Growing up just outside of the City in Westchester County, you would think my childhood was simply brimming with classic New York experiences. And while yes, I was lucky enough to see Broadway shows multiple times a year, chilled with the dinos at the Natural History Museum like it was my part-time job, and rode the Circle Line with my 3rd grade class, I missed out on many “typical” New York activities because they seemed cliche, touristy, and lame to a blase teenaged local. Even now, having come back to actually live in Manhattan post-college, there are still certain items left unchecked on my city to-do list, simply because of the way they make the native New Yorker hairs on the back of my neck rise (we’re not going to even engage in the from the city/from the suburbs who’s a native debate here — I’m at least a New York Stater by birth).
One of the crucial things you learn as you grow up, however, is that sometimes doing the “lame” or “touristy” thing is worthwhile. For every double-decker-open-air bus tour of Chinatown, there’s a mainstream experience that is popular because it’s actually pretty effing fantastic. Sometimes the hype is actually not hype at all, but merely an abundance of exuberance that should be heeded. And thankfully, there are still a few long-time New York institutions like Peter Luger Steakhouse to slap some starry-eyed sense into this skeptical New Yorker. Nothing like a healthy dose of history (and cholesterol-raising meat) to give a jaded girl a little bit of wonder.
I’ve talked about New York dining institutions before, but Peter Luger is in a different category. The restaurant was established not in the 21st nor 20th centuries, but way back in 1887 in then-predominantly-German neighborhood of Williamsburg (to this day mere blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge). It has been awarded one Michelin Star, was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of “American Classics,” and was named the best steakhouse in New York by Zagat 28 years in a row (a fact they proudly showcase by lining a wall with the annual award plaques). It is the kind of place that is so popular, they can operate on a cash-only policy. Let me repeat that — a cash only policy. At a steakhouse. Well, to be honest they do honor one credit card — the Peter Luger Card. When I first heard about this, I was pretty skeptical. It sounded absurd, overblown, the kind of place that preys on poor schmucks who go to New York and think that they’re having a real authentic slice of pizza at a random “Original Ray’s.” But even before I knew of all the history and accolades, I had been told by multiple sources over and over that Peter Luger was a must-visit, a unique and extraordinary experience if you liked steak at all. So I tried to stay open-minded, paid a visit to an ATM, and made my way with a group of friends to Williamsburg last Friday night.
Because of its enduring popularity, my friend Peter was only able to score a reservation for 6 at 9:45pm, presumably the last seating of the night. Consequently, everything around Peter Luger was closed, and lent the restaurant a sort of “shining beacon” quality (this might have also been due to my intense hunger — I operate more on the early-bird special schedule than the Continental late night dining scene). Peter Luger sits squarely on the corner of its block, the decor traditional and old-fashioned both outside and in. Outside the worn dark wooden signage announces just “Peter Luger” — no mention of what kind of cuisine waits inside — above plain brick and large metal paned windows.
Inside, I was immediately reminded of the German beer halls I’ve recently visited, except that here the design is based in the restaurant’s origin, rather than an appeal to a foreign cultural aesthetic. Once you step into Peter Luger you are met with oak floors, a long wooden bar, dark wood paneling and exposed crossbeams bracing white stucco walls. The impression of basic utilitarian necessity, clean but spare reigns supreme — brass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and plain wooden tables and chairs make up the dining rooms. No tablecloths, no fancy schmancy place settings, no piped in music, and no paintings or posters. The only purely decorative objects were the series of beer steins of different colors and styles that were displayed along the dining room walls.
Even with our late reservation, the bar area was still packed with waiting parties when we arrived, so we milled around waiting to be seated and watched the staff rush from the kitchen to the three dining rooms with plates and plates of outrageously over-portioned food. Clearly this place was expensive, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Watching the service in action, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the staff seemed to be men in their mid-40s, all dressed in the same suit of plain black pants, white shirts, and aprons, another slightly jarring sign of PL’s old-fashioned approach. Barely ten minutes later the crowds had thinned and our party was called to be seated (in fact, this was an accurate representation of the speed and quality of service — we were in and out of Peter Luger, and left very satisfied, I might add, in a little over an hour).
Sitting down to a table not so far removed from the Ikea dining set I have in my apartment (although PL’s probably has and will endure far longer than mine), we found plain white napkins, plain starter plates, stainless steel silverware and small water glasses. Oh, and a basket piled high with all different types of bread, which our waiter, a gruff but polite and attendant middle-aged man, refilled steadily until our steaks arrived.
