I first came face-to-face with a true New York-style steakhouse a few years before opening MANNY’S in the mid-1980s. It was THE PALM STEAKHOUSE on 837 Second Avenue in New York City (now with numerous other locations). Though it had been around since 1926, I had no idea that such a restaurant existed. From the unartful workaday décor to the saw-dusted wooden floors, walls stained ocher from decades of cigarette smoke, and the impatient brusqueness of the waiters, it exuded a masculine vibe that even its starched white linen tablecloths did nothing to extinguish.
What caused me to drop a jaw was the deluge of whopping, perfectly charred NY Strip steaks and catcher’s mitt-sized Porterhouses being hustled to tables of well-suited businessmen. Oh yes, there were a few ladies…or should I say “knockouts?”
There were no paper menus. Waiters (not waitresses) recited the offerings tableside. They’d lead off with steaks, of course, and then – if pressed to admit it– somewhat reluctantly let you know that lamb chops and chicken were on offer, too. Sometimes the waiters wouldn’t even get around to the fish offerings.
BTW, I had never seen a whole Maine lobster in my life. So I practically leapt out of my chair when the waiter wheeled his trolley to an adjacent table and presented a 5-pounder – splayed out on a giant platter – to half a dozen balding tycoons. The guys tossed their neckties over their shoulders and dug into the beast, char-grilled and slathered with heavy cream and clarified butter.
All dishes were served matter-of-factly and unceremoniously…but then I realized: No ceremony WAS the ceremony!
And YES, it was expensive – at the time, probably $35-40 dollars per person!
(But then again, I was looking at MANNY’S opening menu from over 30 years ago, and our signature 24-oz dry-aged Porterhouse was $24! Oh well…)
THE PALM was an original – confident and sure-footed. They knew who they were and what they stood for. I felt certain they never took a backward glance to see what others were doing.
So I set out on a three-year, self-indulgent steakhouse research venture that concluded with the opening of MANNY’S.
Along the way, I discovered that THE PALM was not alone. It was joined by several other “category killer” steakhouses.
Among those in New York were SPARKS STEAKHOUSE on 46th Street. In addition to its reputation for perfect steaks and a stunning wine list, it had the dubious distinction of being the site of the shooting and killing of Mafia boss Paul Castellano.
Then there was the iconic PETER LUGER’S, across the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. There the service wasn’t just brusque, it was downright confrontational, with surly waiters, reservations only for regulars, and – to this day – a no credit cards policy. The critics lambaste it for being so customer-unfriendly; nevertheless PETER LUGER’S rests secure atop the NY steakhouse scene.
Another legend is KEENS CHOP HOUSE, the slightly bawdy and politically incorrect boys club in the garment district. It has served top-notch steaks since 1856, but is probably best known for its signature two-fisted English Mutton Chop, wolfed down by none other than Babe Ruth, Theodore Roosevelt, Liza Minnelli and Buffalo Bill. Oh yeah, and me.
I would argue, however, that the CLASSIC NEW YORK STEAKHOUSE thrives not only in New York City (and Minneapolis). First-class steakhouses have proliferated across the country – and indeed across the pond. In fact, one of the best in the world can be found in London’s Mayfair neighborhood. I’ve written about it before: THE GUINEA GRILL, famous for its dry-aged Scottish beef, meticulously sourced, carefully prepared, and proudly served by a staff of lifers.
Closer to home, in Miami’s South Beach, PRIME 112 reigns supreme. As you might expect of a restaurant smack dab in the center of “glam,” Prime 112 touches all the bases of a classic New York steakhouse and adds to them with more than a touch of celebrity. Look, there’s J LO and A-ROD (no longer dining together, sadly). And that’s KIM KARDASHIAN (although I can only see her backside).
Here’s what I know about the classic New York steakhouse:
- It’s a proper sit-down restaurant.
- It’s defined by crispy white linen tablecloths (they cost a helluva lot to launder, but they’re part of the steakhouse DNA)
- Patrons feast on hulking cuts of the very, very best dry-aged beef.
- Seafood lovers are catered to with luxurious, multi-tiered shellfish towers.
- Maine lobsters, approximately the size of bathmats, will be available fresh from the tank.
- Side dishes, socked with salt, butter and cream, are generous, indulgent and addictive.
- Preparations are simple, but perfectly executed every time.
- Cocktails are strong, and made from the best booze by highly skilled bartenders, served by professional servers (some with a cheeky attitude…okay, maybe several with a cheeky attitude).
While the New York-style steakhouse is eternal, the category itself is rich with innovation. In fact, during the past few years, there have emerged an array of alternative iterations looking to reshape and supplant “your father’s steakhouse.”
What are the traits of these whippersnappers? Best I can tell, they’re defined by:
- Chic décor
- Smaller portions (not quite dainty, but with an emphasis on 4, 6 and 8-ounce cuts, often available as flights.
- An embrace of non-traditional cuts, like skirt steak short ribs
- Meats beyond beef, including venison, bison, duck, pheasant, rabbit, and even – God help us – turkey burgers
- Small plates that encourage discovery, with offerings like seafood crudo.
