The ground floor of the James smells so strongly of steak—glorious prime dry-aged steak—that you half expect to see the bellboy schlepping porterhouses and T-bones instead of Samsonites. What you sniff more than beef is the aroma of confidence. David Burke’s (which abuts the hotel’s lobby lounge) doesn’t emanate the studied indifference that competitors like Gene & Georgetti perfected years ago. Rather, it exudes the knowledge that the steaks coming out of the kitchen are the finest in Chicago.

In 2013, rib eye is king, and chef Rick Gresh has a menu that features not one but four options. He ages them anywhere from 28 to 75 days in the now-legendary cellar room tiled with Himalayan rock salt. (There’s also a special rib eye aged for 130 days, but according to one waiter, it’s so gamy it barely tastes like beef anymore.) The transcendent 40-day bone-in rib eye ($51) hits the sweet spot like no other steak in town: rich, beautifully marbled, almost nutty. The Kansas City strip, aged 35 days, isn’t far behind, producing a flavor explosion near the bone that can’t be explained by science.

The rest of the experience here is delightfully unexpected. Unconventional sides, such as the indulgent yet light lobster scrambled eggs with caviar and crème fraîche, share space with standards (a wonderful tableside Caesar salad) and irresistible conceits (a warm baked-to-order red velvet cake preceded by batter-dripping beaters).

This colorful reinvention of the steak house—courtesy of Burke’s New York– based restaurant group—seemed like a novelty when it opened in 2006. Now it feels like a template for the future.

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