Our complimentary bread basket was filled with Parker House-like rolls, slightly charred at the edges, and a onion rolls speckled with salt and garlic and featuring slices of caramelized onion inside. I preferred the onion bread, although both rolls were well salted, chewy and soft. The only improvement would have been adding more onion to the inside of the rolls, to moisten the interior a bit. Alongside the basket were twin gravy boats of PL’s house steak sauce, a tomato-based, tangy condiment that reminded me of a less aggressive cocktail sauce. I tried the house sauce on nearly everything, and found, somewhat surprisingly, it pretty much compliments the menu. Peter’s girlfriend Carol (a pescetarian) even dressed her mixed green salad with it, over the blue cheese dressing she had initially chosen.
The menu at Peter Luger is as laconic as its wait staff — a bit unforgiving in the modern scene of endless options and descriptors (Grass-fed lamb shanks with rosemary clippings, chive blossoms, with a Swiss mint gelee, etc etc). Instead, you’re faced with a remarkably simple set of choices. Choose some appetizers. Choose some sides. You want steak? Choose how many people you want steak for, your options ranging from “Single Steak” to “Steak for Four,” with no elaboration on the preparation, cut, or how it is served (I guess in 1887, the idea of the empowered diner did not exist). Fortunately, most of us had done some level of research beforehand, and Diana had read that the best strategy was to get steak for (n-1), with n = the number of meateaters dining. So for our five carnivores, we would get enough steak for four people. But here’s the catch — there’s a difference between all those Steak for X entrees — what is not stated on the menu is that those are all different cuts of beef. My research had uncovered that PL’s best cut was their Steak for Two, the Porterhouse, whereas the Steak for Four is a T-bone. We opted for two orders of the famous Steak for Two, five orders of the similarly famous bacon (offered by the single slice, and a must-try according to everyone I talked to), two orders of French Fries for Two, two orders of Onion Rings for Two, and some creamed spinach. Go big or go home, folks.
The bacon was the first to arrive, served as an appetizer. Now those who know me might be wondering why I ordered bacon in the first place. All through my childhood I operated under the premise that my family did not eat bacon in observance of kosher law (never mind our hypocritical love of crab crakes and beer-boiled shrimp), so I avoided any and all pork products I came across. Sometime during college my illusions were shattered when my father ordered a side of bacon at brunch, and since then, while I continue to avoid seeking out pork-based dishes (no carnitas for me), I don’t have a problem ordering a Cobb salad or a chowder with bacon in the broth. It’s hard to say no to a restaurant’s signature dish, however, so I was resigned to try Peter Luger’s bacon and see if it could win over a porcine-averse palate.
Peter Luger offers their bacon in single slice servings, which are doled out onto each plate by the waiter. Bacon-ignorant as I am, I could only guess that Peter Luger’s version is closer to the Canadian Bacon patties I’ve seen in Eggs Benedict than the thin crispy pieces on typical diner breakfast plates. The pink slice was thick, with a dark edge and lighter interior, and dwarfed my small bread-and-butter plate in length (it was probably the length of a standard oval seving dish). I tentatively cut into it, speared a bite, and suddenly understood our collective fascination with bacon. The meat was simultaneously salty, savory, and unctuous. It was totally addictive, probably due to how how the fat content was — as Diana astutely pointed out, a cross section of the bacon revealed a small pink center bookended by delicious deposits of fat. Of course, the bacon was equally delicious dipped into the House Sauce, the sweet tang of the sauce complementing the sharp, salty meat. I’m not sure I could have had more than the one slice I got (especially considering the bounty of beef to come), but it was well worth breaking my person food rules. In what will become a common refrain in this post — listen to the hoi polloi when it comes to Peter Luger — the popular opinion knows what it’s talking about.
Only a few minutes after our somewhat-inappropriate bacon-induced moans of pleasure had subsided, our waiter was back, briskly removing our starter plates and replacing them with full sized dinner plates and a new set of silverware, including intimidating steak knives. Then, the main course service began. It’s a bit of a production, with multiple waiters assaulting the table with large portions of food in a precise, efficient display of well-honed showmanship. Although far from the highly-choreographed synchronized serving in high-end restaurants like Daniel, there is still a level of theatricality to the exodus of steak from the Peter Luger kitchen to each table. When our waiter brought out the bacon, he had inexplicably placed two bread-and-butter plates upside down in the middle of the table. As our steaks arrived their purpose became clear — the platters of meat are placed with one end resting on the butter plate, so the platter tilts, allowing the juices to drain down to the other end, which are then spooned back onto the steak, effectively pan-basting the meat table-side.
