Calling Peter Luger Steak House one of New York’s most revered restaurants doesn’t quite explain everything about what an institution it is. New York City essentially invented the country’s modern idea of an American steakhouse, and Peter Luger, open since 1887, is an original version of that.
Today, New York Times critic Pete Wells dropped a savage zero-star review on the South Williamsburg steakhouse — saying that with terrible service, inconsistent food, and high prices, there’s little reason to go anymore.
Eater critics Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton have both visited the 132-year-old restaurant recently and decided to talk about their experiences. Here’s their conversation on the pros and cons of meals there, from mixed reactions to that famous burger and whether this important restaurant is still worth visiting.
Sietsema: I was more disappointed with the increase in prices than with any food quality issues. When I first started eating the burger in the ’90s it was $5. Still, it’s a nice combo of funky and crumbly. I last ate that burger on April 10 of this year, and it was perfect in its austerity — spit from the salamander like a hockey puck, delivered warm with fries.
Sutton: I had the burger once, for the first time about a month or so ago while researching for my Red Hook Tavern writeup. It’s impressive that it still costs less than $25, which is a touch low by dry-aged burger standards.
Sietsema: What didn’t you like about it, Ryan?
Sutton: I’ll tell you what! It was among the most unevenly cooked burgers I’ve ever sampled, due in no small part to the fact that it suffers from The Corner Bistro Problem, which is to say that it’s broiled, instead of having been grilled or seared on the griddle. I’ve never had a good burger prepared this way. It was nice and crumbly but the doneness was super uneven and the dry-aged tang, while sweet elsewhere (like at Red Hook Tavern), was more muddy and organ-y here, and not in a good way.
Sietsema: Hmmm, I on the other hand was happy with mine. I think the problems with Pete Wells’s experience is that the meat supply is always variable by its nature.
Sutton: Well, tell me about your own last steak there.
Sietsema: Sometimes my porterhouse there is on the tough side, but I like to chew. I still find myself grabbing my own ass when I eat the porterhouse and screaming out, ‘This is phenomenal.’
I can tell you one thing: I’ve never had two steaks the same, even when I pay a visit only a week apart from the last one, which only happened once. I often go to Luger at lunch for the hamburger but am seduced by the steak. I think to myself, ‘I might die tomorrow, so shouldn’t I have the steak one last time?’
Yet, I’m going to give Wells the benefit of the doubt and go back soon just to see. Of course he could always say, ‘They read my review and decided to up the game again.’ We’ve noted this phenomenon with pastrami at Katz’s, where no two pastramis are the same. One will be tougher, but that same one may also be more smoky.
Sutton: I’m at a disadvantage here Robert, because the last porterhouse I sampled there was with you about five years ago. It was quite good, but I felt no compulsion to go back. The best places for steak in New York have long been venues others than steakhouses, which is why Luger’s gastronomic sense of urgency, in my opinion, ended quite some time ago. Most of us have been ordering our expensive cuts of meat at venues like Minetta or Frenchette or St. Anselm or the Grill, venues where — and this is key — the rest of the food is actually good.
Sietsema: Like life itself, you pay for the steak and take your chances. I would say that any trip to Luger is about 20 percent atmosphere and mood. If you want to love your steak there for historic reasons, you will. The miracle is that Luger is as good as it is, since the place could go on existing based on tourists alone. But it has that Olde New York feel to it, and it has come by that atmosphere honestly.
Sutton: It does, but that doesn’t mean that tourists should continue going there. I’d argue it doesn’t even come close to being an essential or welcoming or important New York restaurant experience. Is this where we should be sending all the tourists to get an accurate picture of what it means to eat a big steak right now? I’d argue it’s the furthest thing from the type of beef our city does so well these days.
Sietsema: You don’t go to Luger for the most up-to-the-minute idea about steak. You at least partly go to experience Brooklyn’s past. I like the gruff reserve the waiters exhibit; better than a bouncy counterperson at a fast-casual place. And the smell of the sizzling fat when your steak arrives at the table, borne by a guy who looks like he stepped out of the 19th century, is unforgettable.
Sutton: That’s true Robert but consider what happened on my last visit:
1) I ordered a coke from the bar, and asked for a burger
2) Bartender told me I could only order a burger from the waiter
3) Finally got a hold of waiter, ordered the burger
4) Asked bartender for my check, but he told me my check was only for the coke
5) Had to flag down waiter again to ask for a separate bill
6) Because I was paying via debit card, I had to complete the burger transaction at a separate booth near check-in.
This is versus any other New York restaurant, where you pay with one person, instead of a feudal system where you interact with two to three folks to settle your tab.
Sietsema: Yeah, I agree eating there is an arcane ritual. But it’s one that’s kind of democratic, since the ritual must be observed by everyone. It’s why the Luger hamburger is so important. It allows anyone to eat there.