Last week’s “geohistory” post was, admittedly, a little heavy, though with all that’s been happening lately I felt it was good to get it out there. This week I’m going to go a little lighter–and tastier–by using my signature technique of presenting history through geographic places to tell the story of a great American culinary and cultural tradition: the steak house.
On the surface of it you might think there’s nothing particularly noteworthy or historically significant about a certain kind of restaurant that we take for granted. But, I’m not talking about just any restaurant where steaks and other carnivorous delicacies are a mainstay, but the culturally distinctive brand of steak houses that developed particularly in the middle of the 20th century and which are, with some fortunately wonderful exceptions, mostly gone now, in favor of big chain restaurants like Outback which imitate their gestalt. As it turns out the history of these places is quite amazing in itself, which you’ll see as we dig in.
All geolocations linked here are clickable and will bring up the locale on Google Maps; in many cases there are interior photospheres or street views. The geohistory technique is, for the record, the basis of my classes and webinars.
Keens Steakhouse, New York City
Coordinates: 40.7508, -73.98656
Restaurants featuring meaty cuts have existed since Colonial times, but the kind of restaurant I’m focusing on in this article has its roots in the late 19th century. Keens, at 72 West 36th Street, was founded in 1885 in what was then the theater district. Look at the image above–a party scene like this is rare on Google Maps–or better yet click the geolocation and tilt the 360 panorama upwards. Those strange stick-like things on the ceiling are clay pipes, which are quite fragile. In its early days Keens offered patrons the opportunity to store their pipes at the restaurant to avoid breaking them. Since then, hundreds of pipes belonging to famous people have found their way into Keens’s collection, including the smoke stuff of Albert Einstein, J.P. Morgan and Douglas MacArthur, who more famously smoked a corncob. But the pipes are just the gimmick. Keens’s reputation is built on its wonderful food.
Keens is a great American steak house, and is relevant to the cultural story of American steak restaurants, but it’s still more of a forerunner than an exemplar. A place with this specific kind of historical and cultural reputation probably couldn’t exist outside of Manhattan. The true Americanness of the steak house is better represented by moving farther inland, which we do in the next example.
St. Elmo Steakhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
Coordinates: 39.764817, -86.159645
St. Elmo, named for the patron saint of sailors, was founded in 1902 by Joe Stahr and has changed little in over a century of operation. The cultural trappings of the 20th century American steak house are all on display here. It’s a very masculine space, suggesting, as it has been through its history, that it’s a congregation space for professional men of wealth and influence who might conduct business over dinner–an image projected by many examples on this list. The image of wealth is a key factor. In the early 20th century, before the widespread use of refrigerated rail cars made shipping beef around the country a going concern, steak was a luxury item that could be found usually in close proximity to where cattle were raised or slaughtered. Increasingly, though, you could find restaurants like these near where stockyards and railroad terminals converged. Indeed, St. Elmo is two blocks from what was once Indianapolis’s central train station.
Steak houses can’t be understood without appreciating the role of the railroads in their creation. Steak houses are as much about the transportation business as they are about the restaurant business. Find a great American steak house from the early or mid-20th century, and chances are very good that you’ll find both a stockyard and a rail terminal nearby. This is especially true in Midwestern locations.
Gorat’s Steak House, Omaha, Nebraska
Coordinates: 41.2413, -95.9886
Gorat’s, located at 4917 Center Street in Omaha, is perhaps most famous today as billionaire Warren Buffett’s favorite restaurant. However, it’s linked to much more interesting history than that. Gorat’s was founded in 1944 by Louis and Nettie Gorat and, as you can see from the street view, its architecture is painfully and precisely mid-century. While I don’t know for sure the ethnic background of the Gorats, I suspect they were Italian. It was certainly true in Omaha, and many other Midwestern cities, that the most prominent steak houses were established and run by Italian families. Indeed, the line between steak houses and more “traditional” Italian restaurants is extremely blurry. Gorat’s serves Italian dishes, as do many of the great steak houses. And the addition of Buffett and his well-moneyed friends is no accident: as with the St. Elmo example, Gorat’s is a steak house that built its reputation as being a power and influence center.
