The most indulgent and representative – and also enjoyable and expensive – reflection of that truism from one of best novelists to ever come out of Cornell is at the upscale steakhouse, the Great American Steakhouse, as I’ve come to refer to these. Places like The Palm, Del Frisco’s, Ruth’s Chris, and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Texas, these have pricey menus centered around high-quality, aged steaks, comforting, and usually expected starters, sides and beverages all dished in typically plush, never hushed settings often with a masculine edge.
For many, the upscale steakhouse is the epitome of fine dining, the place for celebration when a dinner is in order. It’s never been for me, but I have certainly enjoyed these over the years. When I was traveling often for work years ago, the upscale steakhouse was an infrequent but cherished evening. Morton’s, Harris’s, and Elway’s were a few that I recall in various cities across the country. My order was nearly always the same: a dry gin martini to start, Caesar salad, a New York Strip or Ribeye cooked medium-rare, a Napa Cabernet for the steak, and a couple of sides to share, spinach, typically sauteed, and another of potatoes, usually au gratin. My steakhouse tastes are similar today, though my choice of wines with the beef is now Old World and often Grenache- or Sangiovese-heavy.
With things finally, finally, looking up including the strong job numbers the other day, I thought it was time to take a survey this concept. I haven’t dined at one of these since before things got odd for everyone over a year-and-a-half ago, but it might time for me to do so again soon. Also, these are restaurants that were well-suited to survive the pandemic in fine form, with the deep American love for steak being a big part of that.
What is the Great American Steakhouse today? To get a proper insight, I surveyed the menus of fifty different steakhouse concepts from coast to coast representing over 460 restaurants. It seemed to me beforehand, and maybe many, that the offerings at the Great American Steakhouse were as inviolate as the canon of the Great American Songbook. What I found, however, is that the concept is much more dynamic, evolving along with the desires of the American diner. The long-popular preparations are still there, but these have been joined by a wide array of newer starters, steaks and sides. Bone-in versions of the popular cuts are frequently found, as are dry-aged options, steaks from acclaimed smaller purveyors like 44 Farms and Snake River Farms, along with the sumptuous, wallet-busting wagyu beef from Japan.
The Great American Steakhouse is still centered around corn-fed beef from the Midwest graded USDA Prime that is usually wet-aged for three to four weeks, cut into boneless filets, strips and ribeye steaks that are seasoned with salt and pepper, broiled at a very high temperature, from 1,200 to 1,800 degrees, then finished with butter. The a la carte menu continues to temp with starters including shrimp cocktail and crab cakes and salads like a Caesar and wedge; the sides to go along with the steak that will certainly include potatoes in several guises, and spinach, plus asparagus or mushrooms. If steak is not enough, its natural partner at a steakhouse, lobster, is likely to be found. Given the richness and amount of food usually consumed in the savory courses, desserts are an afterthought for many patrons, myself included; about a third of steakhouses don’t even bother to post their dessert offerings, and the offerings are often kind of rote. It’s interesting that there is not much at all in the way of regional variations, some shrimp dishes along the Gulf Coast, but what works in Boston pretty much works in Los Angeles and all points in between. Meat and potatoes remain popular throughout the country.
The very tender if less flavorful filet is found on nearly every steakhouse menu – the once-lauded Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn is the sole exception – and the New York Strip in about 90% of them. The fattier ribeye is now on only about two-thirds of the concepts. There are a lot of different sized cuts these days. The filet comes in sizes ranging from four to sixteen ounces, with eight ounces being most common. The sweet spots for the larger New York Strip steaks are fourteen and sixteen ounces. The ribeye is found between twelve and twenty-two ounces, with sixteen ounces the most popular.
Some more about the star attractions:
- Prices for this prime beef in prime cuts, and these can be expected to become more expensive with the near-monopoly hold that the top four meat producers have. The popular eight-ounce filet averages about $55 at upscale steakhouses, the fourteen-ounce New York Strip is $58 and the sixteen-ounce Ribeye is $61.
- The average prices are: filet ($6 per ounce), New York Strip ($4.25), Ribeye ($3.90). The bone-in steaks are a little cheaper per ounce because, well, there is a bone among the meat: filet ($4.90), New York Strip ($4), Ribeye ($3.40).
