Until a decade ago, ordering a steak for two in a New York City restaurant invariably meant that a porterhouse would land upon your table. And with good reason: the porterhouse is iconic. Found at the posterior of the short loin, it contains the two most prized and expensive muscles on the steer— the longissimus dorsi and the psoas major. Served separately, they are commonly called the NY strip and filet mignon. In the porterhouse, these cuts are divided by a distinctive t-shaped bone. This steak has been the staple of the NYC steakhouse, most notably Peter Luger, for well over a century.
In recent years, however, we have seen an explosion of restaurants serving the rib steak as a large format cut for two. In fact, outside of the traditional steakhouse, it has surpassed the porterhouse in popularity. Serving the rib steak for two makes sense for the same reason that serving the porterhouse does — the eye of the rib is also the longissimus dorsi, the same muscle that forms the large portion of the porterhouse.
Since the rib primal from which the rib steak cut is fabricated also contains a bone, it can be dry aged in the same way as a short loin, enhancing the flavor of the beef. And the bone also plays into the primal mythology of carnivorous eating. Now it is true that the rib steak lacks the tenderloin of the porterhouse, which is well named as it is indeed the most tender cut found on the steer. But the rib steak has something that many beef aficionados prefer for its robust flavor: the spinalis dorsi, often called the cap or the deckle.
Of course the rib steak — and the boneless variant, the ribeye — has always been with us in one form or another. The Delmonico cut at Delmonico’s (America’s first restaurant) is a ribeye. The house specialty at Smith & Wollensky has been the Colorado rib steak since the restaurant opened in 1977. Even Peter Luger, famous for its porterhouse, began selling a rib steak back in 2007 during the height of a beef supply shortage (it remains on the menu, and is an excellent steak). And prime rib, which is the same cut roasted rather than grilled, has been a steakhouse staple since time immemorial, although its popularity has waned significantly in recent years.
But prime rib and the aforementioned rib steaks are all served for one. The most obvious and direct antecedent to the rib steak for two of today is the Balthazar cote de boeuf by chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, which dates back to 1995. But the real tipping point would come over a decade later in 2009 when the pair opened Minetta Tavern and unveiled an updated incarnation of the dish that featured the highest grade prime beef that was dry aged far beyond the standard 28 days. They where promptly awarded three star in the New York Times for their efforts and suddenly rib steaks for two became a de rigueur menu item, seemingly as ubiquitous as the hamburger. If there had been a slow and steady movement of restaurants adopting the cut after Balthazar but before before Minetta— prime examples are Craft, Resto, and Momofuku Ssam Bar — there was a veritable stampede of rib steaks for two after. It doesn’t seem to matter the type of restaurant — new American, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Kosher delicatessen, etc. — the rib steak for two has become an NYC staple.
How can we account for the ascendancy of the rib steak for two? Price is certainly a factor. The cost of beef has risen dramatically in the last decade, and as expensive as the rib steak has gotten, it remains $2 to $3 cheaper per pound than the porterhouse at wholesale. Since the rib contains the same primary muscle as the short loin, it makes a worthy substitute. Another factor is scarcity: the aforementioned shortage of Prime beef in 2007 forced chefs to look for alternatives to short loin steaks.
But these are purely fiscal reasons, and the rise of the rib steak is as much a cultural phenomenon as an economic one. Remember that low-carbohydrate diets were popular in the earliest part of the century. At one time, one in every eleven American adults was on some form of a restricted carbohydrate diet, and suddenly eating meat — and especially fat — was encouraged. The rib steak is a "fattier" steak than the porterhouse, something that was no longer considered a detriment.
And undoubtedly, the farm-to-table movement had an influence as chefs began to take in large animal primals rather than neatly butchered cuts. This aspect of the rib steak's adoption dovetails both with the haute barnyard trend of the early aughts and the DIY butcher block aesthetic that followed later in the decade. But the ultimate answer to the rise in the cut's popularity might just be that our collective palate has changed — that we are embracing richer, more unctuous flavors while at the same time looking for more primal experiences. The rib steak satisfies both impulses.