by Dennis Ray Wheaton
I come from a long line of Oklahoma beef eaters, people for whom a good bloody piece of meat was less a luxury and more a God-given right. But discerning beef loyalists like me are under fire these days. Prime steak is an environmentally suspicious luxury item, one that my vegetarian friends view with the scorn of a Prius owner staring down a Hummer driver.
Corn prices are going haywire around the world, and taking the price of corn-fed prime beef along for the ride. The last time I did a steak-house roundup, in 2000, prime steaks cost somewhere in the mid-$30s; now it's the $40s, $50s, and beyond. Yet prosperous chains like Morton's
continue to multiply, and downtown standouts keep expanding to the suburbs. Why? It's tempting to say something flippant about the rich getting richer, but the answer may be even more obvious: When Americans splurge in a down economy, they're not up for the mental gymnastics of a cutting-edge chef who serves Parmesan frozen air. For better or worse, they want the indulgent, uncomplicated glory of prime steaks.
Another reason: Steak houses have joined the new millennium. Used to be they all had the same menu, and you could order without opening the thing: shrimp cocktail, wedge salad with blue cheese dressing, and either filet mignon, a porterhouse, a T-bone, or a New York strip. Throw in a baked potato or creamed spinach and cheesecake to top it off, and that was the whole show. Now, led by Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak in Manhattan and Wolfgang Puck's Cut in Beverly Hills, we've got "New American" steak houses popping up from top chefs all over the country. Their interiors are glam, their steak options extensive, their extras creative. Locally, Keefer's and David Burke's Primehouse in River North and Tramonto's Steak & Seafood in Wheeling have the contemporary style down pat. And everyone has eased up on the relentless porterhouse pushing that once dominated Chicago steak houses; in 2008, the rib eye and the bone-in Kansas City strip, with their superior flavor, are king.
You can keep your Kobe. For my money, American prime—whether served in a trendy spot, a chain, an indie, or an old-school bastion grudgingly allowing itself to be dragged into the future—is the world standard. Here are the 20 best places nearby to find it.
THE CAPITAL GRILLE
633 N. St. Clair St.; 312-337-9400
(also in Lombard; see Index)
I'm as confused as hell. This posh steak house is so into dry-aging its beef that they do it in the kitchen and for all to see in the glassed-in locker up front. So why's my waiter saying they don't dry-age the rib eyes—they wet-age them—"because they have a lot of fat on them already"? Rib eyes are perfect for dry-aging precisely because of their fat. Fine. I'll stick with Capital Grille's dry-aged 24-ounce porterhouse ($43) and 14-ounce sirloin (New York strip, $38), adorned only with salt and pepper and served au jus, along with peppery watercress. Both come flawlessly broiled and share terrific flavor, texture, and appearance, and they've got an ideal sidekick on the menu: the panko-and-chive-crusted Vidalia onion rings. Appetizers are ridiculously overpriced, but a pair of lobster crab cakes with fresh corn relish are almost worth the $17. As for the rib eye, CG's management reiterated the waiter's wet-aged claim, to which I say: Sacrilege.
Best Wine Bet 2004 Col d'Orcia, Rosso di Montalcino, Tuscany, Italy ($45)
THE CHICAGO CHOP HOUSE
60 W. Ontario St.; 312-787-7100
In 2000 I rated the Chop House the best in the city, but they were dry-aging their steaks back then, and I thought they had more depth of flavor. Now the beautiful, thick broiled steaks are wet-aged, and they taste a tad bland in comparison. But if you like your steaks as simple as possible, these are for you: no seasoning, light char, just a little jus. The boneless 24-ounce New York strip ($48) still reigns supreme, and the jumbo shrimp cocktail is still one of the city's best, but the gummy, almost-burned crab cakes were awful. No matter; I will always love the expert service and multifloor dining rooms at this century-old brownstone. The walls are plastered with photos of Chicago historical greats—mayors and capitalists and mafiosi alike—all looking as though they owned the town. I look forward to the Chop House owning the town again.
