Around the time that the Civil War was drawing to a close, the Midwest and West were beginning to raise cattle in what soon became staggering numbers. Local processers soon found themselves overwhelmed by the burgeoning herds, and the ranchers had nowhere else to take their cattle. In response, nine enterprising railroad moguls banded together to form THE UNION STOCKYARDS in Chicago, a facility capable of processing beef from Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Kansas and Montana.

The Union Stockyards grew and thrived for almost a hundred years and became the world’s largest processor of cattle (as well as pork and lamb).

But the most influential accelerator to the stockyards’ growth was the genius of Gustavus Swift and Philip Armour (famous meat names even today). In 1880, they successfully designed the first REFRIGERATED RAILROAD CAR (not only that, they built a nationwide ice-producing infrastructure to service the rail cars). This meant that the finest beef on the planet – midwestern beef – and lots of it could now reach beef lovers as far east as Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Check out the diagram of the refrigerated boxcar below: very clever, indeed.

Joanne and I have dined at some of the New York Steakhouses that emerged around this time and thrive to this day…the legendary OLD HOMESTEAD in Chelsea (1868); the midtown temple of meat, KEENS CHOP HOUSE (1885); and of course the one-and-only PETER LUGER (1887).

But Chicago became (and still is) STEAKHOUSE GROUND ZERO with the likes of GENE & GEORGETTI’S (1941), the nation’s poster child for traditional steak and chop houses; a place that has never wandered away from big, perfectly cooked, dry-aged prime steaks, accompanied by sides of broccoli and hash browns large enough to feed the Russian Army.

But in today’s Chicago, a number of folks are experimenting with time-tested traditional steakhouse DNA. Chicago magazine sported a cover earlier this year with the headline, ”Red Meat Revival…A new guard of restaurateurs has shaken up our list of the city’s TOP TEN STEAKHOUSES.”

We ate at a one recently: GT PRIME, situated in the River North neighborhood on North Wells between Superior and Huron.

Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune said, “GT PRIME is either the steakhouse you will avoid…or….the steakhouse you’ve been waiting for.”

I don’t land in either camp. I love the dependability, comfort and tradition of the Old School joints. But I also think that the “chefy” new spots now and then are relished by the best of men.

So how do you navigate a next-gen steakhouse like GT Prime?

For one thing, adjust your eyes because this place is DARK. And once you do acclimate to the moody, high-design interior, don’t waste time looking for a shrimp cocktail – or, for that matter, a loaded baked potato.

Here you’ll start with Steak Tartare capped with mustard seeds and an egg yolk, and served with house-made malt vinegar potato chips. We also ordered the Tuna Tartare, which was pretty much as we expected. But the Chicken Liver Mousse with onion petals and port gelée ($13) was deep, deliciously gamy, and smooth as silk.

Arancini (Italian deep fried rice balls) were generously laced with mortadella and pistachios…hardly Old School steakhouse fare – but appropriate in a place run by executive chef/partner Giuseppe Tentori.

What followed were two iterations of crab: one featuring sliced tomatoes layered over premium lump crab with buratta; the other a combination of avocado and eye-appealing (but not so premium) Jonah crab ($24).

Our granddaughter’s choice proved to be a big hit: Mac & Cheese, prepared with orecchiette, smoky pork belly and broccoli – perfect for adventuresome kids.

Another pasta dish, this in the snout-to-tail Fergus Henderson tradition, was Gnocchi in a “nut-free” basil pesto with morsels of deep-fried sweetbread “croutons.” I would have liked the nuts to have remained in the pesto.

We tried the GT Burger, too. I think it’s a pretty good idea to have a SIGNIFICANT burger on a steakhouse menu, and this one delivered – with onion marmalade, sundried tomatoes, porcini dust and more port gelée. We do a killer burger at MANNY’S and PITTSBURGH BLUE as a budget-friendly alternative on a night out. I wanted to compare theirs with ours. Both are good.

Shishito Peppers and Sweetcorn with Lime and Parmesan, as well as Charred Broccoli with Fried Prosciutto and Maple Butter proved to be worthy sides in keeping with a new age steakhouse.

This IS Chicago, however, which means you can’t abandon the steakhouse workhorses. One of our diners pronounced the Bone-in Ribeye worthy of any steakhouse. The Venison Steak, though perfectly cooked, didn’t fare as well – too chewy. But that’s venison.

The biggest hit was called THE CARNIVORE. A flight of four different 8-ounce cuts served sliced, it showcased a top-notch Beef Filet, Venison, Bison and American Wagyu. It cost a whopping $230, though it’s meant to be shared and it is, after all, two pounds of boneless meat, so maybe $230 is about right. It comes with a SERIOUS STEAK KNIFE…really SERIOUS.

The dessert Cheese Platter and a little-too-pretty-for-a-steakhouse Crème Brulée rounded out our evening.

So did we enjoy it? Hell, yes. Would I go back? SURE. I was amused and in many respects impressed. As a diner, I gravitate toward the Old School steakhouses, but as an operator, it’s essential to experience the cutting edge, and GT Prime is as sharp as any of the New School joints.



