A Night at Smith & Wollensky, NYC’s Best Old-School Steakhouse
Everybody is welcome at the relatively young Manhattan classic, but you need to put in years of work to be a regular
When you live in New York long enough, there are two food-related questions you tend to get asked more than others. Sometimes you’ll get a curveball, like somebody who really wants to try a chopped cheese or an authentic red sauce place where a low-level member of the Sopranos gang could walk through the door at any moment. But most of the time, they’ll ask where they can get a great slice of pizza and maybe, if they’re feeling like capturing some sort of old-school, big-baller NYC feel, they’ll ask where to eat a great steak.
For the pizza, I’ve always had an un-answer of “I don’t know. Any slice does the trick, really. It’s not supposed to be good — it’s supposed to do the trick.” And then I’ll rattle off a guide to my favorite slices in certain parts of the city. For steak, the person will always say they want to try Peter Luger, and I’ll concede that, yeah, that’s fine. Keens, also. It’s cool, I’ll say through my teeth.
The fact of the matter is that, like a porterhouse you leave out a little too long after cooking it, I’ve grown lukewarm to the New York City steakhouse. To me, it’s more of an experience than anything. There are a few places that are trying and succeeding with new things, like Quality Eats in the West Village. But for the most part, a visit to Peter Luger is fine, at best. You’ll usually sit by a table full of guys with too much money to spend on a wine that even the person with the slightest bit of Internet-learned knowledge will know doesn’t pair well with a hearty cut of beef. You’ll be surrounded by people from out of town who read some “101 Places Where You Must Eat” guide, so it just doesn’t feel like a real New York City experience anymore. And when talking about a certain legendary chop house that I won’t mention here (but maybe I already mentioned at some point in this article …), the food can be downright mediocre.
Which is where Smith & Wollensky comes in. It’s the steakhouse that tends to get overlooked when talking about where to get a filet mignon and a martini in Manhattan. I’m convinced it doesn’t get spoken of with the same reverence as Luger or Keens only because it’s — gasp! — not even 50 years old, whereas other institutions passed the century mark some time ago. The fact of the matter is, Smith & Wollensky is the best steakhouse in New York. And if you can be the best steakhouse here, you can really be the best steakhouse anywhere.
Smith & Wollensky was born in the late-1970s, a time that, in the last few years, has become revered among a certain crowd, myself included. You could spend a night out and maybe bump into George Plimpton having drinks with some Pulitzer winners, then go somewhere else and see Richard Hell looking cool or Patti Smith reading poetry. Mudd Club, CBGB, Elaine’s, Woody Allen movies before Woody Allen was excommunicated … the time and place that Smith & Wollensky comes out of just has this enduring, effortless sense of cool. And it kept going: In the ’80s it was where Patrick Bateman ate after doing all sort of horrible things in American Psycho and it’s the steakhouse Meryl Streep’s Anna Wintour stand-in wants her steak from before the place is even open.
It is a very Manhattan steakhouse, complete with all the movie and literary connections, famous patrons, wild stories and cholesterol-raising fare you could wish for. But it’s also the perfect sort of place where you can go once — hell, even 10 — times, and you’ll be treated great by any of the servers, who wear stars on their white jackets that indicate how long they’ve been working there. But it takes a lot more than that to get in. That is, Smith & Wollensky feels like a steakhouse should feel like: a club, not a tourist trap.
Our server cracks jokes and makes suggestions, but the server at the table next to us, dealing with the table of guys that got off from their gig in either finance or law, has his hand on one of their backs, talking about the New York Giants, even though the team isn’t really going anywhere fast. It’s a friendly conversation, one that flows like one of those roundtable shows where a couple of people sit around just shooting the shit.
You might not be a regular (yet), but the experience you have with your meal won’t suffer. Besides the overall feel of the place, the energy that sets Smith & Wollensky apart from other steakhouses is that it delivers every single time on what it’s supposed to do best: steak. My table of four orders three steaks: the pink and bloody prime rib, the rib eye and the Cajun rib steak that, in my humble opinion, is the star of the show. To some that sounds like sacrilege, saying you should go to a Manhattan steakhouse and order a spicy cut of beef you might get in Texas and Louisiana. But there is something perfect to me about a piece of beef that is seasoned just enough. I don’t want a steak I need to put anything on, but am also not against dipping it in a little steak sauce for a little extra kick; the rib steak takes all the guesswork out of that. It stood out amongst the crowded field of world-class beef we had on our table.
Here’s the thing I will say against being a regular at a place like Smith & Wollensky: making it a special occasion place means you can go pretty crazy. After our martinis, we had a bottle of Cab that, I feel awful, but I don’t remember the name of. That is the power of gin and meat. You forget some details; they’re drowned out by the fleeting moments you have enjoying the steak, of forking a small piece along with a hash brown or some of the creamed spinach. That’s sort of the point of a place like Smith & Wollensky — and any steakhouse, really. You’re supposed to enjoy every moment of it. It’s not something you have to do, as some food guides might tell you about New York steakhouses. It’s something you have to experience.
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