Years ago, in my previous professional life as a commercial interior designer, I traveled to New York every couple weeks to meet with clients. It was a double-edged sword (for Joanne) in that I had three kids at home and was gone a lot, but it’s also what led me into the career that I love.
How did that all happen?
Well, my clients and I, at the end of the workday, would often have dinner. They knew that I wanted to experience what New York restaurants had to offer, and they took pity on me for coming from fly-over country. I told them, “You think our lives revolved around meat, potatoes and church supper hotdishes, don’t you?” – but the fact was their knowledge of the Midwest was so scant they didn’t even have culinary stereotypes for us. They probably thought my family foraged for nuts and berries.
Consequently, much to my delight, my clients made certain that I dined at the hottest, newest, most iconic and SNAZZIEST restaurants that Manhattan had to offer.
Their mission was to BLOW MY MIND. Little did they know that in so doing, they radically reoriented the course of my life.
One outing I’ll always remember (and it planted the seed for MANNY’S) was dining one evening at the legendary New York style steakhouse, THE PALM, that opened on 2nd Avenue in 1926. Up ‘til then, I thought that several Minnesota restaurants served great steaks. But I had never heard the term “dry-aged” before. And I had never thought much about “scale.” So you can imagine how this hick from Hooterville dropped a jaw at the sight of porterhouses the size of man-hole covers and leviathan 5 lb. lobsters being whisked by waiters to tables occupied by diners straight out of Mad Men. They all wore suits, had a highball in one hand, and held their cigarette in the other.
“Gimme what he’s having,” I told the waiter as I pointed to 30 DAY DRY-AGED STEAK at a neighboring table. Then I took my first bite. Never had beef tasted so rich and nutty. Never had I sliced into a steak so tender. Up until that point, I had only eaten steaks from cows that were mooing yesterday.
The Palm experience piqued my curiosity. Now I was on a quest to discover exactly what a New York Steakhouse was because Its offerings were clearly a breed apart from the supper-club steaks I thought were the epitome of meat eating.
Next was the fabled GALLAGHERS which opened in 1927 on West 52nd St. with its street-front window looking directly into a locker filled with dry-aging meat. Gallagher’s was spot-on. And I noticed that nowhere on the menu were dishes like Trout Amandine, Walleyed Pike, Chicken Kiev and other staples of supper club dining.
PETER LUGER in Brooklyn made the list, too. The steaks were, of course, wonderful. What wasn’t so wonderful was to discover at the end of our meal that they didn’t take credit cards…”CASH ONLY, BUMPKIN!!!”….and I didn’t have enough cash. Embarrassed? YES. My clients bailed me out (saving me from having to commit hari-kari with a steak knife.)
SPARKS STEAKHOUSE, founded 57 years ago on East 46th St., rounded out my initial exposure to the restaurants that eventually inspired MANNY’S.
So it was this past August that I and a cadre of PARASOLE colleagues, after almost 40 years, revisited Sparks. As far as I could remember, nothing had changed – not the menu, not the décor, not the spotless starched white linen tablecloths, nor the really good booze, tuxedoed maître d’ at the door or the waiters speaking in thick, thick Brooklynese, Queens and Bronx accents.
Well, perhaps one thing had changed. SPARKS has always been a shrine to excess – the kind of place where even the most committed carnivores occasionally have to wave a white napkin. So over-the-top masculine was the environment that Sparks developed a reputation for being the go-to steakhouse for Mafia dons and their made men. Consequently, few were surprised that it provided the backdrop for one of the most famous mob hits ever, in December of 1985. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, after satisfying himself with a succulent New York Strip steak, Sparks regular “Big Paul” Castellano – boss of the Gambino crime family – was gunned down, allegedly by Jimmy Hoffa’s men.
The night we were there, not a wise guy was in sight. Yet under the ownership of the Cetta brothers – the late Pat and his brother Michael – Sparks still feels like a “deal place” with middle-aged men draping their suit coats over the backs of their chairs and tossing their ties over their shoulders.
This is an “OLD SCHOOL” New York steakhouse.
We started with platters of fat, paunchy oysters, iced and on the half shell. As expected, they were pristine, fresh and proudly briney (which got me wondering how many former Sparks regulars now sleep with the fishes).
The rest of the appetizers included butterflied shrimp cocktails (some of us added lump crabmeat, raising the price to $36.95). Quintessential steakhouse salads included a Caesar, Tomato/Onion, Wedge and Sliced Tomato with Burrata. All good.
With main courses coming next, it was time to think about wine. This is where Sparks sets itself apart from the other New York steakhouses. The wine list sports, by my count, over 600 choices. There’s a lot of good drinking in there. And the Lord only knows just how many back-up bottles in each classification they stock…and what the average cost is…especially those bottles of big inky reds that stand their ground when up against big thick steaks. The cost of their wine inventory has to be absolutely staggering! STAGGERING! However, the prices are extremely reasonable.
Wine authority Robert Parker, the most influential wine critic in the world, says of Sparks’ wine list: “Remarkable and fairly priced.” And that it is.
Prominent New York food critics regularly cite Sparks as “the absolute best steakhouse in New York City”…with the “best New York Strip in town.”
If you select “Steak Fromage,” you better love – and I man LOVE – real Roquefort cheese from the town of Roquefort, France because your New York Strip will be THROTTLED with the real thing ($57.95). Wretched excess? You bet.
Lobster, presented tableside, was luxurious, sweet, tender and enjoyed immensely by all who shared.
Fresh halibut and tuna, while well prepared, felt like sort of silly intrusions on the menu…$54.95. Then again, even Manny’s has tuna and salmon for those pesky pescatarians.
Sliced steak with roasted peppers and caramelized onions was probably a nod to the Cetta Brothers’ heritage in Calabria, Italy.
Three double-cut lamb chops were perfectly prepared as was the grilled veal chop that I had. But to my surprise, the ”tail” was left on the chop. At MANNY’S we cut the tail off as it is almost all fat. At Sparks, I ate the tail…$59.95.
Sides are predictable. The hashbrowns were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside…$13.95. Asparagus was prepared al dente and it snapped as I pinched it between my fingers. Pecan pie à la mode is a signature dessert and deservedly so.
There are certainly hipper, chic-er, cooler, more youthful “next generation” steakhouses in the city. Sparks is old, OLD school. It’s all about the steaks – dry-aged, none of that grass-fed stuff.
If you go…you won’t be disappointed. Culinary history, New York history, and of course mob history lives at Sparks. You can savor it all – no A-1 or Heinz ketchup needed.