Leftover Thoughts on Steak, Chicago Steakhouses, and Service

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

February kicked off a week-long look at steak in Chicago, including my list of the best dry-aged steaks. But we also toured David Burke's dry-aging room, checked out an old-school butcher in Dunning, and delved into the strange business of steakhouse sides. I planned to cap off that week with a post about what it was like to eat at steakhouses, but by that time I was in serious need of a beef break. Just the thought of it stressed me out. So here I am, three weeks later, finally ready to get a few things off my chest. I hope you'll excuse the delay, but it's given me some more time to reflect.

Steakhouses are strange places, and I felt odd every single time I stepped in one. Many of you seem to feel the same way. The number one question I got about the steak feature was this: What are steakhouses like? Seems like an obvious question, right? But the truth is a bit more complicated.

Steakhouse Isolationism

What I love about eating out in Chicago is the diversity. I love being able to bounce from the affordable local taqueria to the latest West Loop hot spot, all in the search for great food. Chefs seem to feel the same, pulling inspiration from whatever excites them the most. But steakhouses feel like an island unto themselves. It's almost like they don't know or don't care about anything else going on in Chicago.

Most food writers tend to completely ignore them. Sure, a few will swing by for a new opening, but most of my food-obsessed friends freely admitted that they never even think about going to a steakhouse. This has a lot to do with price—steakhouses are genuinely expensive—but those same people see no problem in saving up for the occasional splurge at a place like Schwa or Grace. What's going on?

Part of that comes down to the kind of food you'll find at a steakhouse. Many of Chicago's best fine dining restaurants serve food that is genuinely hard, if not completely impossible, to recreate in the home kitchen. On the other hand, while most of us don't have infrared broilers that can reach 1300°F, cooking steak at home, not to mention all the straightforward sides, is relatively easy.

Interestingly, when it's someone else's money, all bets are off. I had absolutely no trouble rounding up volunteers for this project. I think that most people genuinely love steak; they just don't like paying a hundred dollars for one.

Service Matters

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Chicago Cut Steakhouse on the Chicago River. [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Unless something goes spectacularly wrong, I usually don't pay much attention to service. I'm there for the food, and I realized long ago that the waiters don't really have anything to do with what's on the plate. But it's hard to ignore the service at steakhouses, which kind of makes sense. All of these different steakhouses serve roughly the same menu, so to stand out from the pack, they have to create a truly exceptional experience.

Of the steakhouses I tried, none quite nailed the total experience part like Chicago Cut. Most steakhouses are dark and cozy, but Chicago Cut is open and airy, with massive windows showcasing the city's stunning skyline. Of course, it's not the only restaurant in town with a great view, but none make you feel so welcome and appreciated. Throughout the meal, I never felt like our waiter was hovering over my wife and me, but he was always there exactly when we needed him. Though he had loads of other tables, he never rushed us or talked down to us, even though he had to know that we weren't exactly high rollers. The result, along with a very good steak and precisely prepared sides, was a genuinely fun evening. Sure, it was expensive—really expensive—but if you're looking for the steakhouse experience done right, it's hard to think of a better place.

Is the End Nigh?

We need more great salads, like the wedge salad at Bavette's. [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

In a world with Birdseye chilies, tamarind, and pork jowls, steakhouses devote most of their menus to dishes that dishes that lack heat, spice, and acid. There are exceptions, of course, but I'm speaking in general here. Which is another way of saying that steakhouses are kind of boring.

Of course, there will always be room for steakhouses in Chicago, especially ones with excellent service like Chicago Cut, but I'm not sure that there will always be so many restaurants serving the exact same menu. As I mentioned in my best steak post, it's easier than ever to source top-notch dry-aged steaks from a distributor, and a number of great restaurants are now serving one incredible steak that is as good, if not better, than one you'd get at a steakhouse. Plus, in a weird way, steakhouses can't even claim to be the meatiest places in town. Places like The Publican and The Bristol are far more gluttonous, and skillful, with their meaty mains.

I could definitely be wrong. But even if the steakhouse genre doesn't bust up, it's going to take more effort to keep up. I have a feeling we are going to see a lot more places like Bavette's in a few years, which is a place that serves a few steaks, but also has equally enticing entrees, truly memorable sides, and creative and well-balanced cocktails. That's my hope.

Will I Ever Go Back?

The Final Flourish

I'd never turn down this steak from David Burke's Primehouse. [Photograph: Huge Galdones]

Are you paying? If not, I'm going to have to really think about it. The next time I crave a steak, I'll probably make my way to Publican Quality Meats or Joseph's Finest Meats to pick up a dry-aged ribeye to cook at home. The one exception is David Burke's Primehouse, which still serves my favorite steak in the city. I just might wait a year or more before I visit again.

Other Questions?

Have any questions I didn't tackle here? Leave a comment, and I'll try to get to them.

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