Best Wine Bet 2002 Martínez Bujanda, Conde de Valdemar Reserva, Rioja, Spain ($39)
1401 S. Michigan Ave.; 312-786-1401
You've got to love a restaurant with actual poles where you're not expected to slip a Jackson into someone's G-string. This handsome 103-year-old landmark building was a real firehouse, which is fitting, because someone in the kitchen really brings the heat. The prime beef gets marinated briefly in oil and herbs; then it's exquisitely grilled and garnished with puffy onion rings. Do yourself a favor and compare the dry- and wet-aged beef: Tell your companion to get the 16-ounce dry-aged boneless rib eye ($39), and snag the 22-ounce wet-aged porterhouse ($45) for yourself. Both are terrific. Strangely, the porterhouse, with all its density and beefy minerality, almost tastes dry-aged, too. We began with a lovely seafood salad ($14) chock-full of shrimp, calamari, and crabmeat to enjoy with a wonderful martini made with our homegrown North Shore Gin No. 6. Primed my pump nicely.
Best Wine Bet 2006 Kendall-Jackson Edmeades Estate, Zinfandel, Mendocino County, California ($48)
DAVID BURKE'S PRIMEHOUSE
The James Chicago, 616 N. Rush St.; 312-660-6000
It's only two years old, but the lore of this modern steak house is already common knowledge: Burke's $250,000 stud Black Angus bull living the good life in Kentucky; the Himalayan-salt-tiled cellar; an aging process so extreme it eclipses some military campaigns in length. Oh, and the restaurant is pretty good. In fact, the magnificent 20-ounce bone-in rib eye, aged 55 days in that cellar and seasoned with salt and pepper, is the best dry-aged steak in Chicago ($59). I ordered it rare, and every dense-yet-tender bite burst with concentrated beefy flavor. The menu's "Reserve Cuts" section also features a 35-day-aged Kansas City bone-in sirloin (20 ounces; $48) and two more 20-ounce bone-in rib eyes, one aged 40 days ($51), another for 75 days ($67). That last one isn't available all the time, and its flavor, bordering on what the British politely call "high," pushed my limits. In addition to your rib eye, eat every crumb of the delicious eggy popover that Burke's favors instead of bread, get yourself a side of broccoli with red onion and feta, and call it a day.
Best Wine Bet 2004 Pago Florentino, tempranillo, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain ($42)
536 W. Erie St.; 312-266-2300
I don't know whose Rolls-Royce that is out front, but this clubby space boasts a heritage as well bred as its beef. Everyone knows the four Lenzi family owners are related to Gene & Georgetti's founder Gene Michelotti, and for years there's been some kind of grudge match between the two restaurants. We wouldn't dream of taking sides, so we'll just say that we love Erie's big walk-in basement cooler that dry-ages the prime steaks for 21 days. The big T-bones ($42.50) and bone-in strip steaks ($39.50) have the right firm texture and concentrated flavor, unadorned by any seasoning. But whoever cut that strip needs to lay off the caffeine. It was so much thinner on one side than the other that it came with its own split personality: medium rare here, medium there. Cottage fries or baked potatoes—plus an iceberg lettuce salad—accompany the steaks, making the prices easy to swallow.
Best Wine Bet 2006 Catena, malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($46)
FULTON'S ON THE RIVER
315 N. LaSalle St.; 312-822-0100
Amid a compelling seafood lineup, the prime steaks have to muscle in to get attention at this bustling riverside charmer. I generally open with surf—starters of fine oysters, pastrami-smoked salmon, crab cakes, or shrimp and corn chowder—then move on to turf, especially the lightly seasoned 24-ounce porterhouse (market price; ours was $47). It's a fine wet-aged Chicago steak, if you can stomach the whopping price. (Maybe you're paying for that accompanying head of roasted garlic. Nice touch.) Add a side of jumbo Tater Tots—crisp, browned shredded potato balls; they're an absolute must. The chef, Rick DeLeon, reportedly took years to get the banana cream pie just the way he wanted it, and that persistence paid off: His thick peanut-butter-cookie crust boasts a superrich house-made whipped cream top and shelters terrific banana cream filling. That's prime pie.
Best Wine Bet 2006 Peterson, Zero Manipulation, carignane blend, Mendocino County, California ($40)
GENE & GEORGETTI
500 N. Franklin St.; 312-527-3718
If the walls of this 67-year-old steak house could talk, they'd probably grumble at you, like G & G's famously gruff waiters. But then they'd tell you priceless tales about three generations of Chicago political shenanigans, kings crowned and dethroned over wet-aged T-bones and stiff drinks. The steaks, after 28 days in a vacuum-sealed bag, get a royal escort into an 1,100-degree Vulcan broiler and come out with a serious crust. They're served with salad and cottage fries—a massive pile of potato slices that vary from deeply browned and crusty to soft and white. The T-bone ($43.75), really a porterhouse with a telltale generous filet side (the hallmark of the porterhouse cut), is simply the best wet-aged steak in the city, but the strip loin (New York strip; $39.75) is a close second. These steaks, served unseasoned, confirm my theory that heavy, heavy charring draws out the bloody flavor and enhances the beefiness of prime wet-aged steaks. They are magnificent.
