Meat of the Matter

When the trendwatchers started squawking   a few weeks ago that the low-carb craze was taking on water, friends who knew I was embarking on an eating odyssey through Boston's best steakhouses wondered if I had missed the proverbial boat. “Nonsense!” I assured them then, and I'll say it again today. America's ongoing love affair with steak — we bought and consumed 10 percent more last year than we did the year before — is ingrained in our national identity. Why? Because we love to sink our teeth into a charred-on-the-outside, pink-on-the-inside piece of [cue Spring-steen] Born in the U.S.A. Prime-Aged Beef! It's primal, eternal, and it's our heritage.

Maybe we love eating steak at a steakhouse because we know it's a solid investment. You know what you're getting — almost universally. It will be a piece of meat that's prime grade, meaning the very top two percent of all beef sold, representing the most integrated marbling of fat and yielding the most tender and flavorful cut.

So if you're considering investment ideas for 2005, why not open a steak-house? Everyone else in Boston seems to be. The old Castle near the Common is now a 20,000-square-foot Smith & Wollensky, and Ruth's Chris is set to open in July in Old City Hall. That's in addition to our already hefty cluster of big names like the Palm, Morton's, and the Capital Grille, and locals including Grill 23 & Bar, Abe & Louie's, the Oak Room, and Bonfire. Steakhouses have proven to be, if you'll pardon the pun, cash cows.

Regardless of whether you believe steakhouses are a great investment, here are the parameters that I think separate the porterhouse from the chuck. I pondered these rules while sampling a quantity of dry-aged beef not heretofore consumed by one man alone in the span of five days. From these 10 temples of haute gastronomy I culled the Ten Commandments of a Great Steakhouse Experience.


Thou shalt make a reservation.

Unless you go at lunchtime — and not many steak joints are open for lunch — you'd be foolish not to call ahead. I didn't at a few and had a hard time securing even a barstool.

Case in Point: Bonfire I had a reservation at Bonfire, but it was an hour later than I would have liked. So I went early anyway and discovered plenty of tables empty. When I asked the hostess why I'd been given the shaft, she looked at me like I was speaking Farsi. I wanted to leave and wish I had after one of the most disappointing meals of the week. My aggressive waiter shot down every choice I made. (He even nixed a bottle of wine I ordered, insisting I could save a few bucks on one he simply adored. I've never been more unhappy saving money.)

The food was mediocre at best. The 24-ounce dry-aged rib-eye didn't taste aged or very meaty, and the 14-ounce prime sirloin might have had nice texture had it not been overcooked. Though we left half of what was on our plates, our narcissistic waiter didn't care to ask why. He probably just didn't care.


Thou shalt never wear sneakers.

Steakhouses have their origins in gentlemen's clubs, and as such, proper attire is suggested if not downright required. Today, steakhouses fall into two camps: the Old Guard-style men's haunts that welcome women, but make little effort to soften the testosterone level, and the nightclubby newcomers that welcome women seemingly more than men.

Case in Point: Smith & Wollensky The spiffiest of dandies hold court at Smith & Wollensky, where the median suit price is around $600 — and the jackets stay on throughout the meal.

I dined in the ground-floor barroom of this multilevel modern-day King Arthur's court. Mammoth chain-link chandeliers dangle overhead, and the fireplace seems big enough to roast a whole cow. The meat was quite good, though all the cuts I tried needed more salt before being cooked. A petit filet mignon was excellent, cooked a rosy medium-rare. Both a bone-in sirloin and a T-bone were gorgeously ruby rare inside and blackened “Chicago-style” outside. Kudos to wine guru Kevin Zraley, former wine director at the late, great Windows on the World, who has created a section on his list called “Undiscovered Gems,” featuring unknowns at very affordable prices.


Thou shalt consume cocktails copiously, and then wine.

It's amazing how much hard liquor is being put away at the bars at these steakhouses, many of whose patrons come for happy hour and stay straight through dinner. This is where they make a killing, by the way. I was appalled by the markups, especially for wine.

Case in Point: Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar Fleming's is one of the newer steakhouses in town, and it feels young and energetic. The bar is particularly busy, thanks in good part to the insanely generous size of the cocktails.

