Steakhouses may share some DNA with the chophouses of London, which date back to the late 17th century. While they’re widely copied around the world today, at heart steakhouses are uniquely American. Developed in New York and other big cities in the 19th century as outgrowths of taverns that served a few basic dishes, they celebrate abundance, culinary simplicity, dependability — and meat.
For decades, steakhouses across the country, wherever they were, tended to offer similar menus. This was one of their virtues — you always knew what you were going to get. Dinner would begin with things like oysters, shrimp cocktail, steak tartare, Caesar salad, or an iceberg wedge. Main dishes, of course, were mostly steaks — ribeye, filet mignon, New York strip, porterhouse, sometimes chateaubriand or skirt steak. Veal and lamb chops, roast chicken, and a limited selection of seafood (typically lobster, salmon, and swordfish) were offered, and side dishes inevitably focused on potatoes in various forms, creamed spinach, and asparagus.
In the late 1990s, though, something else began to happen: Celebrity chefs, who had made their reputations for creating dishes far more complex and refined than meat and potatoes, began turning their attention to the steakhouse genre.
A pioneer in this development was Larry Forgione, one of the first “new American” chefs, who opened “a modern steakhouse melded with an oyster bar” called the Grill Room Chop House in lower Manhattan in 1997. It has long since closed, but many other chefs followed, and today some of the most famous culinary personalities in America — Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, José Andrés, and more (including Forgione’s son Marc) — oversee restaurants devoted to steak.
Why would chefs known for their innovative cooking devote time and energy to an old-fashioned restaurant style that doesn’t seem to offer much opportunity for creativity? Some years ago, I asked a number of them exactly that, and most replied that it was somebody else’s idea. A real estate developer, or hotel, or casino operator came to them and asked them to open a steakhouse and was willing to make it profitable for them, and they thought it might be fun. Other chefs, though, like Wolfgang Puck, were attracted to the steakhouse idea simply because it posed a challenge: How could they take this venerable institution and make it theirs?
Steakhouses obviously have to deliver great steak above all, preferably in some variety, and a great steak doesn’t need a lot of enhancements. Where the chefs’ skills and imaginations come in tends to be with the appetizers, the non-steak choices, and the side dishes. These reflect the culinary personalities of the chefs — not just the big names behind these places but the people who actually cook the food day to day — and often also the tastes and traditions of wherever the steakhouse happens to be located. The result can be memorable, a delicious combination of the surprising and the reassuringly familiar.