Best Wine Bet 2007 Cline Cellars, Ancient Vines zinfandel, Contra Costa County, California ($35)
1028 N. Rush St.; 312-266-8999
(also in Rosemont; see Index)
The sports stars. The fat-cat politicos. The pinkie-ring demographic and the cleavage that invariably follows. Yes, Gibsons is as always. The name alone makes me salivate for a big ice-cold Gibson with cocktail onions, which is reliably wonderful. Not so the meat, however; through the years, I have been disappointed by so many over- and undercooked steaks here that I felt a little gun-shy this time around. From the waiter's naked-meat platter, I gingerly chose the $41.50 "WR Chicago Cut," a handsome 20- to 22-ounce bone-in rib eye named for the Chicago food writer William Rice; my wife went for the 24-ounce bone-in sirloin (really a New York strip; $44.50). To my delight both arrived modestly seasoned and lightly charred, with a texture and flavor just right for wet-aged beef; and, best of all, each was perfectly medium rare. Next time, I'll skip the obscenely large desserts and just split a tender baked sweet potato accompanied by brown sugar. That's all you really need.
Best Wine Bet 2003 Markham, cabernet sauvignon, Napa Valley, California ($53)
THE GRILL ON THE ALLEY
Westin Hotel, 909 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-255-9009
This forgotten Mag Mile outpost doesn't have the same cachet as the original Grill in Beverly Hills, actually located a few steps into an alley off Rodeo Drive, but who needs celebs when the steaks are this good? The place is plenty swank, and the charbroiled 18-ounce New York strip ($39.50)—juicy, wet-aged, nicely marbled—is eye candy enough for this writer. Even more marbled, and more flavorful: the 18-ounce boneless rib eye ($40). Go light on the included sides and order straightforward steamed carrots and rich creamed chopped spinach. And if your waiter is the Düsseldorf-accented dude with a high shock of white hair, get him to regale you about the creaky old starlets he's met, including Hedy Lamarr and a "sweet" Shelley Winters—he's worth the price of admission. Hey, it ain't Scarlett Johansson, but it's something.
Best Wine Bet 2005 Francis Ford Coppola, Director's Cut zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, California ($45)
HARRY CARAY'S ITALIAN STEAKHOUSE
33 W. Kinzie St.; 312-828-0966
(also in Rosemont and Lombard; see Index)
Who knows where the Cubs will be when you read this, but don't you wish Harry were still around? He'd be having a blast, like everyone else at his namesake restaurant. Lift a Bud for the home team at the Friendly Confines; then kick in with superb fried calamari or an excellent jumbo lump crab cake while the kitchen broils your 18-ounce dry-aged bone-in rib eye ($46) or your 20-ounce wet-aged Kansas City strip ($44). We're talking thick, well-marbled cuts, seasoned with Lawry's salt and lightly charred. The strip hits a double, the rib eye a triple. And if you can get out of this eternal hot spot without ordering the baseball—a massive white-chocolate-encrusted sphere of dark chocolate mousse with red seams—you're stronger than I am.
Best Wine Bet 2003 Terre Rouge, Les Côtes de l'Ouest syrah, Amador County, California ($34)
JOE'S SEAFOOD, PRIME STEAK & STONE CRAB
60 E. Grand Ave.; 312-379-5637
More than just a gussied-up crab shack slinging prime on the side, Joe's is so dedicated to meat, too, that it originated its own steak: a one-pound wet-aged bone-in filet mignon ($46). Seems Joe's chefs worked with Stock Yards Packing Company in West Town to create the cut back in 2000. Very little filet mignon is technically graded prime, but this one is, and with its rounded bone to match the shape of the filet and add flavor, it's a great compromise between the melting tenderness of a filet and the rich taste of other prime cuts. However you order it, it's a rare filet, and every bit as good as Joe's famous Florida stone crabs.
