The Thrill of a Great Steak House Isn’t the Food. It’s the Theater.

I love the theater of the steakhouse — the kind that has been open for 50 years and counting, rarely changes its interior design or branding and may or may not adhere to a stodgy dress code (no denim or open-toed shoes!). I mean steakhouses like House of Prime Rib in San Francisco, Hal’s in Atlanta and Bern’s in Tampa, Fla. Inside these classic, old-school steakhouses, I love the way the server asks if you want your salad made “tableside,” if you’d like to see your cut of meat before you order it and if you’d like to tour the kitchen after your dinner. Every great American city has one; really great American cities have at least two or three.

This kind of steakhouse revels in dinner theater. In House of Prime Rib, for instance, a chef in a tall, pleated paper hat pushes a steel cart stocked with the finest cuts of beef around the restaurant as if he were manning a float in a parade. He stops so the patrons can fawn over the meat, and then dramatically carves the cut with an oversize blade.

While each of these classic restaurants-turned-monuments are unique, the interiors are commonly unreal depictions of real places. In Bern’s, there is an entire room with a panoramic bird’s-eye view of the Rhone Valley. At other restaurants you might find oil paintings of idealized American prairies or plaster facades of European estates that only ever existed in someone’s mind. These steakhouses envelop you in red velvet, patterned carpets, thick drapery, taxidermy, dark wood, busts of dead white men and other furnishings that are meant to communicate luxury but are actually dated and out of vogue. Most often these steakhouses feel chaotically collaged in the fashion of McMansions, mixing design elements from disparate centuries and geographies, but in this context such chaos feels warm and genuine.

In the steakhouse, employees hone the art of performance. There are crisp white linens, the overattentive server, the small comb-size steel blade that said server periodically drags over the tablecloth to decrumb the crumbs that may or may not exist. The presence of the crumbs is not important: It is the act of the decrumbing, the blade’s being scraped over the table, a routine that anyone with sanity would never perform within the theater of their own home, that matters. I find the decrumbing embarrassing, proof of my slovenly nature — there are always so many crumbs to scrape off my side of the table — but many steakhouse patrons revel in it. I see them pulling themselves back from the table, watching the servers decrumb their tablecloths as if they were gods.

Steakhouses are places where nonfancy people go to do something fancy — to turn birthdays, anniversaries, job promotions and graduations into regal celebrations. In this theater of “the occasion,” you feel that people planned what they are wearing. In many steakhouses, an honest-to-God photographer walks over to you. “Would you like your picture taken?” the photographer asks. Of course we’d like our picture taken. It’s an occasion!

Back to top button