By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
Porterhouse for two, with sides of creamed spinach and hand-cut fries. The steak is sliced and fanned out around the bone before it is served.
That 2 1/2-pound porterhouse for two ($91.90, with a big bone to take home to Fido) is a favorite of patrons such as chefs Anthony Bourdain, Cat Cora and Paula Deen. Luger's steaks, served in four small wooden-floored dining rooms in a brick building in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, have lassoed more than their share of accolades since the eatery opened in 1887.
Add one more to its menu: the title of "best steakhouse in the USA," based on votes of 13 award-winning food writers, chefs and critics assembled by USA TODAY. Raves California–based panelist Cora, the first female Iron Chef America: "If I'm in New York, I'll make the trip to Brooklyn for a taste of heaven!"
"The classic American chophouse," says Saveur magazine editor in chief James Oseland. The steak is "a textural and flavor journey. The starters and the sides are iconic." Among the more popular: thick, addictive slices of salty/sweet pork-belly bacon at $3.95 apiece and a tomato/onion salad elevated by Luger's own tomato-based dressing with a horseradish kick ($14.95).
Not all USA TODAY panelists are Luger loyalists. Says restaurant-rating veteran Michael Stern, creator of Roadfood.com: "As much as I like the high-end New York steak houses (when someone else is paying), they can't hold a candle to eating beef in the heartland." His top pick: The Pine Club in Dayton, Ohio.
By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
Waiter Jarek Kaczynski serves customers. Luger waiters are male, and though famed for being no-nonsense – even gruff – that's not the norm these days.
But Luger does have a Midwest pedigree. The beef bought by the women who run it today – Marilyn Spiera, 74; sister Amy Rubenstein, 73; and Spiera's daughter Jody Storch, 41 – usually comes from USDA prime corn-and-grain-fed stock bred in Iowa, Nebraska and other Plains states.
New York City steakhouses "have a long tradition of getting the first crack at prime beef and having the clientele to pay for it," panelist Bourdain says.
Luger is known for getting first pick at area meat markets, ever since Spiera's and Rubenstein's late mother, Marsha Forman, strode the aisles of the male-dominated Meatpacking District, shedding her elegant fur coat for a traditional "meat coat" and galoshes.
"As a kid, my grandmother would take me to see the meat," says Storch, a vivacious brunette who does part of the buying now, marking hindquarters she wants with a branding-iron-style stamp that reads "F 4 F" (for "Forman Family").
Luger is a family business, and always has been. After owner Peter Luger died in 1941, it was run by his heirs. The family of Storch's maternal grandfather, Sol Forman, had a factory across the street, and he usually ate lunch and often dinner there. "He loved the simplicity" of Peter Luger and its Old-World feel, Storch says. He bought it at auction in 1950, knowing zero about the restaurant business.
He didn't want to change the place. "There were no frills for Mr. Luger, who was a dour old Teuton," The New York Herald Tribune wrote in the obituary. "He would have no such nonsense as tablecloths" but "never gave a customer a bum steer."
Forman and Marsha kept the no-tablecloth décor and the focus on steak (though fish has been offered since 1980, Rubenstein says). Marsha's choosing the beef went against the usual practice of relying on a distributor, Storch says. Her grandmother enlisted a retired Department of Agriculture grader to teach her about picking meat on the basis of color, fat marbling, texture and more: All he asked from her grandmother in return was a color TV, Storch recalls.
Luger, which has a newer location in Great Neck, N.Y., always has been about the beef, she says. "If you're starting with a great steak, it's hard to screw it up." Sated by years of steak-eating, she sips Diet Coke as her tablemates revel in superlative red meat and the chewy salt sticks and onion rolls specially made for Luger.
By Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY
Jody Storch shows off the hundreds of short loins of USDA Prime beef aging in the meat locker.
After lunch, Storch gives a tour of the basements, starting with a locker where the meat sits on racks to be dry–aged in the chill. The just-arrived is rosy, with white fat; the older is dark and crusted. Storch won't say how long it's aged to make it more tender and flavorful. That's a secret.
At a nearby counter, white-haired Stanley Choinski, in a blood–spattered white coat, is turning out steaks, deftly wielding a knife to strip protective layers of fat, then using a slicer.
Upstairs in the kitchen, searingly hot in summer, raw meat undergoes magic in eight broilers. No secret recipe: It's salted, inserted, flipped, cooked some more and placed on a platter with some butter. Cooks – experts at timing, Storch says – beep waiters, who must pick up plates within two minutes or they're in trouble.
After all, customers – from tourists to locals to a long list of A–listers including Denzel Washington, Bill Cosby, Jennifer Aniston and Nicolas Cage – come for the meat. Cage even brought his own knife.
Some celebs and hoity-toity types are initially shocked at the lack of frills such as elaborate decoration and cushy seating, waiters say. No credit cards are accepted (only debit cards, checks or a Luger account, billed monthly). But big–name fans are legion.
Get the tomato and onion salad, Paula Deen advises. "Love, love the (Luger tomato/horseradish) dressing" – homemade and now sold at outlets including some Costcos. Don't forget the creamed spinach, say cookbook authors Cheryl and Bill Jamison.
And those who maintain there's no place like the Midwest to eat steak might be interested in the photo of Johnny Carson near the old-fashioned, standing-only bar. It bears a testimonial from the late talk–show legend, who was born in Iowa.
"The best meal of my entire life was at Peter Luger's," it reads.