Best Wine Bet 2004 Domaine Raspail-Ay, Gigondas, Rhône, France ($52)
20 W. Kinzie St.; 312-467-9525
When you get your menu at Keefer's, close your eyes. Then point to a steak and order it. Doesn't matter which one: The New York strip ($44), bone-in Kansas City strip ($45), porterhouse ($50), and the bone-in rib eye ($47) are all wet-aged for 21 days, and all are first-rate. The French-trained chef, John Hogan, made his mark at Kiki's Bistro and Savarin, and he's got talent to burn at this sleek, modern spot—just look at the creative extras, offerings you don't expect to find on steak-house menus. Sure, there's an impeccable jumbo shrimp cocktail, but it doesn't compare to the grilled calamari, cut into thin tender rounds and served with teardrop tomato confit and baby arugula with balsamic vinaigrette. Forget the humdrum au gratin potatoes and pair your steak with braised Belgian endive with Parmesan-Swiss cheese sauce or "Hogan's peas," a casserole with baby onions, lardons, and cream sauce.
Best Wine Bet 2007 Doña Paula, malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($35)
MORTON'S, THE STEAKHOUSE
Newberry Plaza, 1050 N. State St.; 312-266-4820
(plus six other locations; see Index)
It would be easy to identify this original link in the worldwide chain simply as Where It All Began, but to do so would undersell this restaurant. The Gold Coast Morton's is no nostalgia trip—it's still a damn good steak house. Sure, it's comforting to see the ever-present metal pig candleholder and dig into familiar warm onion bread and a plate of smoked Pacific salmon. And, OK, the waiters still do the same scripted show-and-tell with the cart of raw steaks and claw-waving lobster. But come on. Any spot that takes Midwestern grain-fed beef, wet-ages it, broils it at an awesome 1,800 degrees to a proper char, and consistently turns out a fine 24-ounce porterhouse, New York strip, or bone-in rib eye ($47.50 to $48.50) every night after 30 years has got something special. Even the raspberry soufflé is exceptional. The rest of the world has caught up with Morton's, but few have surpassed it.
Best Wine Bet 2001 Kunde Estate, Zinfandel, Sonoma Valley, California ($49)
Swissôtel Chicago, 323 E. Wacker Dr.; 312-616-1000
Give me a Manhattan made with Knob Creek Bourbon. A good one, a bad one, I don't care. Anything to help me tune out the walls plastered with passé celebrities at this local outpost of the eight-decades-old New York-based chain. Give me the East Coast Gigi salad ($10.50) generously outfitted with shrimp, bacon, and vegetables, rather than a split and broiled three-pound Nova Scotia lobster ($70.50) so dry and scorched, I suspect it survived that little blaze in 1871. The raison d'être here was, is, and always will be the prime 20-ounce bone-in New York strip, its medium rare interior dressed in a nice char to seal in the dry-aged flavor. It's not on the menu; ask your server for it or call ahead. Either way, stick to The Palm's top-notch beef—and pray for a makeover of the room.
Best Wine Bet 2006 Palazzo della Torre, Allegrini Valpolicella Classico Superiore IGT, Veneto, Italy ($45)
1557 Sherman Ave., Evanston; 847-328-0399
(also in Schaumburg and Wheeling; see Index)
Steak, billiards, and live jazz. OK, so Americans did not invent all three, but we sure as hell perfected them. And Evanston's Pete Miller's, a dark-shuttered publike haunt near Northwestern University, gets all three right. After a commendable lobster bisque, slice into Pete's signature cut, a 24-ounce bone-in rib eye ($44) spruced up with the judicious use of Lawry's salt to enhance the prime wet-aged flavor. Steaks come with potatoes—I like the thick frites and buttery roasted reds flecked with rosemary and parsley. If only the kitchen could spare separate plates for the spuds instead of jamming them on the platter with the hefty steaks; every time I dug into my thick seared beef, it was steak frites, corner pocket. Otherwise, things at Pete's are smoother than a Miles Davis solo.
Best Wine Bet 2005 Merryvale, cabernet sauvignon, Napa Valley, California ($48)
192 E. Walton St.; 312-397-1000
Alex Dana has more Rosebuds than an English garden, and I've never been particularly impressed with any of his red-sauce Italian joints, but this little gem is different. First, you don't need a bullhorn to talk to your date. Secondly, the wet-aged prime steaks, served with jus, a respectable caramelized crust, and rosemary sprigs to keep the Italian faith, belong with the big boys in town. If New York strips are your weakness, go for the $42 beaut topped with melting herb butter. Call me a homer, but I prefer the signature "Chicago cut" bone-in rib eye ($45) accompanied by a delicious marrow bone—a treat that tasted as good as the steak. The wedge salad with lots of chunky blue cheese is shareable, as is a side of fresh peas with truffle butter, which represents an elegant change of pace from creamed spinach. My doggy bag came home with the hollow bone to a wildly grateful doggy.
