On a recent episode of “Suits”, two of the main characters went to a steak house. Lewis Lit was trying to get a younger lawyer, Mike Ross, to become enthusiastic about a case that could save the steak house, which was Lewis’ favorite. Mike cut into the steak and hadn’t had more than a few seconds to chew when Lewis said, “What do you think Mike?”
Mike replied, “There’s no doubt about it Lewis, this is the best steak I’ve ever had!”
Lewis seemed almost annoyed, “No Mike, this isn’t the best steak you’ve EVER had, this is the best steak you WILL EVER have!”
You know, I wish I could be that enthusiastic about the steakhouse experience, or a steakhouse steak. Really. Maybe I just haven’t been moved the right way, or been to the right steak house. Believe me, I enjoy a good steak, in fact, I REALLY enjoy a good steak, and I’ve been to quite a few steak houses. I’ve found the good butcher shops in the area. I know how to use a gas, wood or charcoal grill. I know about brands of charcoal and only use lump charcoal. I am immersed in the joys of sous vide.
I’ve been to many of the top rated steak houses in the Dallas area. Ruth’s Chris, Pappas Brothers, Bob’s Steak and Chop House, Rick’s Chophouse and even the overrated Ranchman’s Cafe in Ponder to name but a few. And really soon, I’ll be going to Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak house. I keep trying to find the great steakhouse experience. If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you that there are several on the list above I won’t go back to unless someone else is picking up the tab.
Why am I so stolidly unimpressed? In short, I can make a better meal at home for less than a decent tip for the waiter. Yeah, dry aged makes a difference. But not all that much difference. Yeah, the grill master, and the kind of grill, make a difference. But as more and more steak houses cook the steaks sous vide and then just sear them on a grill, the grill and grill master makes less and less difference. Still, I can do as well at home as the grill masters. Maybe I can’t nail that ineffable medium rare every time, but I’m close enough for the steak to be delightful. I can sous vide it, grill it, cook it in a skillet…. or use the hyper intense Alton Brown charcoal technique which uses a charcoal starter chimney as a cooking tool.
A number of the steak houses have great wine lists, and some have great Scotch Whisky lists. Pappas Brothers, which I am willing to go to again on my own dime, has 4 sommeliers on staff. One is an advanced sommelier, another a master sommelier. There are four master sommeliers in Texas, and between their different establishments Pappas has two of them. Pappas wine list is over 130 pages long, extends to bottles that cost more than any car I’ve ever owned and, for that matter, more than the first three homes I owned. Yeah, north of 50 grand. Wines well above a thousand bucks a bottle are common on the list. Which is pretty cool. However, that’s a bit rich for my blood. I’d rather buy a $70 bottle of wine and spend the other couple thousand on… oh, I don’t know – my 401K or a nice bit of jewelery for my wife. Or maybe a house payment.
Beyond the steak and wine, there are the service, the ambiance, and the rest of the menu. The service at most of these places is very good. Bob’s was odd – a bit condescending, but the rest were very good. The ambiance is very nice. Low lights, nice chairs, table cloths, pictures on the wall. Soft music until the joint gets so loud you can no longer hear it. When we were recently at Pappas, no less than five people greeted us and expressed their fervent desire that we have a great meal with them between the maitre’d’s station and the table where we were seated. On the way out, they asked if we’d had a wonderful evening. (WOW – where can I get a job where I stand around in a suit, tell people I hope they enjoy dinner and then ask if it was all OK?)
All the creature comforts are nice, but not really essential. I have tablecloths at home, as well as place settings, nice china and good cutlery. Nice wine glasses too. On the other hand the ambiance is still hit or miss. On our last trip to Bob’s (and no matter how you read “last”, you’ll be correct) a fellow diner was dressed in sweat pants and a sweaty t-shirt. When I passed his table, it was obvious he’d worked out a few hours before and hadn’t showered since. And there are the kids. I love kids. Until they become noisy and fractious. And there are the self-entitled and self-impressed drunks who are noisy and obnoxious. At home, these things just don’t happen. And when I spend the better part of, or well over, a hundred bucks a head, I don’t want them to happen in a restaurant either. I sympathize with the restaurant owners, it can be difficult, and dangerous, to eject rowdy drunks, or to ask parents to ride herd on their kids. But I wish they’d do it anyway. And keeping the ill dressed smelly guy out shouldn’t have been an issue.
Leaving the worst cases aside, the question remains whether there is something in the best cases to justify, to most people, the cost of a steak dinner on the town. When you get past the steaks and the wine list, the menus at steak houses get boring real fast. The sides include creamed spinach, a baked potato, mashed potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, au gratin potatoes, steak fries (french fries with an attitude), haricot verts (puh-lease! they’re French green beans with delusions of adequacy), onion rings, fresh jumbo asparagus, roasted mushrooms, sauteed mushrooms, and grilled mushrooms. Many steak houses have become trendy by adding macaroni and cheese with lobster, or ham. or something, If you’re at Bob’s you’ll get what fans call “The Carrot” and what others call “That damned carrot”. For those not in the know, Bob’s serves a large roasted carrot where other steak houses would serve a baked potato. It’s different, and some people do like it.
The appetizers are often more interesting than the sides. Devil led eggs. More macaroni and cheese. Crab cocktail. Shrimp cocktail. Salmon. Scallops. Cheeses. Oysters. Caesar salad. Lettuce wedge. Who am I kidding? I’m bored just typing this list! There’s nothing wrong with any of these foods, but there is no spark there. No “WOW!” factor.
Sometimes the deserts are more interesting. Key lime pie? Cheese cake? Lemon sorbet? Sorry, I’m dozing again. Again, there is nothing wrong with ANY of these foods. But any cook, not to say chef, can do them well in their sleep. And you know you’ve had them before.
I keep wondering what the attraction is. A desire to see how the other half does the same things your parents did at home when you were a kid? A chance to have the comfort foods of your youth duded up? Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of these foods. But….
I can do better at home. If you can’t do better at home, I sometimes teach a course on how you can do better at home called “Steak House Rock” through Bake With Mike. Many fancy grocery stores and meat markets teach similar classes. It really impresses people when you cook a great steak dinner at home, and it’s not that hard.
A local blog is putting out a list of the 50 most interesting restaurants in the Dallas area. They have released 30 of the names as I type this. So far, NONE of the places are steak houses. There are drive-ins on the list. There are food trucks on the list. Somehow, I’m just not surprised. I’ve had sandwiches from food trucks that blew away anything I’ve had at a steak house for quality, freshness and the ability to surprise and delight me (shoutout to “The Pickled Carrot” in Denton – I love you guys!).
If I can encourage you to do two things with my annoyed rant, here they are – 1. learn to cook enough to have steak dinners the equal of what the steak houses serve at home and then do so. 2. When you go out to eat, try to find places that are more interesting, more ambitious, more challenging to their chefs, and to you, than a steak house. A seafood place, perhaps? A Vietnamese restaurant (not just a Pho shop, though they’re great too). A fine Indian, middle Eastern or Moroccan place? An Ethiopian restaurant? A good Southern restaurant? A fancy French place? An elegant Italian place? Chinese? Thai? Laotian? A real Mexican restaurant? What about a culinary cruise to the Caribbean? It’s a wide world of good food! There are SO many good restaurants out there where you can eat like a king for less than a modest bottle of wine from a steak house. And you’ll have so much more to talk about than, “how was your steak? Good? I’m glad!”
If you know what steakhouse, if any, the experience on Suits was modeled after, please leave a note. Also, if you have strong feelings about steak houses, pro or con, hey, i want to hear them!