- As expensive as aged, expertly presented and nicely presented USDA Prime steaks are, these are a bargain compared to A5 wagyu beef from Japan. These average over $28 per ounce at top steakhouses here.
- A dramatic steak for two that’s become more popular (44%), giving another option to the porterhouse, the Tomahawk Ribeye with the bone extended far from meat is most commonly found at thirty-six ounces and priced at well over $100.
USDA Prime is the highest classification for beef produced in this country. It comes from young, well-fed beef cattle and has abundant marbling, the intermuscular fat, and generally has more flavor than lesser grades when broiled or grilled. Given the tenderness of the filets even at the Choice level, the next grade, and the mushiness possibly found with Prime, only about one-third of steakhouses use USDA Prime for their filets. Capital Grille is an outlier among the upscale steakhouses in not using USDA Prime beef for any of its steaks. These are a little cheaper than the other upscale places, but not cheap. Capital Grille is owned by Darden, the folks responsible for Olive Garden.
Though steaks are the reason for the visit, there is much more on the menus and at the restaurants:
- Items are almost always served a la carte, adding to the expense. Only four of the fifty I reviewed included sides and sometimes starters with a steak orders.
- The most popular starters are shrimp cocktail (82%), crab cakes (74%), oysters on the half shell (60%), and thickly sliced bacon (52%). At the highest end, caviar is found at the most lux or expensive places (18%). Once popular, escargot and Oysters Rockefeller are rare, at 8% and 12%.
- Newer additions to the tops of the menus include preparations like fried calamari (40%), octopus (16%), and meatballs (16%). The latter in case you are worried about getting enough beef.
- Caesar salad is almost as frequently found on menus as steaks; only one of the fifty steakhouse concepts surveyed did not have this iconic salad on its menu.
- Most popular sides are mashed potatoes (90%), mushrooms (90%), asparagus (86%), creamed spinach (82%), macaroni and cheese (72%), baked potatoes (72%), fried potatoes (64%). There is some type of potato on every single steakhouse menu.
- Three-quarters of the steakhouses offered some kind of sauce for the steak for those who need more than just beef (and a little butter). Filets often need some assistance. A pepper sauce or coating (54%), blue cheese (50%), béarnaise (46%) were the most often found. The decadent, old school Oscar – hollandaise, crab meat and asparagus – still has plenty of adherents (42%).
- For those not inclined to steaks, salmon (80%) is the most often found followed by lobster (74%) usually the tails rather than in its more-work entirety. Lamb chops or rack of lamb is on nearly two-thirds of the menus, while the veal chop is a diminishingly sought-after indulgence (20%).
- Most popular desserts are cheesecake and ice cream or sorbets, tie, at 69%.
- Several have excellent, expansive wine lists like Pappas Bros., Baltaire in Los Angles, Bern’s in Tampa, Del Frisco’s, and Mastro’s in Houston.
The steakhouse concept is probably more replicable than any other upscale concept. These do not require a top chef at each location and the menus can be identical at each one; customers are not looking for creativity when choosing a steakhouse. It is also more profitable for the owners with multiple locations as that can improve the per unit cost for the pricey beef. The fifty brands I looked at have an average of nine locations. The big national restaurant operations have been involved, of course, in addition to Darden. Fleming’s is owned by Bloomin’ Brands that also owns Outback and Carrabba’s. And Landry’s has more concepts and steakhouses than any other company: Morton’s, The Palm, The Strip House, Mastro’s, Vic & Anthony’s, and Brenner’s. Landry’s is definitely not known for improving the food at the restaurants it’s purchased, though the quality of its steakhouses seems to remain fairly high. The ease of entry along with the popularity of the upscale steakhouse has attracted top chefs. Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Jose Andres, Tom Colicchio, Chris Shepherd, David Burke, Michael Mina, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Marc Forgione have steakhouses or some named involvement in one.
Though there are serious environmental concerns with beef, steak in particular. It’s part of the reason why I have been eating less of it. But, I do look forward to my next trip to a Great American Steakhouse. These are better than ever, with larger menus, more nutty dry-aged steaks, more choices in the steaks, starters and sides, better cocktails and more wide-ranging wine lists. A steakhouse visit comes a greater cost, but I can’t quit it. Visits will just be an even more intermittent indulgence.
An enticing image from Sparks Steak House in Manhattan