“Steak Night” In Central Illinois


The past two weeks I’ve posted about a couple of pretty fancy restaurants in London and in Paris. But a part of me always feels like an imposter in places like that – as though the maître ‘d is going to say, “Ah, Roberts. From Keewanee, Illinois. I have a lovely table for you back by ze kitchen.”

…or maybe down in a dirt basement like the one in my childhood home, where three generations of us lived under the same roof – my grandma, my aunt and uncle, my parents and me.

At the time, I didn’t know that we were poor. Nor did I know that my town was little more than a boil on the buttocks of Illinois. After all, we were the self-proclaimed “HOG CAPITAL OF THE WORLD!” (Could Paris or London say THAT?)

As our families sat down for dinner each evening – each and EVERY evening – I had absolutely no idea that great care had been taken to economize and “stretch” every recipe and dish to feed all six of us. All I knew is that there was always plenty of food – food that I have nothing but fond memories of.

All of which brings me to a “GO-TO” dish that we had on almost a weekly basis.


I knew nothing about the history of the dish, of course. It’s said to have originated in Hamburg, Germany, a city known for minced and chopped meat, a preparation method that German butchers had borrowed from Russia. It’s called the HAMBURG STEAK. In Sweden, it’s called PANNBIFF and the meat is a mixture of pork and beef served up with cream sauce and Lingonberries (Swedish meatballs, anyone?)

Don’t ask me how it got there, but even Hawaii has a version, called THE LOCO MOCO. As near as I can tell, the only difference between it and a SALISBURY STEAK is that the LOCO MOCO is served over a bed of white rice.

In our house rice played an important role…as did breadcrumbs…and oatmeal…and Rice Krispies. Unbeknownst to me, all four were used as “extenders” to the ground beef in order to bulk it up and therefore serve bigger portions to more people.

No surprise here, but France had a fancy iteration of the dish called HACHE DE BOEUF: ground sirloin mixed with Gorgonzola cheese, eggs and anchovies. A drum roll please….and everyone…. a loud chorus of “La Marseillaise,” s’il vous plait.

But back to reality and good old SALISBURY STEAK…

BTW, the ground beef was always fashioned into an oval, not a round. I suppose that was to make it look more like a steak.

I paid no attention to my Mom’s recipe but I imagine it called for onions, garlic, eggs, the aforementioned “filler,” and probably ketchup. Most always it was accompanied by mashed potatoes, frozen peas (Birds Eye, no doubt) and occasionally macaroni (or perhaps spaghetti; that was all the local A&P carried. Certainly no flat noodles or foreign shapes).

I have since learned that some recipes call for a fried egg on top. Sounds good, but none of that nonsense in our house. Once in a while some carrots and potatoes would find their way onto the plate, but that’s it!

Around that time, the A&P started carrying SWANSON’S FROZEN TV DINNERS, and possibly next to roast turkey, Salisbury Steak was the top seller. God, how I lusted for a TV DINNER! Maybe because we had just gotten our first television set, a gift from my Dad’s boss, and a set of TV tables, from cashing in Gold Bond Stamps.

At any rate, the Swanson’s frozen TV dinner is said to have diminished the image of Salisbury Steak. But not for me. In our house, Swanson’s was a step-up.

Then again, Swanson’s didn’t add a can or two of CAMPBELL’S CREAM OF MUSHROOM SOUP to its Salisbury Steak the way my mom did. Nor did its TV dinners come with a six-to-eight-inch-tall stack of sliced Wonder Bread like my mom placed at the center of the table. There was no greater pleasure than sopping up the mushroom gravy with slices of soft, white, store-bought Wonder Bread.

Now, there is something of a ritual and culinary disconnect that went on in our house every spring. My Dad and my uncle Don and I would head out early every Saturday morning in May to forage for MOREL MUSHROOMS – always to the same place: a woods outside Galesburg, Illinois, where a friendly farmer allowed us to search year after year. And search we did. We had our secret spots in the forest around certain fallen and rotting trees. And if there were “JACK-IN- THE- PULPITS” growing nearby….we’d hit the morel mother lode.

I am not exaggerating when I say that we’d return home around noon every Saturday with two or three A&P grocery bags chock-full of just-picked morels. And guess what? Saturday night dinner on those days was always Salisbury Steak with Morel Mushroom Sauce!

One more thing: As a Saturday daytime treat for us foragers hungry from “the hunt,” My mother would take a pound or two from the grocery bag and toss ‘em into the kitchen sink full of ice cold salty water (the salt to get the bugs out of the spongy tops}.

Once thoroughly soaked, dried and bug free, she’d toss them into a 12-inch cast iron skillet with a fistful of salt and a quarter pound of butter. Fifteen minutes later, my uncle and my dad and my mom and I would sit down at the kitchen table, each of us with a platter of these pan-fried beauties – each of them with a can of BLATZ BEER, and me with a bottle ROYAL CROWN COLA and sometimes a MOON PIE.