After my attorney and I ran the Las Vegas Half Marathon, we needed a suitable celebratory dinner. This meant a steakhouse. No elaborate French twelve-course, no flown-in-from-the-Sea-of-Japan sushi, no carb replenishment. Nothing at all would do for the meal observing a thirteen-mile jog other than a couple of big slabs of meat, some serious sides, and a fat red wine.
We assessed our options (and the proceeds from a nice run at O’Shea’s craps table) and settled on The Range Steakhouse, in Harrah’s. We had considered the flashier places—Cut, Prime, Carnevino, Delmonico, Craftsteak—but decided against them. It wasn’t the expense, exactly—I mean, you only run a half marathon once, right? (At least, I’m only doing it once.) It was the…froofiness. When I’m Marking An Occasion, I want a serious dinner. I don’t want to know the name of the cow that became my filet. I don’t want my side to be bone-marrow custard or cappucino of Roquefort or anything precious like that. I don’t want a flight composed of two-ounce bites of beef from six continents plus a penguin ragout representing Antarctica. I want something serious. I want…gravitas, maybe. I want continuity. I want, I think, a meal my grandfather might have had to mark an occasion of equal stature. (Not that Grampy would have run thirteen miles under any circumstances. An equivalent occasion for him, I think, would’ve been breaking 80 at Cape Arundel Golf Club. Or the re-election of Ronald Reagan.)
In Vegas, at The Range, we wound up with a grumpy, fiftyish waiter named Bruce, who nodded brusquely at the order: rack of lamb (blood-rare), bone-in ribeye (medium), potatoes au gratin, grilled asparagus with Hollandaise, and a big, tannic Cabernet. That is a steak dinner. Nothing precious. Nothing that was made in a vaccuum chamber and served in an Ehrlenmeyer flask. No dissertations on what kind of aromatics went into the lotions with which the cow was massaged. And no four-figure check. Very good dinner for two for $160, including wine, tax, and tip. Done.
The pleasure of this triumphant meal, and the reasons we rejected the places we did, got me thinking about what makes a True Steakhouse. Here are my criteria:
- The servers should be in it as a career. No actors, no singers, no writers. The waiter in a steakhouse should be a waiter. And also male and over 40.
- It should be dark, and it should be red. A steakhouse should not be lit like a diner. The lighting should be low, even for lunch. And the walls should be dark. Bonus points for red wallpaper.
- The murmur should be quiet and constant. You should feel like every table around you might be conducting a questionable transaction. Music is not permitted.
- The bar should not be cute. If you want a blueberrytini, I guess you can have one, but it better goddamn not appear on the cocktail menu.
- Speaking of alcohol: There should be wine by the glass and wine by the bottle. That’s the only requirement for wine. A framed award from Wine Spectator is not required.
- Some appetizers can be creative, but a classic shrimp cocktail must be among them.
- Salads: Tomato, Wedge, Caesar. There may be other choices, but those three are non-negotiable.
- Sides must be sized to share, and must include onion rings, a green vegetable with the nutrition cancelled out by the preparation (think “Broccoli Rabe with bacon and truffle oil”) and potatoes in the following forms: baked, hash browns, au gratin, and fries.
- The steaks should be described by type, cut, and weight; and if the steak has been dry-aged, note it as such. Thus:
YES: “100z Prime Filet”; “16oz Wagyu Ribeye”; “14oz dry-aged Prime Kansas City Strip”
NO: “Manor Farm Signature Black Angus Grass-raised Grain-finished ‘Xtra 10DR®’ 11oz Skirt Steak (Chef recommends pairing with Our Very Special potatoes au gratin and a glass of Fortissimo California Grape Wine”)
- Any steaks ordered to be cooked past “Medium” should draw subtle but obvious disapproval from the server.
- You should get a steak knife that makes you feel like you could, if necessary, cut through the plate.
- As with appetizers, sides, and salads, there may be freelanced options, but the Big Four must be present: chocolate mousse, cheesecake, something with apples, and ice cream.
- The check should be rational. You can spend four figures if you want, but if you can’t get a split appetizer, two steaks, a side, a bottle of wine, and a dessert with two spoons for less than $100 a person, you’re not in a True Steakhouse. A True Steakhouse is egalitarian when it comes to the buy-in. You should be able to go there when you’re 23 and on the big date that celebrates your first real paycheck.
- And when you’re 22 and on that first real paycheck date, presuming you know how to order, you should be treated exactly as well as the silverback two tables over who owns three car dealerships and the local minor-league baseball franchise.
My personal all-time Hall of Fame True Steakhouses:
Bern’s in Tampa; The Saloon and Gene & Georgetti in Chicago; Emeril’s Delmonico in Las Vegas circa 2003, before the prices hit a bonus multiplier and the menu got cute; and the late, lamented Bambi’s Tavern in Elmwood Park, Illinois, where we used to go on Friday nights with my mom when I was eight or nine.