The culinary history of Omaha, and especially the story of Italian-Americans in that history, is fascinating. Another Italian-American family, the Lorellos, operated for decades the now-defunct institution of Ross’s Steak House, formerly at 909 South 72nd Street, which had on its pylon sign an immense illuminated cow’s head which was an Omaha landmark. There’s a great blog article, now several years old, about the history of these places and the families who owned them, here. Most of them, including Ross’s, are gone now, and the ones that remain are usually owned by corporations. Gorat’s is one of the few survivors that’s still family-operated. The food is said to be outstanding.
Bern’s Steak House, Tampa, Florida
Coordinates: 27.931389, -82.482778
Bern’s of Tampa, established in 1956, in a way set the mold, at least in terms of design, for the great American steak houses of its period and later decades. Look at this view of the interior, with all its dark wood, soft lighting and semi-private cubicles. This was exactly the look that commercial restaurant chains, like Stuart Anderson’s Black Angus (founded in 1964), tried to copy. Bern’s, however, is the real deal. It is still family-owned, and it caters to the rich and powerful. President George W. Bush is said to have eaten here twice during his presidency.
Bern’s is known as much for its wine as its steaks. At 600,000 bottles, it is believed to possess the largest wine cellar in the United States.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch, Amarillo, Texas
Coordinates: 35.194055, -101.754448
It’s inevitable that Texas would make an outsized contribution to the history of great American steak houses. As you might expect, everything about The Big Texan Steak Ranch is gargantuan. Its dining room, its portions, its menu, and especially its tradition, copied by many steak restaurants, of offering a free 72-ounce steak to anyone who can eat it all in one hour. The challenge began in 1960 shortly after the restaurant’s founding. There are some strings attached: the meal costs $72 and you have to pay in advance, with your bill being refunded if you actually complete the gluttonous task. To date, only about 15% of the attempts are successful.
The Big Texan represents the history of its era in less flashy ways. Founded in the post-World War II rush of consumer optimism powered by fossil fuels, it’s no coincidence that it originally sat along Route 66, America’s most important highway in the second half of the 20th century. It opened in its present location in 1977 after a disastrous fire destroyed the previous building. The Old West kitsch, trading heavily on the themes and images of the American frontier distilled from 20th century pop culture, is a trademark of the place. It’s impossible to separate places like the Big Texan from the cultural history of America in this period.
Sparks Steak House, New York City
Coordinates: 40.752986, -73.972064
As Midwestern and Southern as many of the great steak houses are, a disproportionate number are still located in New York City, especially Manhattan. Sparks, established in 1966 by (again) a family of Italian-Americans, has a historical reputation that goes beyond its role in the story of American food. Outside this restaurant, in fact on the very spot where this photosphere was taken, on December 16, 1985, mafia kingpin Paul Castellano was caught in a hail of gunfire as he approached the restaurant to meet with some other hoods. The hit was ordered by John Gotti, and it propelled him to leadership of the Gambino crime family which he ran ruthlessly and bloodily until the feds caught up with him in 1992.
Still owned today by the family that founded it, Sparks is known for its fine food and excellent reputation as one of New York’s best restaurants. This reputation probably has as much to do with the cultural image and history of American steak houses–places of exceptional food, where powerful people come to eat–as it does with what’s on the menu.
Although these wonderful restaurants showcased here are still going strong and will probably exist long into the future, one can argue that the heyday of the mid-century American steak house is now over. Steak isn’t the luxury item today that it was in 1900 or 1950, though it may become so again in the era of climate change. The corporate imitation of the great American steak house–the execrable Sizzler being among the worst examples–presents the image of the phenomenon without any of the cultural or historical substance. These restaurants aren’t really about steak. They’re about something more primal in our national character. And they do serve some awesome food.