I preferred the scene over the cuisine at Fleming's. Two cuts ordered rare — a 16-ounce prime rib-eye and a 20-ounce bone-in New York strip — arrived practically raw inside, though both were nicely charred outside. The creamed spinach was cheddary but had the consistency of glue. Still, the service was deft and friendly.


Thou shalt expect women galore at the bar.

While stereotypically steakhouses are the domain of men, there is no shortage of women at any of the steakhouses I visited, especially at the bars. Actually, most of the women I saw were only at the bars.

Case in Point: Capital Grille The bar at the Capital Grille is by far the most carnal, with everyone giving each other the once-over and throwing around a lot of bull while pretending to be there for cow.

That included our waiter, who I sent back to the wine room twice before he got the bottle I ordered rather than the cheaper appellation he tried to swindle me into buying. The steaks here were among the most disappointing I tried. All good steaks need to rest when they come off the grill so the juices can redistribute themselves throughout the meat as it cools. If you cut into a piece of meat that's just off the grill, the juices spill onto the plate, leaving the meat dry. This is what happened with our 14-ounce sirloin, 10-ounce filet mignon with béarnaise sauce, and 22-ounce Delmonico.


Thou shalt expect and respect women waiters.

Frankly, I prefer my steakhouse waiters to be pension-earning pros. There's nothing like being handled by a server who instinctively gauges when to “work” the table with witty quips (the opposite of my waiter at Bonfire).

Case in Point: The Palm Women are scarce among servers at the Old Guard joints, with the exception of the Palm, which actually was forced in 2003 to hire more women after a lawsuit.

As steakhouses go, the Palm is fantastic, but it's in the cold, modern Westin Copley Place, with a dining room that wants to be a men's club but seems more like a greenhouse, its giant windows too revealing for diners who prefer to be discreet when they eat. Still, the meats are exemplary. The prime-aged 18-ounce New York strip was meaty and tender and bathed in butter before resting. The prime-aged 28-ounce porterhouse was amazing, too.


Thou shalt know thy cuts of beef.

Unless we're hunters, we Americans tend not to want to know much about the anatomy of the animals we're eating. Here's all you need to know about the best cuts: Premium steaks include the top loin (New York strip), T-bone (part of the top loin and the tenderloin), porterhouse (a thicker cut similar to the T-bone, but with more of the tenderloin), rib-eye (Delmonico), and tenderloin (filet mignon). The fattiest cuts of meat come from the ribs (rib-eye and Delmonico), while the filet mignon is among the leanest — before you put the pat of butter on top.

Case in Point: Morton's, the Steakhouse At Morton's they take descriptions to the extreme, with a presentation involving a gueridon groaning under the weight of raw things and a half-dead lobster. On the raucous night I dined there, which felt like New Year's Eve, our harried waitress was practically panting as she shoved the food trolley to our table.

The food was as erratic as the service that night. A cocktail of jumbo shrimp came perfectly cooked, but was served with a tooth-achingly sweet sauce. A double-cut filet mignon was well cooked, but the porterhouse's loin side was tough and veiny, with a band of silver fat running along the outside — it was awful. The New York strip au poivre, on the other hand, was excellent. Go figure.


Thou shalt not be disappointed by lackluster décor.

While the Oak Room feels downright regal, it's an exception. Morton's is in a basement and feels like it. Fleming's is a prefab chain. Capital Grille and Abe & Louie's try too hard to look older than they are. Frank's just is. At the end of the day, if the steaks are great, you'll go back. If the steaks stink, who cares if the décor costs millions?

Case in Point: Frank's Steakhouse Perhaps the only neighborhood joint worthy of inclusion in this group is Frank's, where the scene is straight out of Cheers . I popped in there one night after work and found the bar packed with locals, many of them playing Keno. It was the antithesis of a pickup scene.

Frank's claims to be Boston's oldest steakhouse, established in 1938. You won't find steak tartare on this menu, but rather Hotter than Hell wings. But the steaks are great, which is all that matters. Frank's Famous NY Sizzler Sirloin comes in a cast-iron skillet, cooked rare inside with a great crust outside. Sides include so-so fries and sautéed mushrooms straight out of the can, but I didn't care. It just felt good to be there.


Thou shalt get in and get out.

