Steakhouses, as a rule, all used to market themselves the same way. The place was presented as a sanctum sanctorum, an all-male preserve where men could drink whiskey, eat charred beef, and revel in their temporary liberation from the tyranny of women.
But times have changed; and the New York steakhouse has changed with them, giving yesteryear's cultural baggage the heave-ho. A few classic exemplars of the old school persist, and are rightly celebrated as temples of meat-worship; but now they compete with a new generation of steakhouses, all of whom bring a new, metrosexual take to the most primal of all restaurant concepts.
Typical of this breed is Quality Meats, a tarted-up meatery from the corporate group that brought you 78 different Smith and Wollensky restaurants, not to mention Cite, Maloney and Porcelli, and the Post House.Like the various other chain steakhouses currently making hay, the Wollensky Group serves up fair-to-good commodity beef in big portions, charges an arm and a leg for it, and makes its reputation on ancillary dishes -- the justly famous pork shank at Maloney and Porcelli, for example, or the first class desserts served at Quality Meats. None of the restaurants have any kind of historical roots -- Smith and Wollensky were two names they pulled out of the phone book, and Maloney and Porcelli are the firm's lawyers. But the restaurants all look like steakhouses, and make a big deal of fetishizing meat.
That's the secret to steakhouse success. People go there in a Dionysian mood. They're ready to spend money. Give them the copious portions, the coursing torrents of bourbon and butter, and the average diner is bound to be happy. But I'm not the average diner. It is my blessing and my curse to be Mr. Cutlets, the maharajah of meat, and I have bet all on an abiding love of steak. I want the steak, not just the sizzle, and I left Quality Meats, which I was reviewing for Newsday, appalled at how much the dinner cost (nearly three bills!) and at the perversity of the cooking (a bone-on rib steak had been flayed alive, stripped to the bone of its precious intercostal flesh.)
The old-time steakhouse seems to be a thing of the past. But has it really come to this, that no one but me seems to notice that they are paying to eat what amounts to astronaut food? This steak was indistinguishable from the kind of the thing they serve on cut-rate cruise ships or wedding banquets; only its size and pointless bone marked it as a premium product. And believe me, it was only marking.
A world in which Mr. Cutlets can't enjoy himself in a steakhouse is not a world I want to inhabit. My experience at Quality Meats was nearly enough to put me in a state of existential despair. But, as luck would have it, the hope of my deliverance from the hell of commodity beef is at hand: Craftsteak has opened in the Meat Market, and people are about to wake up to what they've been missing. I don't want to bet too heavily on this new restaurant, which is still in its opening days; like a long-awaited first date or a bottle stowed too long, disappointment is likely. You don't want to get too up for these things. And yet my thoughts drift back to Craftsteak, with its artisinal meats, its aging hierarchies, and so much else of what I've always wanted. The steakhouse was one thing, and has become corrupted and debased into another; but now a Third Wave of steakhouses has come, heralded by Craftsteak and David Burke's Primehouse, and I think I can now head toward Potter's Field with a new sense of hope for the future. Though Mr. Cutlets must pass away, the steakhouse, that bastion of beef, will endure; my last days are gladdened by this radiant, furtive hope.