Best Wine Bet 2006 Marquis Philips, shiraz, Australia ($45)
RUTH'S CHRIS STEAK HOUSE
431 N. Dearborn St.; 312-321-2725 (also in Northbrook; opening soon in South Barrington; see Index)
Heard any good prime beef lately? With locations from Cancún to Taichung, this steak-house empire and its audible sizzling buttered plates puts Ruth (and Chris, for that matter) all over the map. Originally based in New Orleans, it still boasts Creole largess, not just in the seafood gumbo starter and the side of pecan-crusted sweet potatoes, but also in the butter drenching the steaks. Don't touch the plates. Trust me: I have, and 500 degrees doesn't tickle. Of course, it's nothing compared with the 1,800-degree blast furnace that the founder, Ruth Fertel, invented to cook her steaks. Despite the blistering heat, the kitchen reliably sends out wet-aged steaks at the requested doneness, even allowing for the moments they "coast" (continue cooking) on the platter. The $48 T-bone is damn near a porterhouse, with a fine, tender "porterhouse-thick" filet side. But you know what? I asked the kitchen to lay off the butter on the $41 New York strip—and I liked it just fine naked.
Best Wine Bet 2005 Greg Norman, shiraz, Australia ($45)
SMITH & WOLLENSKY
318 N. State St.; 312-670-9900
There was always something brazen about this Manhattan-based steak house settling on the Chicago River. Our beloved river colonized by Gothamites! Is nothing sacred? Apparently not—though the cows served at Smith & Wollensky come close. S & W dry-ages its prime steaks on premises and charbroils them at 1,500 degrees, then brushes each one with the bovine's cod fat and gives it a shake of salt and pepper. It surprises me when all the steaks arrive piled together on a hot platter and are plated individually tableside. Is the kitchen so far away that this is how they keep 'em warm? A thick bone-in Kansas City sirloin arrived closer to medium than the requested medium rare; a bone-in rib eye (each $45) went dangerously in the opposite direction. But both cuts were juicy and bursting with mineral tang. Great hash browns and a trio of chocolate crèmes brûlées—milk, dark, and white—made me think Chicago and New York weren't so far apart.
Best Wine Bet 2006 Spellbound, petite sirah, Lodi, California ($56)
TAVERN ON RUSH
1031 N. Rush St.; 312-664-9600
Don't be seduced by the throbbing first-floor singles bar scene; for my purposes, the meat market upstairs is the only one that counts. The dining room up there is also packed and noisy, but nab a white-clothed table overlooking the Rush Street hubbub through French doors, and you'll be happy. The waiter's come-on line involves wet-aged prime steaks, wrapped in plastic and destined to be charcoal grilled and sprinkled with sea salt and pepper. The thick Kansas City strip (a.k.a. bone-in New York strip, $43) sported a slight crust and a deep red center: just right in looks, flavor, and texture. My rib-eye chop arrived a tad overcooked, but extra marbling kept it juicy and tender. Begin your meal by splitting the Bellevue salad ($12), made with lots of rock shrimp, feta, hearts of palm, and avocado, and finish it by avoiding the bar and going home. You're old enough to know better.
Best Wine Bet 2005 Beringer, Knights Valley cabernet sauvignon, California ($45)
TRAMONTO'S STEAK & SEAFOOD
The Westin Chicago North Shore Hotel, 601 N. Milwaukee Ave., Wheeling; 847-777-6575
As if Tru weren't enough of a challenge for Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, they're now splitting their time with this glitzy New American steak house 28 miles northwest. Their showstopper in Wheeling is the frighteningly big tomahawk chop ($80), a 40-ounce dry-aged rib eye for (at least) two. The name comes from the heavy footlong frenched bone protruding from the monster. Cooked at 750 degrees in a hickory- and cherry-wood-burning oven, seasoned with Tramonto's signature salt, toasted black pepper, and maître d'hôtel butter, this heavily marbled steak arrives carved and has the delicious brown-roasted beefy flavor of dry-aged beef at its finest. The rest of the menu is more than lip service, especially a chopped salad made with salumi, blue cheese, avocado, and pine nuts tossed with a sherry vinaigrette dressing and a terrific root beer float starring Gand's homemade root beer. And leave it to Gand to send out mignardises with the bill—not your usual steak-house treatment.
Best Wine Bet 2004 Torre Quarto, Tarabus primitivo, Puglia, Italy ($39)
Photography: Anna Knott