Once upon a time, in a pre-hoverboard world, Americans fell in love with a personal transport device known as the Hummer, a military-inspired, six-thousand-pound behemoth designed to beat up all the other cars in the Nordstrom parking lot. Then gas prices surged, and societal awareness of climate change skyrocketed. All of a sudden, the truck’s 12 miles per gallon seemed like not such great choice for driving your daughter to move-in at Oberlin. So people stopped buying them, and eventually General Motors stopped making them, instead focusing their attention on what buyers seemed to want: lighter, cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars. And the few Hummers that remained on the streets were revered (sort of) or reviled (hello) as classics (or relics).
I recount this tale because if you were to apply to the New York City steakhouse the same consumer logic that precipitated both the rise and the fall of the Hummer, you should theoretically end up with the same result. Theoretically. Lower beef prices in the gilded aughts fueled an Ozerskian breed of conspicuous carnivore, and restaurateurs indulged that desire with plush steakhouses at every turn.
But beef prices now, like those of gasoline in 2007, are at an all-time high. And while we may rightly still tip our hats to old-time steak-slingers like Peter Luger and Keens, the truth is that we don't need any more steakhouses in New York. At least, we don't need them in the sense that they currently exist: uniform institutions hawking pricey shellfish platters, á la carte sides, over-chilled Caesar salads, and gargantuan cuts of meat.
But steakhouses are not Hummers. And instead of closing, or adapting in any real way to our modern, vegetable-centric culinary scene, they somehow keep on opening, increasing their prices and, occasionally, their portion sizes. And why not? The leather booths are still packed. For now.
This is what makes Quality Eats, a cramped 70-seat space in Greenwich Village, such a vital (if flawed) addition to New York's steakhouse taxonomy. As local meateries push the same strips, ribeyes, and porterhouses — in sizes where "for two" really means "for four," and where a single cote de boeuf can cost as much as, elsewhere, a seven-course tasting menu for two — Quality Eats stakes its claim on eight-ounce cuts that all clock in under thirty bucks.
Consider the restaurant's bavette, or flap steak. It boasts the beefiness of a hanger and packs just a hint more heft than a filet mignon. You may have encountered it at an affordable French bistro, but it's almost never spotted in a steakhouse setting. The importance of this can't be understated: Quality Eats is forcing the modern meat eater outside of her high-flying comfort zone, depriving her of New York strips and Tomahawk chops. And it's making that bump back to cattle class more attractive with a discount, the $19 you'd spend on that bavette would, at Minetta Tavern, barely buy you a beet salad.
Quality Eats is run by Michael Stillman, son of Alan Stillman, the man who opened the first TGI Friday's in 1965 and was the force behind the Smith & Wollensky chain. Stillman fils inherited the family propensity for steakhouses, giving the world Quality Italian (a chophouse that reads like a more corporate Carbone) and Quality Meats, the Midtown restaurant that sells 64-ounce cuts and ice cream by the pint, and which loaned its name (while withholding a key consonant — the M is scratched out in the logo, and conspicuously absent above the restaurant's door) to Stillman's latest endeavor.
It's understandable that Stillman's other restaurants, like so many New York steakhouses, exist in the realm of the jaw-droppingly expensive. Over the last seven years, rising beef costs have morphed the best cuts from an every-week treat to an eye-popping, once-a-month luxury. But all costs are rising, and they're rising for everyone — labor, benefits, real estate, ingredients — and the restaurant industry is adapting. As expense-account tasting-menu spots like Brooklyn Fare and Le Bernardin push their prices further into the stratosphere, a crop of restaurants like Contra, Semilla, and Estela have sprouted up, all hawking more affordable takes on small plates and set menus.
It's smart business. These new-model restaurants are catering to a larger audience. They're not just responding to the most recent downturn; they're preparing for the next one. But, until Quality Eats, there isn't really anyone in New York reimagining the steakhouse in the same way. It's surprising that the genre has shown such intransigence in adapting to the financial straits of aspiring gourmands, in giving anything more than a curtsy toward our (nominally) healthier culinary zeitgeist, or in addressing the disparity between waiter pay and cook pay. (Name a steakhouse in this city that has joined the movement to eliminate tipping, and I'll buy you dinner at Masa.)
