We tend to think of eating steaks in New York as a wildly expensive pursuit. Spend an hour or two barely chewing in Peter Luger, Keen's, or the Old Homestead and, all in, you're likely to drop a C-note or more on a porterhouse, filet mignon, or New York strip. Even in bistros, the steaks are invariably at the upper reaches of the menu's price range. But it wasn't always that way.
From the city's earliest days, the beefsteak was a menu option that didn't have to cost an arm and a leg, and even the lowliest lunch counter or chophouse offered it. This was not the well-marbled prime beef we covet today — if any aging was done it happened accidentally in the ice box or refrigerator. And instead of the funky, dry-aged flavor we currently crave, the taste was all blood and minerals, the fat was more like gristle, and, thin as it was, the steak required a bit of sawing to dismantle.
No matter, working-class plebes and low-end business travelers loved these steaks, and an entire restaurant category stood ready to serve them at budget prices. Twenty-five years ago the Tad's Steaks chain was a primary proponent of this sort of rough-and-tumble steak consumption, and bestrode the city's dining scene like a colossus. There were dolled-up branches at Union Square right near the Palladium, on 34th Street wedged between Macy's and Penn Station, and there were two bookending Times Square right in the thick of things, one on 42nd Street and the other at Seventh Avenue and 50th Street. At one time there were eight in the city, plus a kiosk at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, for a grand total of 28 spread across the country.
According to a 2000 New York Times obituary of its originator, Donald Townsend, who died at the age of 91, the chain was founded here in 1957, named after Townsend's partner Alan Tadeus Kay, who expired soon thereafter. The two, along with Townsend's brother Neal, maintained an office above the original Times Square location on 42nd Street, and debuted branches in San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Detroit. The San Francisco one is still open. Via the chain, Townsend tried to glamorize the working-class steak. He outfitted his restaurants with fake Tiffany lamps and flocked red wallpaper embossed with an ornate "T" logo. The grilling over gas flame was done in the front window as the customers waited in line, gawking at what the founder waggishly referred to as a "steak show." The original price of the cheapest steak dinner was $1.09.
Now, sadly, only one of the branches still exists in the city, the Seventh Avenue Times Square restaurant, founded in 1960. As a minor minion of the Riese Restaurants empire, which also owns KFC, TGI Fridays, Tim Hortons, and Nathan's franchises, the place barely limps along. Soon, this last example of New York's budget steak industry is likely to be kaput. I went for one last time to experience this bit of New York restaurant history — and then went twice more in quick succession.
Gone was the flocked wallpaper, but the interior was still relentlessly red, and plastic Tiffany lampshades still hung over the tables. In front, a guy in a red baseball cap and blood-smudged white apron cooked steaks to order with admirable swagger, pulling the meat from a series of refrigerated metal meat drawers with a long-handled fork. "How do you want your steak?" he asks, and then gets pretty close to the desired doneness. Do you dare eat a steak like this rare?
Advertised in the front window is the special steak dinner that was once $1.09, now priced at $8.69. That buys you a "cowboy steak" (a gnarly little sirloin), a baked potato or mashed potatoes, tossed salad with your choice of eight bottled dressings, and — perhaps best of all — a giant slice of "Texas toast," half of a demi-baguette that's been split longitudinally, griddle-toasted, and brushed with garlic-scented fat of uncertain provenance. He pokes and prods your steak on the flame-shooting grill as it cooks, flipping it deftly, while watching perhaps a dozen other people's steaks at the same time. Finally, the chef assembles your meal on a red tray, and sluices everything with meat juices from a metal tub. He asks if you want sautéed onions, but be forewarned they cost an additional 75 cents. Upselling might have been invented here.
[A glass of Merlot]
When you've pushed your tray past the desserts, plastic-wrapped glasses of red and white wine, and stemware filled with Jell-O, you reach the pay station where the salad is given out. The clerk will ask you if you want tomatoes on your salad without telling you they cost 95 additional cents. When I reached my table, I had to do a lot of sawing to cut off pieces of my cowboy steak, but the flavor was smoky and rich, with the fatty parts much easier to chew.
[The pork chops]
When I lived in the East Village and went to Tad's near Union Square on my way to see The Clash at the Palladium, there was a choice of a half-dozen steaks, with a rotisserie chicken as the only non-beef entrée. Nowadays, Tad's has suffered a certain menu sprawl, such that things like salmon filet, chicken Caesar, fried shrimp, barbecued ribs, and steak salad are also offered; needless to say, you should skip all of these. The steak list has ballooned to approximately 12 choices, twice the original number, so you can pay $19.99 for prime rib or $24.99 for a special ribeye, both including the full monte. The prime rib is actually relatively tender and worth eating if you want a surfeit of meat, the ribeye is penuriously thin and only about 30% of it is tender enough to chew. The half chicken is delicious, and a good deal at $11.29, while even better are the pair of pork chops ($12.59), though you'll try in vain to get the meat wrangler to cook them less than well-done.
But really, you go to Tad's Steaks for the whole experience, not for the meat. Though the steaks are edible, and even somewhat savorable, it's the smell of meat smoke in your nostrils, the excitement a child feels when eating in a restaurant for the first time, the decadent thrill of the garishly over-decorated dining room, and the thought that you're eating like your grandfather might have done that might bring you back. You're the extra in a Broadway steak show, and the appeal of that grease-sodden Texas toast is undeniable.
761 7th Ave., Midtown
· All Coverage of The Five Days of Meat [~ENY~]