Parasole’s culinary folks have made countless dining trips to major capitals around the world and have found as much inspiration in New York as anywhere on the planet. Over 30 years ago, MANNY’S was birthed after dining at SPARK’S, THE PALM and KEEN’S CHOP HOUSE, all in the Big Apple.
Subsequent trips included PETER LUGER STEAKHOUSE in Brooklyn – clearly a bucket-list restaurant for steak lovers, and for good reason. This place was different.
With spare finishes, weathered and worn wooden floors, and an absence of crisp linen tablecloths like you’ll find at Sparks, Peter Luger kept the focus on the steak. The servers were all men, seasoned and gruff, but in an amusing sort of way.
Thirty years ago, the restaurant was dubbed “The Best Steakhouse in the World.“ USA Today crowned it, “The Best Steak in America.”
Since then, Peter Luger’s primacy in the steakhouse world has largely gone unchallenged – until recently, when New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells surprised the nation by dropping a ZERO-STAR review on this national institution…this Holy Grail of Steakdom. Foul! Sacrilege!
Jay Rayner, critic for the Guardian newspaper in London may have been the stalking-horse of restaurant reviewers when, a few years back, he panned LE CINQ at the Four Seasons George V Hotel in Paris. His takedown generated a hue and cry from readers, especially the French, who probably felt that an English critic had no standing to critique a temple of haute cuisine. The review generated a spike in Guardian readership, however. The paper’s daily circulation averages about 130,000, and a typical Rayner review gets 70,000 views (100,000 is extraordinary for him). But his crucifixion of Le Cinq pulled in an astonishing 2.2 million readers – a record for the Guardian.
For demolishing one of the most revered of the city’s extravagant restaurants, Rayner was accused of transparently attempting to boost his own profile in order to ensure job security amid the tide of declining circulation at the paper.
Back home, Wells’ headline read, ”PETER LUGER USED TO SIZZLE. NOW IT SPUTTERS.” The New York Times doesn’t report page views, but you can bet Wells’ readership spiked with this review.
Here’s what I think.
Back in 1968, the Times’ restaurant critic, Craig Claiborne, awarded Peter Luger a whopping four stars. Nearly 30 years later, in 1995, Ruth Reichl gave it three stars – still a fantastic rating – albeit with faint praise that “I even liked the fact that steak is the only good thing on the menu.” (Wince!). Then in 2007, Frank Bruni further downgraded the steakhouse to two stars (“Very Good”), writing that, “Luger has cause to blush, not to gloat.“ Bruni continues …..
“I’ve loved it for a long time – the steak is as good as it gets – but it needs to give me more reasons to return, among them less dismissive service.“
So in October, Pete Wells stepped in.
“I don’t remember when the doubts began, but they grew over time.”
“Diners aren’t greeted at the door. They are processed.”
“A kind word or a reassuring smile would help.”
“The management seems to go out of its way to make things inconvenient.”
“The shrimp cocktail tasted like cold latex dipped in ketchup and horseradish…fortified by corn syrup.”
“Caesar Salad [had] croutons straight out of the bag.”
“The German Fried potatoes used to be brown and crunchy. Now they are dingy, gray and sometimes cold. I look forward to them the way I look forward to finding a new, irregularly shaped mole.”
On a recent visit with seven or eight Parasole colleagues, we found ourselves deeply disappointed in Peter Luger. Even pissed at it. Oh hell, ESPECIALLY PISSED.
It used to be that a visit to Peter Luger was an affirmation of life itself; the headiest of indulgences, an experience to treasure. This time, we were treated with indifference by an unfriendly host, and with arrogance by our server, who used every tool short of a cattle prod to rush – and I mean RUSH – us through dinner.
He opened by saying, “Okay, here’s what you’re going to do here. Two porterhouses for four. Four Caesar Salads. Four sliced tomato and onion salads (at $19.95 a pop).” And then, without a word, he walked away from our table and directly into the kitchen.
I get curtness in a NY steakhouse. I appreciate a bit of endearing gruffness. It’s local flavor and appropriate in this genre of restaurant. But there was nothing charming, witty, clever, campy or theatrical about the way we were treated.
Seconds – really, just seconds – later, our salads were plunked down at the table. And before we were even finished with them, our steak arrived. The service gave new meaning to the word “rushed” – and to the word, “screwed.”
We were in and out in 45 minutes!!!
Oh, and did I mention that Peter Luger is a cash-only restaurant? Just one more “F you” to the customer.
At Manny’s, we are positively obsessive about giving our guests a satisfying, memorable, extraordinary experience. And while we see our dining room populated with “suits” and other folks who can easily afford the tab, we never lose sight of the fact that there are also a bunch of people who have had to SAVE UP to dine at Manny’s for this special night. This isn’t their only visit of the year; it’s the only visit of their life. Peter Luger seems to have forgotten that. Or they just don’t give a shit.
Critics of Wells’ review harp that he is doing exactly what Jay Rayner’s accusers were carping about – using his perch to boost his own personal profile and to increases his job security at the paper.
HOOEY!!! This needed to happen.
So, Peter Luger: The heard truth is that Pete Wells is absolutely right. The sacred cow needed to be slain.
Let’s hope Luger can get its act together and restore its priorities – the first of which is THE GUEST.
P.S. BTW, our steak was as great as ever. It was just the attitude and service that were rancid.