For those who love steak but could do without such highbrow formalities as silverware, the beefsteak banquet is a dream come true. These private functions date back to late-19th-century New York City, when they were thrown by politicians or as fundraisers for fire departments and other civic organizations.
The format then was simple: Men (and only men) would pay a small entry fee, for which they’d have access to all the beef and beer they could consume. Side dishes were minimal and table settings nonexistent. Steak was cut into bite-sized pieces that the men would eat with their hands, which they would wipe on aprons, rather than napkins.
Prohibition put a hold on beefsteak banquets. Without the promise of beer, gathering around to gorge on steak was less appealing. When they resumed after repeal, things were a little different: Women were more likely to attend, having been granted that right when they got the vote. In a 1939 essay for The New Yorker, writer Joseph Mitchell says their presence made the events tamer, the men less willing to engage in gluttony. Potentially, napkins were introduced, too.
The modern history of the beefsteak is one of people looking to reclaim tradition. In the same way that crab boils, fish fries and barbecues are traditional community affairs in the South and the Midwest, beefsteaks are quintessentially New York.
Waldy Malouf, the senior director of food and beverage operations at The Culinary Institute of America, has been key in spotlighting the dinners. At the school’s Hyde Park, New York, campus, he hosts an annual beefsteak with a few flourishes, like New York State Cheddar. He’s also served as a resource for chefs looking to host their own.
Executive Chef Andrew Smith of Riverpark in New York City has been throwing a beefsteak each February since 2016. He says he wanted to do something both festive and warming for the winter months, so he talked to Malouf about hosting one of the banquets, and then developed a menu that combined the advice he received with his own approach.
“It’s kind of in keeping with our rustic side,” Smith says, noting that he was inspired by “big, whole, primal animals, sausages.”
The Riverpark beefsteak starts off with peel-and-eat shrimp, Caesar salad and bread with whipped bone marrow and lardo. The main event is a leg of lamb, standing rib roast, carrots, radishes and potatoes. Smith sources beer locally and serves Bourbon, too.
“It’s one of those menus that I don’t mess around with a lot,” he says.
There’s more than one way to throw a beefsteak, and we’ve taken a wine-soaked approach. Read on to learn about more traditions, what to serve and why wine—particularly Cabernet Sauvignon is the accompaniment beefsteak’s been missing.
Pick Your Sides
If you can’t live on steak and bread alone, try some of these ideas that are in keeping with the meal’s traditional spirit.
- Caesar salad
- Carrot and celery sticks
- Crab, grapefruit and avocado salad
- Garlic bread
- Liver pâté
- Melba toast
- Radishes with butter
- Roasted carrots and potatoes
- Olives and cornichons
- Shrimp cocktail
- Sharp Cheddar
- Tomato and cucumber salad
Getting aprons for all your guests to wear (and mess up) is a fun idea and makes a great party favor, but we still recommend departing from tradition and providing napkins. Keep table settings simple with a fork and steak knife; cut all food to finger- or at least single-serving-sized portions and present it on platters with serving implements. You may want to put out steak or Worcestershire sauce, mustard or horseradish, plus salt and pepper, but skip any other condiments and table décor. This will be an animated meal with lots of talking and reaching over the table for more helpings, so make it easy on your guests by keeping clutter to a minimum.
In the world of beefsteak are three distinct schools, serving different accompaniments.
- New Jersey: The simplest of all, this banquet is just French fries and beef served on slices of sandwich bread. There’s a tradition of stacking the bread, rather than eating it, to keep track of how much steak one has eaten.
- East Side: A true meatfest, this type of beefsteak is likely to have lamb chops, bacon-wrapped kidney and sliders in addition to the main steak event, plus French bread to soak it all up.
- West Side: This slightly more refined version is the inspiration for many modern beefsteaks. It starts off with crab salad, crudité and maybe shrimp cocktail, and the steak course also includes liver, baked potatoes and toast.
What to Drink
Beer: This is the traditional option. A brown ale, like Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, will have the malty richness to stand up to the meal, and its round caramel notes won’t overwhelm the way a hop-forward IPA might. A lager, like Jack’s Abby Craft Lagers’ Post Shift Pilsner, with just a hint of spicy grain, also makes a palate-cleansing accompaniment.
Whiskey: Bourbon, like a brown ale, will provide a smooth, round backdrop to all that meat. If you want to invoke a New York state of mind, try Prohibition Distillery’s Bootlegger 21 New York Bourbon Whiskey or Droptine 12 Point Bourbon Whiskey, which is aged in brandy barrels.
Wine: Could there be anything but Cabernet? Go for a big-bodied Napa Cab whose body and structure will go toe-to-toe with all that meat. This spread has relatively straightforward flavors, so a top-shelf wine will really shine. Don’t be afraid to dig into your cellar.
Roasted Leg of Lamb
Courtesy Andrew Smith, executive chef, Riverpark, New York City
A yogurt marinade tenderizes and adds flavor. Be sure to use a meat thermometer in the thickest part of the leg to check doneness, rather than going by eye or feel. Save the bone for dog treats or soup stock.
- 1 7½-pound bone-in leg of lamb
- 8 ounces plain Greek yogurt
- ¼ cup salt, plus more for seasoning
- Zest of 2 lemons
- ½ cup chopped mint
- 2 tablespoons ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 6 medium red potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 4 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
Heat oven to 375˚F. Pat lamb dry with paper towels. In large mixing bowl, combine yogurt with all spices, and rub all over lamb meat. Place vegetables in bottom of roasting pan with lamb on top. Cook until meat reaches an internal temperature of 135˚F for medium, about 2 hours.
Remove from oven and let sit 20 minutes before carving. Season vegetables with salt and pepper, to taste. To carve lamb, wrap kitchen towel around top part of bone, and hold it in non-dominant hand. With other hand, use sharp knife to slice downward, making slices as thin as possible. Arrange slices on serving platter. Serves 10–12.