Just like TV, restaurants have a prime time, which in Boston is between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. That's when the most people want in, so the battle isn't only to get a table, but also to hold onto it. Most steakhouses try to plow you through dinner so they can reset the table for another seating. When I feel this happening, I like to order a bottle of wine, then lean back in my seat when the waiter offers me a taste so he knows I'll be here until the cows come home just for spite.

Case in Point: Grill 23 & Bar Grill 23 is one of the most attractive restaurants in Boston, but considering it's one of the steakhouse veterans (opened 22 years ago!), I expected a little more pedigree in the service. Our waiter was a mess. He broke the cork in the wine bottle, then left to uncork it out of my sight (a big no-no), and he dropped the check on the table while we were eating dessert. That's when I ordered the extra bottle of wine.

To be fair, the food was very, very good, especially the steaks. The caesar salad was creamy, salty, and delicious. The 18-ounce bone-in Delmonico was fabulous, the meat tender, salty, and nutty, while the filet mignon was buttery and rich, and the New York sirloin fantastic. Even the peanut butter profiteroles, served with the check, were good. If only the staff had wanted me to stay.


Thou shalt order oversize desserts.

In keeping with the theme of giant steaks, desserts at every one of these steakhouses are enormous. For consistency's sake, I ordered variations of a simple chocolate cake — and found not one truly memorable piece anywhere.

Case in Point: Abe & Louie's Our waiter sold us hard on the desserts, veering somewhere between philosophical and sociological while suggesting that we get the chocolate cake because, as he put it, “Boston is a chocolate lover's town.” The piece was as Flintstonian in size as I expected, served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and two sauces, chocolate and raspberry, neither of which was necessary, but both of which were very good.

So were the steaks. The New York strip, cooked beautifully on the bone, was meaty and tasted wonderfully aged, as did the Delmonico, a juicy rib-eye that was perfectly tender. The handcut fries were very good, too, but the creamed spinach could use an overhaul.


Thou shalt not be inhibited by guilt — or gilt.

Obviously, health warnings about too much fat and cholesterol in red meat have done nothing to scare us. That's because we know a good thing when we taste it. Besides, ordering steak is an occasion, a statement — even a status symbol. (I can afford prime dry-aged beef and pay for all the trimmings, too!)

Case in Point: The Oak Room The pomp and circumstance of the Oak Room befits the stately Fairmont Copley Plaza. Few places in town feel as transporting as that magnificent barroom.

Our waiter seated us for lunch and gushed that there was a celebrity in the house (a B-list TV actor), even if one “not nearly as famous as when Cher was here last year!” He nonetheless treated us like royalty, as did the chef. When I asked why there was no creamed spinach on the menu, we were told it's only served at dinner. Still, our food arrived with transcendent creamed spinach. “The chef made you a fresh batch,” we were told. Bravo! The steaks were as good as the service. The filet mignon was rosy inside, the New York strip beautifully seared and topped with a pat of butter. My heart skips a beat just thinking about it.

We can rationalize our love of steak however we'd like. Good economy-bad economy. Atkins-South Beach. The truth is, steak's popularity goes back to the days of the Brahmins and will continue through the gazillionth Kennedy scandal. In between, we'll have fads and chains, warnings and panics. But my beef binge proved this: We go to steakhouses because we know what we're getting, and because steak is comforting. When friends confess their “return” to steak on the protein-rich Atkins diet, I say, “God bless Atkins for reminding us how goddamn good steak is.”

The Steakhouses

Abe & Louie's, 793 Boylston St., Boston, 617-536-6300. Bonfire, 64 Arlington St., Boston, 617-262-3473. Capital Grille, 359 Newbury St., Boston, 617-262-8900. Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, 217 Stuart St., Boston, 617-292-0808. Frank's Steakhouse, 2310 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-661-0666. Grill 23 & Bar, 161 Berkeley St., Boston, 617-542-2255. Morton's, The Steakhouse, 699 Boylston St., Boston, 617-266-5858. The Oak Room, 138 St. James Ave., Boston, 617-267-5300. The Palm, 200 Dartmouth St., Boston, 617-867-9292. Smith & Wollensky, 101 Arlington St., Boston, 617-423-1112.