But Quality Eats, with its sub-$30 steaks and casual dining room (no white tablecloths here), is speaking to that younger, hipper diner — and yet again, as with singles bars in the ‘60s and high-end steak chains in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Stillman family shows the rest of the city how it's done. The concept certainly seems to be finding its audience: Try to snag a week-ahead reservation for Quality Eats and you'll get, at best, a 10 p.m. booking. Or try walking in, and risk waiting nearly an hour for two seats at the bar to open up. Quality Eats is proof, for now, that it's possible to successfully tweak the steakhouse formula.
Of course, if a restaurant wants to keep menu prices low, something else has got to give. That casual interior's not much to speak of: white walls, painted brick, hard bar seats, padded banquettes that look like any other, and a bar top carved to resemble a set designer's idea of a high-school cafeteria table: "yum," "menu suck," "dope," "sick," "let's get ice cream." (The words and drawings show up again on some of the plates used in service.) And unless you're sitting in the more spacious back room, you'll find it difficult to move about, let alone luxuriate in your seat with a postprandial rum.
The chef, Ryan Bartlow, late of Frankies 570, does a fine job of reimagining steakhouse starters. He piles thick-cut bacon, the classic appetizer, above a swath of peanut butter, turning the smoked pork into a playful but mysterious little dish; a drizzle of jalapeño pepper jelly cuts through the fat, while the peanut amps up its sweet campfire overtones. If Bartlow ever served it on crusty sourdough at lunch, he'll have his cronut.
Beef tartare doesn't reach Wildair levels; it's rather an estimable (if oversalted) essay in using chopped filet as a conduit for pimentón, fish sauce, and gochujang. Shrimp cocktail on ice is a classic effort in court bouillon-poached crustaceans, with miso mayo and ginger soy sauce accompanying the traditional horseradish-laced ketchup. And lump crab, typically served in a chilled chokehold elsewhere, recalls a lunchtime composition from Jean-Georges. Bartlow lays the white flesh atop a green pool of avocado-cilantro-jalapeño puree; he sneaks pink grapefruit segments here and there as well, lending wintry pastel and gentle acidity.
Then a bartender clears your plates for your steaks, which appear 20 minutes after you're finished your starters. Or sometimes the server doesn't remove your dirty dishes until the entrees finally arrive. And then no one clears your mains until you ask for a check, so a server hands you a dessert menu, after which you ask for a check again.
There's the rub. Service, especially at the bar, evokes the type of hospitality experience one might expect from a budget airline, not from a restaurant family with decades of experience purportedly making people happy. Over four visits, I only twice ended up getting everything I ordered. Red wines were consistently too warm. Catching the bartender's eye was a matter of military strategy: one minute he's facing the wall, the next he's checking his phone, the next he's busy eating sunchoke gratin with sriracha.
But let's stick to the larger themes. You're here for red meat, not the lemon charred chicken or Mediterranean branzino. Steaks, sourced from hormone-free, antibiotic-free Brandt and Creekstone cows, are cheap and delicious. Here's the rundown: The flatiron blade is short on flavor but big on chew, not necessarily a bad thing for those who enjoy a bit of umami-rich mastication. The skirt steak boasts a hint more flavor and tenderness than the flatiron, while the hanger exudes massive juiciness, with the concentrated flavor of consommé.
Even the filet mignon (listed on the menu as, improbably, "The Don Ameche") knocks it out of the park: Bartlow amps up the neutral cut by plating rare slices over smooth-as-foie-gras chicken liver toast. The only real misses are the long-bone short rib (a tough, 12-ounce cartilaginous cut that tastes of bitter, carbonized char), and a patty melt whose sweet caramelized onions and melted American cheese obliterate any flavor of beef.
Desserts, largely a variety of ice creams topped with toasted marshmallows or chunks of birthday cake, are skippable. Instead, flag down the waiter (be sure to budget some time for that), ask for the bill, and be grateful you've enjoyed a fully-loaded carnivore's feast for about half of what dinner at a steakhouse usually costs.
Ryan Sutton is Eater New York's chief restaurant critic. See all his reviews in the archive.
Cost: Starters, $12-$17. Steaks: $19-$29. Patty melt burger: $17 without fries.
Sample dishes: Shrimp cocktail, bacon with peanut butter and jalapeño jelly, crab and avocado, top blade flatiron, hanger steak, skirt steak, bavette steak, "The Don Ameche."
Bonus tip: Reservations are accepted through Resy, either via the restaurant's website, or via the mobile app.