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Peter Luger Is The Best Steakhouse In New York.

April 4, 2011

Medium-rare perfection.

If there is any place in New York that understands the art of steak, it is the peerless Peter Luger. If you get to have only one meal in New York, Peter Luger should be in your top three contenders. In fact, the only reason not to go would be because one of your party doesn’t like steak. But if you do like steak, or better still, you love steak, there’s no excuse not to go here. It’s inconvenient for Manhattanites like myself, sure, but it is pretty much the best game in town.

“What, how can you say that,” you ask (quite rightly), “since previously you’ve said the best steak in town is at Keen’s?” My answer: it is true that I think the chateaubriand at Keen’s may in fact be the best steak in the city. And Keen’s is a top-notch steakhouse and offers a wonderful, old New York experience. But in total, the best steakhouse – from tip to toe – is Peter Luger. There’s just something about the whole experience that is beautiful and enlivening.

Landing at Luger's. The exterior, as seen from across the street.

It starts with the shlep. The first thing that gets you going about the place is getting to the place. It’s a commitment. Either you have to multi-subway it, which is inelegant and can take a while but is cheap. More likely you’re going to cab it, which can be cramped, expensive and slow. But since you’re setting off to dinner at Peter Luger, I doubt that cost-consciousness reigns supreme, since you know you’re in for an expensive meal (though not a painfully expensive one). From a Manhattan-centric point of view, it sits on the far side of the Williamsburg bridge. So the first part of the experience is deciding to take that leap off the invisible cliff that surrounds Manhattan. This can mean traffic, but it also locks in a bridge crossing. Cars make a particular sound when they cross bridges. It’s different than when they’re on the street. Crossing the bridge offers a view. All of these little things tickle your senses. Plus they build up the anticipation for arrival at that mecca of meat, Peter Luger.

A fairly typical scene at the bar.

Once you’ve finally landed at Luger’s (tell your cabbie to make the first right turn possible off the bridge, then stay right, you’ll pull right up), chances are excellent you will be greeted by the bustle of the bar. If you’ve come during anything remotely resembling prime time for dinner, you should anticipate a pretty packed place. As you can see, it is brightly lit for a place that opened in 1887 and often filled up with a bunch of guys wearing blazers and a loosened tie. There’s a sound a crowd of men make when they’re boozing it up and having a good a time, my buddy who is a choral conductor could probably tell you the name of that sound. But it involves some chuckling, the occasional burst of laughter and a bass chatter. The gentlemen behind the bar are deeply experienced and seem to be as much a part of the place as the wood, Bavarian-influenced wainscoting.  Be warned: this is not the place to order some frou-frou drink. No no. Do not embarrass yourself or your party by ordering something like a cucumber or apple martini. Stick with the basics: scotch, gin and tonic, martini, beer, etc.

Inside one of the dining rooms.

The wait for a table can be considerable. I believe it is possible to make a reservation, although my buddies and I almost never do: I think I’ve made one once over the 20+ years I’ve been going. However, what we’ve found is that if you are honest with the maitre d’ and show respect, your wait time may pass a bit more quickly. I’ve been at the bar at Luger’s listening to some tourist Negative Nancies grousing about how they’ve been waiting for over an hour. That disrespectful display has no place at Luger’s and is frowned upon. Show respect and saddle up to the bar and enjoy a drink or two. Before you know it you will be at your table, with a nice buzz on. Your voices will have melded into that rumbling, happy fugue I mentioned earlier.

Now that you’ve landed at your table, what to eat? First lesson: do not ask for a menu. You do not need one and will identify yourself as not just as a tourist but also as an idiot. You should, however, feel free to consult the wine list – indeed I’d suggest having a bottle or two with your meal.

Here is what you should order, plain and simple.

Some shrimp to start. Thick, juicy, pop when you bite 'em.

Chances are excellent that by the time you’ve landed at the table you are wildly hungry. The smell of the place and the drinks at the bar and the anticipation will have all worked their magic on you. Do not eat the bread, I don’t care how hungry you are. You will be wasting valuable stomach space on it. Unless you’re hammered when you walked into the joint, I’d make the same argument about beer – leave aside these hefty carbs for now. Show discipline. If you’re very hungry, start with some shrimp. We generally order “shrimp for the table.” The waiter will do a quick headcount and bring an appropriate number of pieces. There were three of us on this particular run, so we wound up with six pieces. I consider the shrimp optional, and really how hungry you are when you land should determine if you get them. As you can see they are a substantial size and are pretty much as good (if not better) than they look. Fresh and delicious. If you are feeling somewhat adventurous or looking for something different, you might consider getting the tomato and onion appetizer, in which you are served thick slices of beefsteak tomatoes and onions. That dish, by the way, is the only one at Luger’s I would consider adding their steak sauce to – it adds some zip to the tomato. But chances are you won’t have ordered it.

There it is. Unrivaled. The best in the city.

Now the important stuff begins. Get the bacon. Get the bacon. Get the bacon. Get the bacon.

The bacon at Peter Luger is the best damn bacon I’ve ever had. I never knew that bacon could be so damn delicious until I had it there. I know that seems inconceivable, since bacon is now a ubiquitous internet meme and widely acknowledged as making just about everything better. But it might not occur to some folks to order bacon ahead of a steak dinner. Whoever dreamed this up should have a carved rendering of his bust put into some museum somewhere. Just look at that bacon. It is thick, sizzles and is smoky and wonderful. Get a piece for everyone at the table, and hope you can help someone finish theirs.

A thick slice.

