On a mid-September night at Gallaghers, a nearly century-old Theater District spot that’s one of the city’s few steakhouses to grill its meats over charcoal, the bartender tried to sell me on the prime rib. It was a bloody, $69 behemoth that the kitchen had doused in jus and paired with a horseradish cream sauce that would be, I’d eventually learn, rich enough to schmear on a bagel. I’ll try it, I replied, especially since the resident butchers had dry-aged the beef in-house, a funkifying process that not too many local prime ribs undergo.
The staffer, alas, returned with predictably bad news after attempting to put in the order. It was sold out. Not a problem. I settled for an order of clams casino and a ribeye the size of a small meteor.
I tried my luck again on a rainy night a month or so later, calling up closer to 8 p.m. I figured that it would be an easy get from a steakhouse that operates more quietly on the radar than a venue like Peter Luger. I figured incorrectly. The kitchen had run out of the prime rib already, and I got shut out again on another night, just after 7 p.m.
“Try calling in the morning,” or “put in a note when you make a reservation,” the receptionist advised, which is what I did. And so over 70 days after my first attempt, I finally sampled the 26-ounce cut at a packed restaurant that doesn’t seem to attract major reviews or major social media attention — though the Times recognized it for a bit of first responder philanthropy during the pandemic.
The prime rib, cooked so uniformly pink it has the look of something warmed in a precision sous-vide bath by an avant-garde chef, enjoys its cult status for a very good reason. But still, my series of visits suggested that one wouldn’t be worse off for sampling the items that don’t typically sell out. These facts prompted me to find a specific place for Gallaghers on my informal cheat sheet on when to visit New York’s new-school and old-school steakhouses.
Keens: For the prime rib hash and the heady mutton chop.
Carne Mare: For the gorgonzola Wagyu steak, with its impressive bovine funk.
Porter House: For the chile-rubbed ribeye.
Smith & Wollensky: For stunner of a dry-aged prime rib.
Gallaghers: For the clams, for the charcoal-grilled steaks, and for that stellar prime rib. In fact, I’ll go even further: Gallaghers currently holds a place alongside Keens as my top all-around, old-school steakhouse pick. And while most local diners would surely choose any of the above venues over an STK or a Del Frisco’s, out-of-towners looking for a pre-Broadway bite should understand that resorting to a corporate steakhouse chain constitutes a missed opportunity to sample excellent bacon-topped bivalves and other classic New York dishes at Gallaghers.
Part of the draw is the bar, which former Ziegfeld girl Helen Gallagher and Jack Solomon opened in 1927 as a speakeasy. The counter is a mahogany, horseshoe shaped structure that lets patrons look out over the expansive dining room, rather than cramming them against a wall. Dean J. Poll, the guy behind the Central Park Boathouse, now holds the reigns, and the management team pours the type of drinks that one might expect at a proper cocktail bar, like well-balanced and aromatic Hemmingway daiquiris. Martinis, true to steakhouse form, seem to be poured with more fluid ounces than two glasses of wine, so be careful how fast you drink them.
“Is that Rachmaninoff playing?,” a patron asks the bartender about a classical piano piece piping through the sound system. “Godfather theme,” the staffer replies. Like I said, go easy on the drinks.
The larger story, of course, centers around the food. Matthew Maxwell, like so many other New York chefs, oversees a raw bar that sends out plump, cleanly shucked oysters, but a different class of composed shellfish is where Gallaghers truly excels. Clams casino, a staple of East Coast fish shacks, don’t get too much menu representation at expensive restaurants, but the kitchen here makes a case for them, balancing the component flavors with precision. A small slab of bacon garnishes each half shell, adding a smoky kick, before giving way to the sweetness of the peppers and the briny chew of the clam, which itself has been bathed in pork fat.
Those who haven’t reserved the prime rib in advance should opt for the rib steak, a 20-ounce, $69 affair that easily feeds two. Grilling over hickory coals leaves the marbled beef with a noticeable sweetness and faint smokiness; it lacks the petrol-y or carbonized tangs that occasionally plague steaks cooked under the broiler. In-house dry-aging imparts a noticeable funk to the rib, but those notes are subtle. If some steaks around town smack of blue cheese, this one flaunts a low-level musk that recalls brown butter.
That elusive prime rib isn’t necessarily better than the grilled rib steak, but connoisseurs of the style should appreciate the execution. Careful cooking results in a strikingly rosy slab of meat, without the exterior exhibiting any deep grays. The supple flesh, more tender around the cap, is clean and iron-y, with the generous jus allowing diners to amp things up with the saltier, roastier, deeper flavors of the rib. A nibble or two around the bone area releases a whisper of Stilton-esque tang, but that’s it. Bits of fat or sinew sport the silky texture of Jell-O infused with the flavor of beef.
You know where this is going. I’m rating the clams, rib steak, and prime rib as a BUY at Gallaghers. But really the lesson here is that for those who appreciate more traditional steakhouses, this is a vital stop on the New York meat train.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).