Steak, Hold the Cheese

How Philadelphia is becoming a steakhouse town

NEW YORK HAS Peter Luger and its famous dry-aged porterhouse. Chicago has the original Morton’s, a Windy City institution that’s expanded to more than 80 locations, from King of Prussia to Singapore. Even Tampa has an iconic steakhouse in 53-year-old Bern’s. Philadelphia, we had Arthur’s Steak House.

Don’t remember Arthur’s? Few people do. Though the much-praised eatery anchored Walnut Street for 50 years, it never captured the city’s imagination the way its contemporary, Old Original Bookbinder’s, did. For decades, it was Bookbinder’s — a seafood house, not a steakhouse — that stood at the center of the city’s restaurant universe. In other metropolises, red meat fed the power brokers and local celebrities. Here, it was lobster. Everybody went to Bookie’s.

Philadelphia, which has long defined itself as a cheesesteak town, just never was a plain old steak town. Until now.

It may seem an odd moment to embrace the steakhouse, with its ethic of overindulgence. Everybody — from doctors to environmentalists to our financial advisers — is encouraging us to give up on beef. But restaurateurs believe they know our appetites better, and in fact, anecdotal evidence shows that steakhouse receipts have dropped less than those at other restaurants. In the past year the region has seen the opening of four new steakhouses, with a fifth — the long-awaited, spare-no-expense Union Trust — planned to open next month. Many of our nearly three dozen steakhouses are chains (we have two each of Morton’s, Fleming’s and Ruth’s Chris) — but increasingly, independents are entering the fray. Barclay Prime, Butcher & Singer, Union Trust — all aim to be the signature steakhouse we never had.

From a restaurateur’s perspective, you can see the appeal. The formula is fuss-free and a proven success: Good wine plus great meat equals a steady stream of diners. You don’t need a star chef, just a guy who can sear a good steak; you don’t need to dream up a long list of dishes, as long as your shrimp cocktail burns just right and your wedge salad has enough blue cheese. And from a diner’s perspective … well, who doesn’t crave a big, juicy steak now and then?