History Stories

Steak and potatoes, creamed spinach, a stiff drink: the menu at your average steakhouse hasn’t changed for over 100 years. Americans flock to these palaces of meat, whether they’re upscale chains or a neighborhood spot whose décor hasn’t changed since the Reagan administration. Despite some falls in consumption in recent years due to price increases and health concerns, steak is still a very big deal in America. This week we’ll take a look at the steakhouse, an American institution.

Our modern steakhouse has two direct ancestors, the beefsteak banquet and the chophouse. Both arose, interestingly enough, in mid-19th century New York City, a town that got the best beef cuts the country had to offer because only there did diners have enough money to pay for them. Beefsteak banquets were primarily men-only political affairs, held as candidate fundraisers or to celebrate a recent victory. They got their name from what was served: sliced beef tenderloin, each piece placed upon a slice of white bread like an open faced sandwich. The bread slices, however, were rarely eaten and were mainly stacked besides each plate as an informal scorekeeping system for how much beef was consumed by the participants. No self-respecting gourmand wanted to fill up on bread when there was so much beef and beer available!

Chophouses were only slightly more civilized. They appeared in New York City in the mid-1800s to cater to merchants and clerks in need of a hot meal. By all accounts, chophouses were dark and dusty affairs: one of the more celebrated houses was named “Cobweb Hall,” after the décor. These restaurants served a more diverse menu than the beefsteaks. Mutton chops, lamb kidneys and sizzling strips of bacon were all served, alongside mealy baked potatoes and the ever-present tankards of British ale. As one reporter put it, “Those who don’t care for steaks can have chops, those who don’t care for chops can have steaks.” Dessert was apple pie, mince pie or a wedge of Stilton cheese.

The Old Homestead of New York’s Meatpacking District has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating steakhouse in the country. It served its first charcoal broiled strip just after the Civil War, in 1868. In fact, a surprising number of steakhouses that opened around the same time are still open today: Keens and the Palm chain in Manhattan and the legendary Peter Luger in Brooklyn are all going strong today after a whopping combined 341 years in business. One key to their longevity is the fact that these restaurants were nicer than the chophouses—suitable even for ladies—with a clubby atmosphere and ingratiating waitstaff.

And the menus at these establishments are strikingly similar to what would have been served back at the turn of the century. Hashed brown potatoes, creamed spinach and cheesecake have always had their places at the steakhouse table. But while we think of bottles of hearty Zinfandels and Cabernets as proper accompaniments for a steak dinner, these restaurants never really focused on expansive wine lists. Beer was the beverage of choice up until Prohibition, and after that cocktails ruled the day. Extensive wine lists only appeared in the high-rolling days of the 1980s, when magnums of expensive reds were de riguer for Wall Street honchos.

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