Steak house chain Ruth's Chris serves a great steak. The top-quality meat develops an appealing crust in the high-temperature broilers (designed by the late Ruth Fertel herself) and is served on a platter of sizzling butter, making for a sensationally rich and tasty meal.
The problem, of course, is that except for the meat -- a big exception, I'll grant you -- everything else about Ruth's Chris is insipid. The generic dark paneling, the blandly pleasant staff, the crowd of business travelers -- it's as boring and predictable as Applebee's.
A good steak dinner doesn't have to be that way. Steak is festive food and should be enjoyed in suitably convivial surroundings. Moreover, a good steak house, like any good restaurant, should reflect some measure of its hometown culture, whether in its menu, its look or its crowd --preferably all three. With that in mind, and with several longtime favorites to get me started, I set out to find America's greatest steak houses, judging them not just on the flavor of their food but also on their local flavor.
I was disappointed to find that some highly touted spots, like Kansas City, Mo.'s Golden Ox and Taylor's in Los Angeles, served mediocre fare at best; others, like St. Elmo's in Indianapolis, had solid chow but no character. The eight that made the cut don't just serve a great steak -- they provide a great steak experience.
New York City
The mystique of this bustling, century-old protein palace is so strong that it's spawned several persistent myths: The waiters are rude, there's no menu, the smallest steak is the huge porterhouse for two -- all patently false. The one thing that's no exaggeration is the extraordinary quality of Luger's beef, which is the primest of prime, set aside for the restaurant by local meat markets, dry-aged on the premises and cooked in ancient broilers.
Although a single-serving sirloin is available, the massive porterhouse s-- available for two, three or four people -- are more fun. Carved in the kitchen and then served tableside by the expert waiters (my favorite is Otto), the meat explodes with complex beefy flavor and is almost impossibly tender. This, my friends, is the best steak in America.
Essential sides: hash browns and creamed spinach, which are basically conduits for butter.
Overrated: Luger's signature tomato-onion salad -- endearing but tasteless.
Underrated: the broiled bacon appetizer (order some to take home for breakfast -- you'll thank me later).
178 Broadway, Brooklyn; 718-387-7400; average steak: $32 per person
Doe's Eat Place
Easily the most idiosyncratic establishment on this list, Doe's is solidly in the Mississippi Delta tradition of corner groceries that were converted into restaurants. Depending on your feelings about declasse atmosphere, the setting is either a nightmare or the holy grail. Doe's is a dilapidated cinder-block joint in the crummy part of town; the sign is falling down, the floors slope, the chairs, tablecloths and silverware don't match, and you have to walk through the ramshackle kitchen to get to your table.
But oh, those steaks -- hulking porterhouses, T-bones and sirloins, as regally upscale as the setting is downscale. They're priced by weight, with a two-pound minimum. The staff finds the cut you want in the meat locker and, if you ask, shows it to you before cooking it. For an authentic Delta starter, order the tamales.
502 Nelson St.; 662-334-3315; average steak: $36.50
Gene & Georgetti
Revered for decades by some, pooh-poohed as a relic by others, Gene & Georgetti is, above all, quintessentially redolent of Chicago, a city of old corner taverns. Situated in the shadow of the "L" train, G&G has the feel of a timeless neighborhood haunt, and the cocktail scene just inside the front door reinforces the time-warp effect.
In keeping with Chicago's stockyard heritage, the meat is first-rate, although getting it cooked the way you ordered it can occasionally be more of a crapshoot than it should be. Is there a better steak in Chicago? Some folks swear by the Chicago Chop House downtown, but it can't match G&G's local ambience. Speaking of which, for a unique Chicago appetizer, try the deep-fried ravioli (really). And even if you don't smoke, ask to sit in the smoking section -- the friendliest, most intimate room in the house. So few people light up nowadays that it isn't the least bit smoky.
500 N. Franklin St.; 312-527-3718; average steak: $35
Coerper's Five O'Clock Club
Coerper's take on the steak house is heavily influenced by that Great Lakes eating institution, the supper club. From the mirrored and wood-paneled walls to the magnificent 1960s lighting fixtures and the ageless bartenders with metal-script name pins, everything about Coerper's oozes old-school conviviality. Have a drink at the bar, where a waitress will take your dinner order and summon you to your table when the first course is ready.
The basic theme is that nothing exceeds like excess: Entrees come not just with a massive communal salad but with a relish tray; bread comes not just with butter but also with a bottle of honey. As for the steaks, they arrive sitting in a puddle of Coerper's house sauce, an excellent Worcestershire-butter concoction that's a fine accompaniment to the excellent beef.
2416 W. State St.; 414-342-3553; average steak: $29.75
Iowa Beef Steak House
An informal and nondescript place, Iowa Beef is nonetheless the best exemplar of an unusual Hawkeye State trope: Customers can cook their steaks themselves on a large charcoal grill. Yes, this arguably defeats the whole point of going out, but cooking your own has its benefits, like getting to choose your steak from the well-stocked meat case and the fun of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other patrons at the grill, sharing the rush that comes from being at the nexus of meat and fire. (The house cook is there to answer any questions you might have about timing or doneness.) A gimmick? Sure, but a good one.
1201 E. Euclid; 515-262-1138; average steak: $19
Kansas City, Mo.
With its longstanding history as America's stockyard capital, Kansas City is all about the beef, and no place honors that heritage better than Plaza III, an upscale steak house with a very professional staff. The walls are loaded with vintage stockyard photos, ranching ephemera and cowboy regalia, all in displays that look classy, not hokey. The meat is superb, especially the hometown Kansas City strip, a magnificent center-cut sirloin. The Plaza also serves the definitive rendition of the KC cattleman's classic known as steak soup, a hearty stew of ground chuck and vegetables.
4749 Pennsylvania Ave.; 816-753-0000; average steak: $31
Bob's Steak & Chop House
It figures that Dallas, a city defined by beltways and sprawl, would hide its best steak house on a characterless strip lined with fast-food outlets, brake repair shops and gas stations. (I tried not to laugh when my waitress lauded the "great location.") But Bob's is a genuine diamond in this rough, and I'd rank the bone-in rib eye here, featuring an earthy mineral tang and a particularly toothsome outer crust, second only to Peter Luger's porterhouse. And in a world of increasingly generic restaurant experiences, Bob's has developed a unique, Texas-size visual signature: Each entree comes with a single glazed carrot of mammoth proportions -- so mammoth, in fact, that our waitress claimed that a patron had complained that the offending root vegetable was too suggestive for her children. Apparently nobody told her that everything's bigger in the Lone Star State.
4300 Lemmon Ave.; 214-528-9446; average steak: $34.50
Leave it to San Francisco to come up with a politically correct steak house. In addition to local organic produce and even organic tea, Acme's menu features a particularly progressive meat option: grass-fed steaks. (Most beef cattle are fed grain because it fattens them up faster; unfortunately, it also causes digestive problems, which is why grain-fed cattle are given antibiotics.)
I'd always been curious about grass-fed beef, and Acme also offers some conventional grain-fed steaks, allowing for a taste-off. The results at my table were mixed: A grass-fed filet mignon was spectacular, unusually robust for this typically mild-flavored cut. A grain-fed hanger steak was also excellent. A grass-fed New York strip, however, was bland and unremarkable, which may confirm the most common criticism I've heard of grass-fed beef, namely that its quality is inconsistent. On the whole, though, Acme is worthwhile, and in true California style, dinner portions are modest, a nice alternative to the gut-busting servings at most steak houses.
Third and King Sts.; 415-644-0240; average steak: $27