Seated on a bentwood chair at a well-worn oak table at Peter Luger Steak House, you hear the sizzle way before the white-aproned waiter sets down a platter of steak straight from the broiler.
Conversation ceases as you savor juicy slices of perfectly salted, almost fork-tender beef — no sauce needed.
That 2½-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.
First pick of the best beef
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."