Despite living in NYC for five years, I never made it to Peter Luger‘s historic 1887 steak house in Brooklyn. Rumors swirled about the surly waiters and the massive porterhouse, considered the best steak in the city by many. With a steak-loving friend in town one weekend, we also ended up at Strip House, so I thought it would be fun to conduct a NYC steak-off. (I was originally planning to have Minetta Tavern‘s NY strip in the running as well, but it was so bad I dropped it from the lineup.)
First up, Peter Luger‘s. This was a study in caricatures. At the reception desk, two people who look like they’d been there from the beginning were respectively checking people in and taking future reservations with handwritten date books the size of most flat-screen TV’s. We were seated in a simple wood-paneled room by–check!–a surly waiter, who asked me if I needed a menu or did I want to order immediately (ignoring the fact that my friend hadn’t returned from the restroom yet).
For reasons unbeknownst to me, a new waiter arrived to take our order five minutes later and defied all Luger stereotypes. He was extremely affable and proceeded to give my lunch guest yoga tips, even running to his locker at one point to look up the name of a book for him. I’m guessing he’s not usually invited out for drinks with the other Luger boys.
I asked for a glass of Cabernet. Unless you’re ordering a bottle, you’re stuck with house by-the-glass choices; no brand name given. Luckily, it wasn’t bad, though a bit pricey at $12 (or was it $13?) given the small pour. This is often my beef about steak houses (no pun intended): I always leave feeling like I was mugged. It’s much cheaper to find a good steak at a regular restaurant where they don’t charge you $20 for a side of potatoes. But this was Luger’s and it had to be done.
In terms of the menu, the main course was king. It turned out that we could only get the porterhouse if we ordered it for two people since the single portion is a ribeye. This posed a problem since we wanted to order the acclaimed burger–apparently made from leftover steak cuts–as well. So we did what any self-respecting first-time Luger visitors would do. We ordered the porterhouse for two and the burger. Nothing like leftover steak with an arugula and Parmesan salad anyway. As for the starters, they were less than inspiring, but we went with the tomato and onion salad and the renowned thick-cut bacon.
I was a bit worried about fresh tomatoes being out of season, but the waiter assured us that they bring in great tomatoes, saying, “We spend a lot of money on tomatoes!” (Cut to my bloated bill) Well, the tomatoes weren’t that great, as I’d imagined.
The waiter suggested we put the Peter Luger steak sauce (on sale now!) over the tomatoes and almost everything else. I was not a fan; it tasted like doctored shrimp cocktail sauce.
With so much meat on its way, we only ordered one slice of the thick-cut bacon. Okay, this porky goodness made the trip worthwhile. The meaty parts were almost like eating a pork tenderloin. If you go, do not miss this.
As I looked around, I was one of only two women in the room. Men who could have been extras on the Sopranos were telling stories and swinging mugs of beer. Two businessmen sat down next to us shortly afterward and started throwing figures around. Then they sent the porterhouse back for being too rare, instructing our formerly surly waiter, “Just cook it a little, not a lot!”
Our porterhouse, composed of top loin and tenderloin, [pictured here and at top] arrived steeped in an oily broth. Yes, the steak was good. Did I think it could have used some condiments besides the Luger-branded steak sauce? Yes. I opted for a lot of crushed pepper.
We ordered the burger without cheese since the only option was American (what is with high-end establishments ruining good meat with a Kraft single?). It was a dream, with a crunchy seared exterior and tender flavorful pink meat within. Run, don’t walk. Though, again, we had a condiment issue. It was served with ketchup, but we wanted mustard, too. The only option was one so laden with horseradish we couldn’t taste anything else. Ketchup it was.
We finished what we could and the waiter put the rest in a lined paper bag (which we discovered had leaked later; luckily they also put it in a plastic bag). Not surprisingly, Luger’s does not accept credit cards: it’s either debit cards or cash. But then again, they’re not in the business of making things easy for you.
Next up, Strip House. Yes, it’s a chain, but I had heard good things. The décor is half bordello, half saloon. It’s a Saturday night. The room is packed with both locals and out-of-towners. It’s so dark I can barely see my menu, but I can see the red velour raised wallpaper with cutouts of naked women à la Playboy mud flaps on the back of trucks. I was liking this place.
The amuse-bouche was a small breaded serving of macaroni ‘n’ cheese. Crunchy, creamy, somewhat inventive: good start. [Unfortunately this, among other items, is not pictured due to low light.]
Next was the [yes, overexposed] bibb lettuce salad with blue cheese, bacon, and vegetables. This was abundant and good, and I was easily able to split it with a friend.
For our entrées, we ordered the eponymous NY strip and the tenderloin [not pictured], which, of course, came with no sides and they had to be ordered separately. What was I saying about that steak house bill bloat?
I am normally a tenderloin girl, but the strip is the steak to order here: flavorful and so much more tender than that disastrous Minetta Tavern strip, yet with a nice sear on its crust. The steaks were served with béarnaise and sweet chili sauces (I’ll take that over Luger’s glorified shrimp cocktail sauce).
The sides were definitely not an afterthought: goose fat potatoes, black truffle creamed spinach, crisped baked potato pieces tossed with parmesan and parsley, and–for (ahem) good measure–steamed broccoli.
Steak houses are all about extravagance, so why not finish with their 12-layer chocolate cake?
The experience at Strip House is not about exceptional service, which is more mechanical than anything else. I’m not sure if we ever saw our original waitress again after ordering, as men just appeared from the kitchen with our plates. But both the steak and the sides were well executed, and I would be much more likely to return here than to Peter Luger’s. The winning edge for Strip House was when I tried the leftover steaks from both places a day or two later (including some Strip House sides, which were still lovely); I found myself licking my lips a little bit more when I ate that strip steak.
Other NYC restaurant reviews:
Minetta Tavern: I Don’t Get It
Colicchio & Sons: What’s New Is Old
Eleven Madison Park: French Laundry Wanna-Be
Motorino v. Kesté: Neapolitan Pizza Pie-Off
Locanda Verde: Swing and a Miss
Maialino: Danny Meyer Does It Again
Marea: Do Your Homework
Great Jones Cafe: Best Wings In The City
Apiary: Hidden Gem
Seäsonal Restaurant & Weinbar: Who Knew?
Brooklyn’s Fatty ’Cue: Malaysian BBQ
La Esquina: VIP Mexican Food?