A guide to the most over-the-top meat and wine palaces.
A steakhouse filet mignon and side of mashed Yukon golds is to ordinary meat and potatoes what a Humvee is to a two-door sedan. Steakhouse meat is bigger, juicier, more tender and generally better than anything we can make at home. And where else are vegetables served saturated with butter, cheese, sour cream, bacon and more? The whole steakhouse dining experience is larger than life, and panders to our guiltiest pleasures.
"It's a conservative clientele, conservative décor, conservative menu," explains Brian Jontow, general manager of Ben Benson's Steak House in midtown Manhattan. Jontow left dental school for a restaurant career that has taken him from the original T.G.I. Friday's, to Smith & Wollensky, and ultimately to Ben Benson's. In 1991, he turned Ben Benson's mundane wine list into a customer magnet, and in the first year of the new wine program, he proudly notes, gross profits exceeded the previous year's gross sales.
"One thing about a steakhouse," he advises, "red wine is king. Steakhouses are not as trendy as the more eclectic restaurants. The backbone of the wine list is California Cab."
How do you find the best beef, the best wine, the best overall dining experience? The number of steakhouse restaurants has been on the rise recently, thanks to the success of chains such as Ruth's Chris, Fleming's and Morton's, as well as the popularity of the meat-friendly Atkins and South Beach diets. As a result, beef prices have skyrocketed. Carnivores seeking nice dinners out are in for rich experiences in every sense of the word.
Every town and city in the land has its favorite steak joints. What follows is a list of some of our favorite chophouses and those of others in the wine and hospitality industry that we've polled.
We make no claims to being comprehensive—that kind of detail would fill a book, not just an article. But listed here you'll find some of the great old reliables and some delightful new discoveries that will provide a warm welcome wherever you may travel. And to ensure that your next steak is perfectly aged, cut, seasoned, grilled and delicious, we'll begin with a short guide to everything you ever need to know about meat.
A USDA Grade Primer on Meat
When we say "meat," we're talking beef. Of course, steakhouse menus include plenty of other options, from lobster to swordfish, from honey-glazed duck to free-range buffalo. But this isn't an article about Kobe chicken. Our thanks to Russell Skall, executive chef for Outback/Fleming's, and Mark Hipkiss, executive chef for Seattle's Metropolitan Grill, who provided much of the following background material.
If great wine is made in the vineyard, great steak is made at the stockyard. Cattle are generally fed grass until they reach 500 or 600 pounds, at which point they are given a diet of corn for the next 90 or 120 days to marble the meat and fatten them up for slaughter. Cattle who feed exclusively on grass take far longer to reach market weight, and stay leaner. Corn-feeding makes them as fat as possible as quickly as possible, bringing them up to 900 or 1,000 pounds. It also layers them with fat, which provides richer flavors.
Some specialty purveyors sell organic, "pasture-finished" or "naturally grown" beef. These cattle are generally grass-fed and their meat is chemical- and hormone-free, and lower in fat and calories. By law, certified organic beef must contain no antibiotics, steroids or animal byproducts, and must also meet certain processing requirements. Grain-fed organic beef exists, as does free-range, grass-fed beef, but to be certified as such the grain must be organically grown. Bottom line: You pay a premium for what are different, but not necessarily better, flavors.
If you are accustomed to grain-fed meat, the taste of free range will probably require a palate adjustment. With half the saturated fat and more than three times the heart-healthy Omega-3 fats as grain-fed beef, grass-fed cows make a strong case for being the healthier option. But flavor rules in the steakhouse, and only you can decide if the perceived health benefits are worth the extra cost.
What's the story with Kobe beef? Kobe-style cattle (known as Wagyu beef in the U.S.) are genetically bred to tolerate a grain diet for a much longer period, up to 400 days. Give an ordinary cow that extra corn time and it will simply produce a thick and useless layer of fat outside the muscle, but Wagyu cattle keep adding marbled fat into their muscle. Which is why Kobe beef is richer, more flavorful—and far more expensive.
All commercial slaughterhouse beef must be USDA inspected and graded. Prime is the best, representing roughly two percent of all beef produced. Below that is Choice, and below that is Select. Specialty providers such as Nebraska Beef, which cater to steakhouse customers, want their products to grade out at Choice or higher, and may attain a Prime rate of four percent or more, double the national average.
All steakhouses want Prime, but Prime, as Jontow points out, is a spectrum, not a precise measure. "You have to make a concerted effort to get heavy prime," he advises, referring to the best of the best.