The porterhouses come pre-sliced, with some meat still left on the bone. Each diner is served a couple steaming pieces of the steak by one waiter, while another spoons out the creamed spinach, and a third serves the potato hash (which we didn’t know came with the steak, another insider tip that probably would have led us to opt out of the fries). The rest of the sides were served on platters, family style, in large heaping mounds. The general consensus was that at Peter Luger, the descriptive phrase “for two” implies two adults roughly equal in size to Shaq.
The creamed spinach was definitely heavy on the cream, almost the consistency of a Indian saag dish. My first bite was smooth and flavorful, but the spinach wore on me in the face of all of the fried foods and rich pieces of steak. I much preferred the fries and onion rings (what? it’s not like creamed spinach is really a “healthy choice” here). The fries were my favorite variety — thick cut steak fries, with excellent crisp on the outside and a soft starchy center. The onion rings were by far my favorite side, as evidenced by the hefty amount of damage I unleashed on the plate on my half of the table. I generally find that onion rings suffer from too many potential weaknesses, from the type of breading used to the thickness of the onion slice. But these were like the shoestring fries equivalent of onion rings, as if someone had sliced through a Bloomin’ Onion to the thinnest degree and piled it high. The thin slivers of onion were lightly fried, crunchy and crispy and well-salted to provide a contrast to the meat.
Speaking of, let’s turn our focus away from the hanger-ons and pan over to the star of the show, the Steak for Two. Even days later, it’s hard for me to articulate how delicious this piece of meat was. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a part-time vegetarian these days, and even before then I’d generally opt for duck or lamb over a steak, but when I bit into the porterhouse at Peter Luger, I suddenly remembered why I’ve never turned in my carnivore card. This was, hands down, legitimately one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten — it was perfectly medium rare, with a vibrant pink center, and dripping with juice as you cut into it. The first bite released an explosion of earthy, funky beef flavor with great crust on the outside, tender as you chewed, and slowly melting on your tongue to linger as a smooth, naturally umami aftertaste.
Although Serious Eats has named Peter Luger as having one of the best hot fudge sundaes in NYC (slightly dubious since they use Haagen Daz ice cream), we were way too full to test that claim. However, over the course of our entire meal we had seen waiters walk by with heaping bowls of whipped cream (referred to as “schlag”) as topping for the various desserts. As a lifelong whipped cream fanatic (I’ll choose it over frosting any day), I jokingly said we should ask our waiter if we could just get a bowl of schlag for dessert. Peter seized on my idea, and as soon as our waiter appeared to clear the table, Peter asked him if that was possible, literally inquiring as to if they would accommodate us, maybe for a little extra (like $3 or something). Without a saying a word, our waiter just disappeared back into the kitchen, the doors barely swinging closed before he emerged with a full bowl of shlag exclusively for our table. While the bowl had only one spoon with it, it was served alongside PL’s signature parting gift, a bunch of chocolate coins (it’s Chanukah in August!), which served as excellent vehicles to shove the shlag into our mouths (I did eventually ask for more spoons). The shlag was heavenly — real whipped heavy cream, instead of the pressurized Reddiwhip. It was thick and slightly sweet with a faint vanilla flavoring. I would honestly go back just to get the chance to have more shlag. It was a truly decadent way to end an absurdly indulgent evening.
There are countless movies and TV shows featuring an awestruck out-of-towner “discovering” New York, marveling at the tall buildings, boating on the lake in Central Park, and spinning around Times Square, overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour. Unfortunately, it’s hard to live day-to-day in this city and not start to notice the grime coating those bright lights. Between the homeless people, the piles of garbage, and the way the streets smell faintly of urine in the summer — it can be hard to keep the magic of the Big Apple in mind, especially when something just dripped on you and there’s not a cloud in the sky.
But sometimes the City finds a way to rub some more of that metropolitan sparkle into your eyes, finds a way to remind you of the collision of history, cultures, and sheer humanity that makes up New York. The fact that within a week I can eat at both the trendy, multicultural Spice Market and the traditional, fuhgeddaboudit, historic landmark Peter Luger Steakhouse is a testament to the endless possibilities of life in New York. My dinner at Peter Luger was a great wake-up call, a classically New York experience — this is how we do things, and you can like it or leave it. Well, like most of the diners at Peter Luger, I really, really liked it. From porterhouse-pros to those less beef-inclined, everyone should check it out, and at least put those Zagat claims to the test. Get a taste of history, get a bit of a New York attitude purer than that at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and for the love of God, get a bowl of shlag. Trust me — I’m from around here.
Peter Luger Steakhouse
178 Broadway (at Driggs Ave)