- Last Updated: 2:52 AM, May 30, 2012
- Posted: 11:05 PM, May 29, 2012
Ben Benson’s is closing June 17 after 30 years. What a way to celebrate “National Steakhouse Month,” with the demise of the Manhattan eatery that served me the best single steak I ever tasted.
I’ve dug old-time steakhouses ever since my prehistoric-era college-years job at long defunct Al Dowd’s in Centerport, LI. I’ll state categorically: The old, masculine-style New York steakhouse ain’t what he used to be. Even the best beef isn’t what it was.
Worse, traditional testosterone-fueled atmosphere — appealing to women with a sense of humor — is giving way to “style” and goofy clubland shtick. When beeferies become indistinguishable from “American brasseries,” the culinarily correct cops have won.
Crusty waiters who were oddly reassuring — if they were so nasty, the food had to be terrific — now share the scene with “Our chef has some wonderful additions to the menu” types who think a classic daiquiri involves frozen strawberries.
What’s to whine about, when there are more beef joints than ever?
More steakhouses doesn’t mean better steaks. The T-bone I remember from Ben Benson’s managed to be juicy, richly crusted and possessed of deep primal flavor without a drop of marinade, sauce or butter.
Cuts like it were once common, but no longer. Richly marbled USDA prime beef, long the gold standard, is in retreat.
Lots of elitist eaters shun grain-fed US beef in favor of specimens grass-fed, “humanely” ranched, “proprietary-ground” and raised to mimic Japanese Kobe and Argentine styles.
Dry aging, which concentrates flavor intensely, is also getting scarcer. The tradition nobly carries on at Porter House and Smith & Wollensky, but The Palm — a name synonymous with the rough-hewn New York steakhouse — now offers only a single dry-aged cut.
Lots of menus say “prime,” which can mean almost anything. And, what does “steakhouse” mean? To a sentimental slob like me, real ones are each one-of-a-kind and steeped in early 20th-century atmosphere, no matter their age.
Porter House at Time Warner Center is a mere 6 years old, but its Central Park and Fifth Avenue skyline view make it uniquely and, indelibly, New York. Although they vary wildly in quality and age, my list also includes Peter Luger, Keens, Sparks, Strip House, Bull & Bear and Gallagher’s.
I had a swell time the other night at Minetta Tavern. Great drinks, great burger, great swordfish. But Minetta, anointed by the Times as “the city’s best steakhouse,” offers only three steak choices among 14 entrees.
Best hamburger house is more like it, thanks to Minetta’s great Black Label number, an irresistible grind of rib-eye, skirt steak and brisket (and clarified butter). But — call me a heretic — I found bone-in New York strip steak moisture-deprived and short on flavor.
What about Abe & Arthur’s and the STKs? They’re club clones with DJs, party vibes and clientele of young women who mostly wash down booze with fussy salads and fish.
Porter House executive chef Michael Lomonaco said 70 percent of his customers order the “big” steaks, even though the menu boasts excellent other choices. But at the ear-splitting STKs and at Marble Lane in the Dream Downtown Hotel, I saw more salads than steaks on tables.
Then there are the chains — not only national ones. Steakhouses native to the city and nearby are proliferating like Starbucks. Manhattan has five Bobby Van’s, four Wolfgang’s, four Palms, two Ben & Jack’s and a Ben & Jack’s clone, Empire Steakhouse, from the same family of owners.
Wolfgang’s and Ben & Jack’s model their porterhouse, and their menus, on Peter Luger’s. Not only that, each restaurant in its respective group is designed to look, feel and smell exactly like the others.
So much for rugged individualism — and for the days when just being in a steakhouse seemed special. Ben Benson’s, we hardly knew ye.