The Problem With The American Steakhouse

A relic whose time has passed, the steakhouse is the last place anybody who really loves beef should go

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Gayot, an off-brand dining guide, made what could loosely be called news last week when it released its “best steakhouse” list. You’d think that a list of ten almost indistinguishable restaurants in the U.S. made by anonymous reviewers using arbitrary standards for a company nobody has ever heard of would encounter at least some skepticism. But no! It was broadcast uncritically by news media, old and new. I found the whole thing hilarious. The country may fall in ruin and recession, beef prices may climb so high that people will start to miss “pink slime,” and Americans may be dropping in the streets from diabetes, heart disease and gout. But the steakhouse will always make money.

And yet, as a committed carnivore, I feel strongly that a steakhouse is the last place anybody who really loves beef should go.

I don’t write this as a food pundit. I say it as a glutton and as an American. Steakhouses are not really restaurants, in the strictest sense: they are closer in spirit to strip clubs or spas, places to which people repair for rites of costly self-indulgence, Dionysian revels in which stressed businessmen or harried wives vent their hypertension. I don’t go to many spas, but the strip club analogy seems pretty accurate to me. Both the steakhouse and the strip club seem to offer the most primal of pleasures, but the actual exchange is cynical, unsatisfying, and almost prohibitively expensive. And yet we keep going back.

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In the case of steakhouses, the appeal is obvious. There are the enormous slabs of blackened prime beef, served ritualistically on sizzle platters or cutting boards. There are the invariable satellite dishes: crusty hash browns, creamy spinach, gargantuan onion rings. (These days there is often a plate of thick bacon slices that precedes it too, a kind of advance guard of overpriced crappy meat.) The meal is generally an all-male affair, a frantic bonding event where the boys all toast their temporary liberation from the tyranny of women and kids, often with heavy rocks glasses filled with marked-up scotch or bourbon. At the end, there are comically oversized pieces of chocolate cake and a four- or five-figure bill to split up – or put on the company card, if the party is lucky enough to have one. (The odds are 99 to 1.)

What are you really getting for your money? Not great steak. There is never enough prime beef to go around; much of what gets served in steakhouses is actually USDA “high Choice,” which has less marbling than USDA Prime. If you’re not in New York City or the military, your chances of seeing actual prime are low indeed. But you’ll still pay a premium for whatever it is you’re getting. Thanks to rising corn prices, a major drought you may or may not have heard about, and the rising demand for U.S. beef overseas, there is less beef for sale here and so it costs a lot more. The recent outcry against pink slime, though more than deserved, won’t help either: that processed waste helped subsidize the beef industry. It was part of the invisible cost of your steak, like gout and global warming.

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So steakhouses find ways to trick you into thinking you are getting something precious. They bathe the meat in melted butter, which is good, but as much of a deceit as a padded bra; they buy steaks that have been jabbed with thousands of tiny needles to make them soft; they’ll use MSG or other tenderizers; they’ll call a steak “dry-aged” that has been in their refrigerator for three days (as opposed to a month in a real aging room.)

But that’s not why you shouldn’t go to a steakhouse. There are great ones: most, though not all, of the ones on the Gayot list, for example. But the steakhouse is a relic of a time that has passed, and we as a people need to let it go. It celebrates consumption when we should be conserving and prime cuts (strip, rib eye, tenderloin) when we should be embracing ways to eat the whole animal (without grinding it up with ammonia, that is.) It’s a splurge of the grossest kind, on food of the crudest character. A great steak is one of the best things in the world, but you’re far more likely to get it at a great restaurant that has to stand on the quality of its food, rather than at a generic feeding trough where the whole culinary program consists of a guy throwing meat under a broiler for nine minutes.

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Steakhouses came from a period of plenty and simplicity in America, a time when beef was cheap and our expectations more wholesome. Later, in boom times, it was a “leading indicator” as easy money poured into the economy. (Daniel Gross of Slate called this “the Steakhouse Index.”) The modern steakhouse, on the other hand, is more akin to a hoax. So here is my suggestion: go somewhere you can get a great piece of beef, even if it’s not gigantic, even if it’s not a strip steak, and enjoy it with a good glass of Uruguayan or Chilean wine and call it a day. You’ll like it more, it’ll cost less, you won’t feel as fat and foul afterwards, and you’ll know that you have been good to yourself — both as a glutton and as an American.

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