the fraternity of working-class manhood. When the men went to the polls, they were primed to cast their ballots for whichever candidate had thrown the most recent, most rousing beefsteak.
As it turned out, New York’s most prolific beefsteak host, Tammany Hall, introduced gender-neutrality to the tradition in the 1920s. Prohibition had given rise to covert co-ed drinking, and women’s suffrage had made women newly attractive to Tammany’s poll-packers. An unnamed chef remarked to Mitchell in 1939 that “[w]omenfolks didn't know what a beefsteak was until they got the right to vote.”
This change marked the beginning of the beefsteak’s end. “As the women joined the dinners [...] the whole gluttonous tenor of them starts to really calm down,” explains Debra Schmidt Bach, a curator at the New-York Historical Society. Belching, once encouraged, went out of vogue. Shrimp cocktail found its way onto the menu, along with actual cocktails for beer-averse diners. Silverware appeared, as did side dishes. “Most beefsteaks degenerated into polite banquets at which open-face sandwiches of grilled steak happened to be the principal dish,” Mitchell lamented.
New York’s beefsteak tradition was growing up, and the New York City steakhouse would be its next form.
Move to the modern steakhouse
Danny Kissane barks the word “charred” like it’s a person’s name, and that person owes him 20 bucks. It’s somewhere between a growl and a bellow. The A sprawls; the Rs wander off; a W shows up, seemingly out of nowhere. “We like our steaks ch-AAUWD,” booms Smith & Wollensky’s stout, butcher-coated purchasing director. “But not too much.”
Kissane has worked at Smith & Wollensky for 35 years, starting shortly after Alan Stillman opened it in 1977. Between his Bronx accent, raspy chuckle, and crass, easy friendliness, he’s every casting director’s vision for “timeless New Yorker.” When he talks, it’s easy to imagine Babe Ruth coming to Smith & Wollensky for a steak dry-aged by Kissane’s grandfather. Standing in the dining room -- a stately, shabby-chic split-level clubhouse with well-worn brass plaques adorning its walls and ancient memorabilia hung from the ceiling -- it seems like Smith & Wollensky has been around since the beefsteak days.
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?
“I remember going to Keens when I was younger, with my dad,” recalls Angie Mar, executive chef and owner of the West Village’s iconic Beatrice Inn, which on her watch has earned newfound acclaim as a meat mecca. (Not to mention an exultant two-star review from Pete Wells.) “I love Keens. I love Smith & Wollensky. These are New York institutions.” Her voice rises slightly. “They have to survive.”
It’s not a weird thing to hear, but at first glance, it might be weird to hear from her. Mar, Thrillist’s 2016 New York City Chef of the Year, specializes in innovative meat that, frankly, could qualify as sacrilege in NYC’s more dogmatic steakhouses. Her dishes “play with masculine and feminine influences”: big hunks of meat served with smoked vanilla butter, say, or bone marrow crème brûlée. Hardly the “totally macho... combination of violence and nostalgia,” which is how Fussell, the historian, characterizes the New York steakhouse’s cultural appeal.
Then again, neither is Quality Eats. Opened in 2015 by the Quality Group, the West Village grill serves plenty of fine beef, but it feels damn near antithetical to its NYC steakhouse pedigree. That’s intentional, says Michael Stillman.
“We tried to keep some of those classic steakhouse tropes, but make it a little smaller, more accessible, and make it fit with what I call the Whole Foods generation,” he says. That means its excellent steaks (mostly off-cuts) are not dry-aged, and much less expensive: A $26 skirt steak is the top of the line here, whereas at most true-blue steakhouses, the roasted half-chicken costs more than that. It also means the packaging -- from the cheeky doodle designs on the plates and menu, to the raw wood and bright painted-brick interior -- is decidedly void of the Bacchus-meets-bond trader gravitas of its big brother, Smith & Wollensky. Reviewing Quality Eats for the New Yorker last year, Shauna Lyon issued a call: “Reformed gluttons unite.”
Mar, whose revamp of the Beatrice Inn was as much a repudiation of its Graydon Carter-era pomp as anything else, is quick to point out the symbiosis between the city’s contemporary meat focus and its carnivorous foundation. “Just because my restaurant isn’t that classic New York City steakhouse, and we push the boundaries, doesn’t mean I think everybody should push the boundaries,” she says. In other words, she can hang a WhIsBe gummy-bear painting over the fireplace because Keens hangs pipes from the ceiling. The fact that Peter Luger doesn’t serve -- would never serve -- a massive tomahawk steak dry-aged in whiskey-soaked cloths for 120 days and smothered in cherries, is precisely why at the Bea, she’s able to.
Angie Mar can rest easy, though. These days, Keens is doing fine. “Over the years, we’ve picked up momentum,” Executive Chef Bill Rodgers says, reflecting on his 12.5 years at the helm of the Herald Square icon. ”Services were busy, but not quite like they are today.”
For the moment, the iconic cornerstones of NYC’s steakhouse institution are holding on similarly. There have been exits along the way, sure -- Ben Benson’s closed in 2012, and The Palm’s original location on Second Ave shuttered in 2015 -- but there have also been resurrections, like Gallaghers (relaunched in 2014) or Keens itself, which, recalls Rodgers, was dark for a while in the ‘70s before being refurbished by its current owners.
And in addition to the rise of carnivorous, ideologically delineated concepts like Beatrice Inn and Quality Eats (hell, throw the very good St. Anselm in there, too), the city still sees new steakhouse openings regularly. American Cut, Bowery Meat Company, Wolfgang’s, and Benjamin have all entered the fray in the past dozen years, just to name a few standouts. (The latter two, not coincidentally, were founded by Peter Luger alums.)
So if it won’t die -- buoyed as it is by showmanship, character, and heritage real or feigned -- will the New York City steakhouse live on as cultural institution? And how? “Does it become like, one of those delis, where it’s just sort of a New York experience?” wonders Schatzker, at the end of our phone call. Maybe so. Jewish delis are arguably even more cherished in this town than steakhouses, and even as we mourned Carnegie Deli’s passing, it’s hard to think of Katz’s neon as anything less than permanent. Maybe New York City’s steakhouses are the same way.
It was 1948 when Babe Ruth died, and they say tobacco and liquor killed him. He was 53; Keens was 63. These days, the pipes at the Midtown steakhouse are just for show. But the booze still flows, and red meat isn’t exactly health food -- so if you stop in at the Babe’s old haunt on 36th St for a steak, remember the paradox of the NYC steakhouse: It’s good enough to kill you, and it always has been.
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