Grilling raw meat for a few minutes – most of the world would barely consider cooking; America has, however, managed to persuade everyone that it is, in fact, very haute as cuisine goes.
The great American steak is something I am very fond of. When I first moved to New York, Atkins was all the rage and steak was practically health food. In the years that followed Atkins (real and diet both) rested in peace and cholesterol worries became a religion; New York’s steakhouses, however, did not seem to bother too much – the ancient ones still held their own while fancy new ones cropped up with great regularity to take turns at stretching the good old expense account. Steak remains America’s luxury dining of choice, and New York has some of the best.
The most legendary steakhouse in the city is without a doubt Peter Luger. The place celebrates its 125th year by proudly proclaiming to have been #1 for the last 24 years (why it took a hundred years is a mystery). I had heard and read plenty about it while in New York – its legendary steaks, legendary aversion to reservations, legendary refusal of credit cards, legendary…don’t even remember all the legends. For one reason or another I had never made it there when I lived in New York - even though, for a while, my apartment was not much more than walking distance away. I returned to visit New York after quite a gap, and figured that this time I must pay the old man a visit. So much hype, I felt I was missing a life experience here.
And so I found myself outside its doors on one nippy lunch hour.
Peter Luger goes out of its way to be different. Though as tough on your wallet as any Wall Street hangout, it locates itself on the other side of the bridge, in Williamsburg. Now Williamsburg is firmly in the throes of gentrification (artsy lofts and artisanal salads are on the march) but this seems to have left Peter Luger’s corner alone. On a polite day, one might call it “industrial”; graffiti and boarded up shop windows being more common than cool cafes and hipster chicks. Peter Luger itself works hard at preserving the industrial feel, albeit with tailored suits flitting about the polished edges of expensive grunge.
The entrance is a long bar, where people swizzle some very nice red beer while waiting for their turn at the tables, and so did I, ogling at the wall-full of plaques proclaiming culinary greatness. They used to make you wait in line, but it seems they do take reservations now. Judging from the bustle when I walked in on a Friday afternoon, reservations are indeed needed and Peter Luger will be around for a while yet. It was the last seating of the lunch, so I got lucky and it wasn't long before I found myself seated in a relatively empty dining hall. The beer, meanwhile, was only a third empty - a very nice red lager that I would certainly have had more of if I wasn’t keeping myself empty for steak.
Back to the basics. Unlike tony city steakhouses, Luger has maintained a very narrow and focused menu. Steakhouses nowadays do many gourmet things (Old Homestead serves a tuna sashimi, for instance) but Lugers is still firmly and primarily centered around steak, only a single cut (Porterhouse), cooked only a single way (medium rare). Indeed, the only real choice here is steak for one, two, three or four. Ok, they do have a few frills, a prime rib here and a chopped steak there (also a highly rated lunchtime burger) but the whole menu, sides and dessert included, is just a page. Printed on just one side.
Steak for one duly landed up. The waiter tried to get me excited about the sliced tomatoes; I opted for the extra thick bacon instead and loved it (my theory is that you can only digest so much fat in one sitting, the rest passes through). A large boat of sauce landed up, mild, tangy red stuff that fell somewhere between Worcestshire sauce and ketchup; it worked well with the steak. The star of the show was excellent - perfectly done, perfectly charred, dripping perfectly with fat and juices, and thick enough to be a meaty, juicy, satisfying chew. All while the red ale was singing a wonderful side riff. Of course, a “steak for one” here is really a steak for someone just rescued from weeks of famine and about to be sent back there; for people with less ambitious appetites this is really a steak for two (or at the very least one and a half). I’ve been told the single steak is a different cut, that the Porterhouse – what they are really famous for - is apparently two or more (that’s four or more in regular stomach speak). I guess it has to wait for a bigger famine; I did not have room even for dessert.
I walked out nearly seventy dollars lighter (including tip and lager, don’t even try and convert), satisfied at a great steak fix and the warm glow of having participated in a legend not unlike a visit to the original Disneyland. I’ve had many great steaks over the years, but the satisfaction that comes from chewing a hunk of meat while being bumchums with the waiter at a landmark (we did exchange over three words) is hard to replicate. That, after all, is what Peter Luger is – a fantastic product, to be sure, but lifted to the mythical by some very careful story-telling. Many of the other one hundred and forty something steakhouses in New York will serve you great, even extraordinary steak; none does the legend nearly as well. Old Homestead may have started a couple of decades earlier, Sparks may have its mobster stories and Les Halles a celebrity globetrotting chef but if you’re in the mood for a foodworthy tale, Peter Luger really the only choice you have. Luckily the steak is also outstanding.
I highly recommend this place. A true foodie is, after all, a storyteller at heart.