- Loud, trendy music, a bustling bar scene, and a sexy vibe (as if balding tycoons aren’t sexy enough)
I’m partial to the classics, but I have to admit: There are some VERY GOOD alternative steakhouses. Check out G.T. PRIME and MAPLE & ASH, both in Chicago.
Then there’s the trendsetter in this category: STK, a quite successful chain with locations New York, Vegas, Miami Beach, Chicago and more. One critic described it as “a steakhouse for the stiletto set.” Joanne and I were seated in a nice booth at the Miami location, around 7:00 PM. The place must come alive at a much later hour, as we and another couple of a certain age were the only ones in the place. However, that did not stop the DJ. Throughout our dinner, a KitchenAid refrigerator-sized speaker was “thumping” (thumpa, thumpa, thumpa) directly over our booth at the decibel level of a 747 taking off at Miami International. Our steaks were fine…I guess.
More recently, we dined at PAPI STEAK, located in Miami’s South Beach. Even though it was early evening, our experience at this fancy new hotspot began outside with a velvet rope and a doorman. Sporting a tight black T-shirt and an uptight attitude, he stopped us cold as we were entering. “May I help you?” he asked with a glower. “Yeah,” I answered. “We’re going to dinner.”
The restaurant, at that early hour, was only about 20% full. But that didn’t stop the bored hostess from behaving like we were interrupting her day.
The place is small, with only 93 seats. Guests, many in stilettos, dine in plush, deep red velvet booths. The vibe is sultry, sexy and dark. It feels private and quite exclusive. Most notable, however, is the volume level, dialed up well past 11. Do not come here for a quiet meal.
But maybe you prefer your music loud –and like to dress even louder. Then welcome to Papi Steak, a magnet for men in shirts open to the navel, wearing amulets the size of hockey pucks and gold chain necklaces that run the gold scale gamut from 24K to outright fake. One guest told me that he suspected the restaurant has a secret committee for encouraging BAD TASTE.
Within an hour or so of our arrival, the place was hoppin’. But our experience was diminished by our server’s warning that we had to be out of there in two hours. I wondered, did they need the table for an 8PM reservation, or did they want to ensure we were gone before we could kill the vibe? Adding to my annoyance was the bathroom attendant. First of all, I’ve learned to pee all by myself. Second, while I’m washing my hands, I don’t need someone hanging over my back brushing dandruff off my shoulders.
But at least I wasn’t alone in my annoyance. Throngs of guests packed in the foyer were vocal in their disapproval as the hosts ignored their overdue reservations while providing immediate seating for what appeared to be the owners’ friends and assorted VIPs.
Bottom line on PAPI: It feels like a Vegas nightclub masquerading as a steakhouse that just happens to serve food. And actually, it was pretty good food. But this place doesn’t really care about being a great restaurant. It just wants to be a hot one.
So let’s talk about “hot.” Have you heard of NUSR-ET, currently experiencing warp-speed, worldwide openings in places like Istanbul, New York, Dubai, and London? Joanne and I went to the Miami location on Brickell Ave.
It’s a big space that checks all the steakhouse boxes, with premium fittings and a big polished wood and glass meat locker holding haunches of beef.
It’s outrageously expensive. I say outrageous because I suspected – and recently confirmed – that our steak was wet-aged, not dry-aged; the difference being that dry-aging is a costly process that justifies higher prices. Wet aging is a money-saving shortcut for operators.
If PAPI STEAK has cornered the market on gold chains, NUSR-ET has cornered the market on GOLD LEAF. How, you may ask?
Well, they offer a 50-ounce, wet-aged Tomahawk chop for $250. But hang on!! For a mere $1,000 you can have THE GOLDEN TOMAHAWK CHOP. It’s the same exact steak, except it’s clad in 18K gold leaf (which, by the way, adds NO FLAVOR and NO TEXTURE to the meat. It’s all bling.).
But the real star of the show? That would be the owner, NUSRET GOKCE, a Turkish chef, food entertainer, media figure and restaurateur known by his nickname, SALT BAE (which translates to “before anyone else” or can be slang for “sweetheart” or “baby.”)
Why should we care? Well, Nusret Gokce has won fame for the way he salts your steak tableside. It’s no perfunctory salt sprinkling, it’s SHOWTIME! Salt Bae, who always sports a low-cut, scoop-necked white t-shirt, gold watch and dark glasses (does he ever take them off?), arrives in tandem with your steak. He scoops up a generous portion of coarse Maldon salt and in a peculiarly sensual way salts your steak with a wrist flick of saline swagger. The salt cascades down his forearm, past three fingers and finally waterfalls onto your steaks.
No, really: THAT’S IT.
Would I go back? Hmmmm, maybe, if I were certain that SALT BAE was going to be in the house. But with restaurants around the world, what are the chances of that happening? And though I appreciate his mastery of kitsch and theater, the restaurant is REALLY F***ING EXPENSIVE. As Steve Cuozzo of the New York Post put it, “NUSR-ET is public rip-off #1.”
So, am I a fan of these new interpretations of classic steakhouses? Yeah, as I said. Some of them.
What about the future? Will the next steakhouse be worth the wait? Or one to avoid? Keep reading, and we’ll find out together!