I am convinced that this is the white elephant that every other steakhouse is chasing and can’t catch. Nobody does bacon like Luger’s. It is fat and amazing. It’s like steak. That is why it is such a mistake for Keen’s to have abandoned their unique way of preparing it to chase after Luger’s style. You can’t catch Luger’s, don’t even try, plant your own flag and dance with the one that brung you, you know? Many have tried to replicate Luger’s bacon, none get it just right. Luger’s does every time.

The porterhouse.

Above is what you’ll see when you’ve ordered steak for three and the waiters complete serving you. That is, by the way, what you should order at Luger’s: “steak for x,” where x is the number of your party. There’s no point to going to Luger’s alone, so get steak for two, three, four etc. You can of course get two steaks for two if you want them prepared differently, but I am sure you’ve figured that out by now. There are only three temperatures to consider: rare, medium rare and medium. I am sure you can get well done if you want, but that is an infamnia.

Let us take a closer look at the steak itself.

Note the bark.

First of all, the steak you’ll be getting is a porterhouse. While I assume most of you know this, a porterhouse is a t-bone steak with different types of meat on either side of the bone. On one side, you get filet mignon, which is sweeter and more delicate. On the other, sirloin, which has more chew and is more robust and “steaky.” Peter Luger serves USDA PRIME beef, usually from the Midwest, that they age themselves. Once it is properly aged, they butcher and broil it into the perfection you’re reading about now. It is sliced before it reaches your table, and then individual pieces are plated and doled out. Note the thin, crispy layer of char you can see above.

Just look at that. Note the color.

We almost always order medium-rare steak. That way there’s something for everyone. The pieces at the end of the steak or on the medium side, the pieces in the middle pink and rare, the pieces in between the tri-colored perfection of medium-rare. You’re looking at some rare filet mignon above. If your mouth isn’t watering by now you must be dead or blind. Also, as you can see, they spoon the pot liquor over the pieces as they serve it. That means butter. Holy crow.

The result is as follows: when you bite into a piece of medium-rare steak from Peter Luger, you get a moment of crispy, charred bark tension. That gives way almost instantly as you sink your teeth into the meat. And then, some kind of alchemy occurs, and the whole thing evaporates in your mouth into a steak perfume. The experience is remarkable. You don’t chew, you bite and then whoosh! It’s gone, leaving behind steak and butter flavor that will make meat-eaters swoon. It’s insane. I don’t know how they do it.

A typical plating, minus a piece of steak.

In the above picture you get a good sense of a typical tri-colored piece of medium-rare steak. You also see the sides you’ll be ordering for the table: potatoes and spinach. We prefer the hash browns to the fries, but to each their own. Hopefully you paid attention and didn’t load up on bread, because by now you’ll be regretting it. The potatoes are rich, the spinach is creamy, your eyes will probably rolled into the back of your head at least once by this point in the meal.

And you shall know me by the trail of the dead... .

Even for three fairly big guys it’s a challenge to finish the steak. By the way, feel free to carve up the meat closest to the bone. Generally it’s a bit more chewy and fatty – the servers have chopped up the main part of the steak for you. In the picture above you can really see that char I was mentioning quite well – it’s a key component to the flavor.

Despite having eaten all that you think you can, your meal is not over yet. You may think it is, but you’re wrong. There’s more to be done. Chances are you’ll want coffee or an after-dinner scotch. In any event, get the pecan pie.

The hits just keep on coming.

Look, all desserts at Peter Luger are wonderful, I am sure. But their pecan pie is special. The crust is flaky, the filling has the right balance of chunky pecans and butter. Even though you’d be quite correct to think you should eat it as it is served, in fact you are mistaken. One further step is required: a generous dollop of shlag.

Can you see the pie beneath the shlag? No? That is the correct amount.

Another thing Peter Luger gets right is shlag. I believe it is a well known constant in the universe that shlag makes just about everything better. Do not deprive yourself of Peter Luger’s artful, thick, sweet, vanilla-y perfect take on it. It is so thick you could practically use it to sculpt an architectural model if you want.

Atop a chocolate coin.

They serve the shlag in a large communal bowl for everyone’s enjoyment. They also serve up large, gold-wrapped chocolate coins. Do you need any instructions here? Unwrap the coin, scoop up shlag, eat.

This was excessive. Delicious, but excessive.

At this point my companions and I were well on our way to drunkville following the martini at the bar, a bottle or two (three?) of wine, and an orgy of steak. Just for the sake of variety we also got a chocolate sundae, it was sensational, but in my opinion stick with the pecan pie. Above you can see some of those chocolate coins on the table as well.

As far as cost of the experience goes, well the meal will set you back at least $100 per person. That seems a pretty safe bet. Then there’s transportation and wine to consider, which can really get expensive fast. If you roll in with $200 on you – and your comrades have the same – you’ll be ok. Important note: Peter Luger does not accept credit cards (other than their own Peter Luger card). For the vast majority of people, then, it means it is a cash-only joint.

Now the only trick is getting home. You may feel like you need an ambulance. You may be so happy and content that you feel you’re practically floating (this is my typical state after a dinner at Peter Luger). You may also feel a strong urge to work off some of the massive calorie bomb you’ve just dropped on yourself. While the Williamsburg bridge is no Brooklyn Bridge in terms of elegance and views, it is nearby. If the weather is nice, I enjoy walking across it to Manhattan afterward. It gives you a chance to pump some air into your lungs (or smoke a cigar if you are so inclined), sober up a touch, and see some wonderful New York City views. Alternatively, there are generally cabs available at Luger’s, it is a very popular place, so you can usually hail one if you are so inclined. A subway isn’t far, either.

As you can tell, it is a rapturous experience, and should be tried by not only every meat-eating New Yorker, but just about anybody coming to this town as well.

Peter Luger

178 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211
718.387.7400
www.peterluger.com
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