The quest for flavor doesn't stop there. Every good steakhouse has its own aging process—wet, dry or some combination of the two. Wet aging is done in a sealed Cryovac bag that allows the meat to age in its own juices. Dry aging, the standard method until the early 1980s, is more costly. The beef is placed in a cooler where temperature, humidity and air circulation are controlled for a prescribed period of time, usually around four weeks. As it slowly ages, the enzymes break down and tenderize the meat, giving it a unique flavor—mellow, gamy, slightly nutty or musty, and intense.
Dry aging typically reduces the weight of the meat by 20 to 40 percent. Its color changes also, from bright red to dark brown, almost black. The extra time and loss of moisture makes dry aging considerably more expensive, but most chefs agree it delivers superlative flavor.
After aging, still more weight is lost, as the fat is trimmed away and the meat is cut into steaks. A good steakhouse will serve meat that is 100 percent edible (other than the bone, that is). In other words, the fat and gristle should be gone. Typical cuts include:
Filet mignon: The number-one seller at many steakhouses, it is the most tender cut, but the least marbled. Because it lacks fat, it has less richness and flavor, but grilling it in butter and generously applying seasonings can compensate.
New York strip loin: A very popular cut, it offers a nice mix of texture and light marbling.
Top sirloin: This is more flavorful than the Filet Mignon and the New York Strip, but not quite as tender.
Delmonico: This is a bone-in New York strip loin, rendered more flavorful because there is more natural marbling near the bone, and because the bone itself flavors and protects the meat.
Porterhouse: A T-bone combination of filet mignon and New York strip loin, it offers true steak lovers the most tender and most flavorful cuts; the best of both worlds.
Chateaubriand: The heart of the tenderloin; a roast generous enough for several hearty eaters.
Wine: Red Rules
There are two somewhat opposing and yet immutable forces around which most steakhouse wine lists are organized. First, there is the need to provide big-name classics, especially when it comes to California Cabernet and French Bordeaux.
"People want to see familiar names that they recognize," explains Dave Coyle, sommelier and wine buyer for the Metropolitan Grill in Seattle. Coyle puts the focus squarely on West Coast reds, especially perennial favorites such as Silver Oak, Beringer, Mondavi and Sterling.
At the same time, wine lists must have enough budget bottles to satisfy people who are not on an expense account, not celebrating a special event, or simply not interested in that vertical of Screaming Eagle. The search for affordable, quality red wines has led Jontow away from California and France and into Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Washington State.
"Back in '91 and '92," he recalls, "you could pour California classics by the glass. We sold the 1987 Dalla Valle by the glass for $9 or $10! Today, even the unknowns cost us $60-plus a bottle." He's got plenty of Dalla Valle for sale, but it starts at $150 a bottle and goes up from there, depending on vintage.
In terms of size, steakhouse wine lists range from a few safe and predictable selections offered by some of the chains, to massive, phone book-sized tomes such as the legendary list at Bern's in Tampa, Florida. But what's common to them all are Cabernets and Bordeaux blends. If you have the currency, steakhouse sommeliers will pull the corks on cult wines from around the world: Harlan Estate, Araujo and Dunn from the Napa Valley; Leonetti and Quilceda Creek from Washington State, Pétrus and all the first growths, etc.
White wine sales average just 20 percent of the total at your average steakhouse, despite the wide variety of seafood appetizers and entrées. A white wine is a great starter, and four people can each get a decent glass from a half bottle. Newer, less-traditional steak houses such as "V" in New York's Time Warner Center have bulked up their white wine offerings with hip sips from Burgundy, the Loire, Austria, Australia and New Zealand. Let's face it, Silver Oak Cabernet with oysters is never going to make anyone's list of great wine and food match-ups.
Must you have a really big wine with your steak? Not necessarily. A Pinot Noir or Merlot can be quite good, and they seem to gain structure and weight when paired with a steak entrée. If you have asked for a recommendation, the Met's Coyle advises, give the wine a chance to show its stuff before passing judgment. The first sip of a new wine can be difficult. Maybe you've had a couple of martinis while waiting for your table, or you brushed your teeth right before leaving your hotel, or you haven't had a bite of food in hours. Any and all of these things can distort a first impression. Moreover, young, tannic red wines will need breathing time to show their best.
When (if ever) should you bring your own bottle? Every restaurant has its own policy, so it is always best to ask about it before you show up with bottle in hand. In general, bring a bottle when a) it's truly a special bottle for a special occasion; b) you are not a first-time visitor to the restaurant; and c) you are aware of, and happy to comply with, the corkage fee.
All that said, here are some (just some) of America's most reliable, top-quality steakhouses.
For your convenience, here is a list of America's Steakhouses listed by region.