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20 Best Steak Houses

This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of Chicago magazine. For the latest recommendations, read our November 2013 round-up.

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.

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)

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)


Photography: Anna Knott

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