The penny has dropped. I have spent years and years wondering why American tourists in London flock to Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses and now I think I have it figured out. Because, let’s face it, you’d have to be something of an idiot to take a close look at one and not realise that they’re awful. If, like me, you grew up in the age of the Berni Inn you’ll associate the word Steakhouse with something naff and third-rate, barely a short step up from a Little Chef. In the States a steakhouse is an altogether different beast.
In Chicago we were hunting around for places to eat. Our first night in town we went to a Michelin-starred place called Boka which I didn’t like much. The cuisine was what you could call Italian-Pacific fusion. That stuff always makes me wary but I was up for an experiment. The first course was great – stuffed baby squid on a bed of spinach. The second was just weird. Ravioli, filled with beef (“steak tips”), were dotted around a large oblong plate which was also covered in tiny gobs of various vegetable purées as well as little bits of morel, the odd pea and dribbles of “truffle jus”. It looked a mess and it tasted a mess. The ravioli were greasy and would have been fine in a good old-fashioned tomato sauce but not like this. Perhaps I wasn’t in the best of moods, having just lost my reading glasses for the second time on the trip, but I also found the service cloying. Each item was described fully on the menu (which in itself is overkill – I don’t need to to know every single bloody ingredient in the dish) so it struck me as fairly ridiculous when the expeditor (the odd name they give to the bloke who delivers your food to the table as opposed to the waiter who takes your order) laid down our plates and obsequiously described the dish in minute detail all over again. You do reach a point where you want to tell him to just fuck off. Lucy had a fish dish with piles of mushy red rice. The point of the redness of the rice utterly eludes me. It was a bit of a disaster and she couldn’t finish it.
(The evening was saved by seeing an excellent play, Middletown, brilliantly performed across the road at Steppenwolf.)
The next night I was in the mood for something much more old-school with white linen tablecloths (Boka’s were black – oh puh-lease…) and less pretentious waiters, and the more I hunted on Yelp the more it because clear that, downtown at least, our best bet would be a steakhouse. Yelp was telling me that steakhouses were places where you went on special occasions, dads’ birthdays being a favourite, and especially when you wanted to push the boat out. Not exactly my experience of steakhouses in England but I was intrigued and as it turned out, Yelp wasn’t wrong. (It was wrong about Boka though.)
We decided on Benny’s Chop House principally because a review had described it as like stepping onto the set of Mad Men, and that alone sounded like our idea of a good night out.
Well, let it be said that on the evidence of Benny’s a Chicago steakhouse is about as similar to an Aberdeen Angus as a Rolls Royce is to a tricycle. The service is impeccable for starters. Lucy had an organic, grass-fed Kansas strip and I had a 12 oz dry-aged rib. We shared two sides: a charred romaine salad and a basket of fries. The salad was the star of the meal. A romaine is split lengthways, singed on a griddle, drizzled with a citrus dressing and topped with Parmesan shavings. The fries came in a little deep-frying basket (and cost a whopping $5.99). Rather than ask us how we wanted our steaks cooked we were asked what temperature we would like them. A new one on me. I can only guess that in a country where meat thermometers are commonplace some people actually answer that question with some digits. We said “medium rare”. The food was very good but let’s face it, not exactly the stuff that demands the highest-trained chefs in the world. That’s not to diss the skill of the people grilling the steaks – there’s nothing worse than duffly-cooked meat – but “haute cuisine” it isn’t.
The food was expensive, no doubt about it (and I guess those poor buggers in Aberdeen Angus see the menu and think they may be onto a bargain), but the drink pricing was a whole other ballgame.
When I eat out in Europe I’d say the norm is to be handed the wine list with the menu and once everyone has decided what they’re eating there follows a discussion about what to drink and someone chooses a bottle. Not so in the States. We sat down and after a moment our very slick waiter presented us with a cocktail list and the wine list. Well, being in Mad Men mode we had to order a couple of martinis and no sooner had we done so than the waiter whisked away the wine list, well before we’d even seen the menu. So we had to ask for it back. Speaking personally, after a large martini there’s no way I can tackle half a bottle of wine so now we were into the realm of ordering single glasses of wine. In fact, ordering single glasses is what they expect (and want) you to do. I don’t know how they do it but waiters manage to turn drinks ordering into a strictly one-by-one affair. Perhaps it’s rooted in a culture of expense accounts where everyone at a table wants separate checks. I don’t know, but you realise at the end of the meal that you’ve spent a vast amount on a very small amount of wine. I’m told that the typical policy is to charge for a glass what the restaurant actually pays for a bottle. Add onto that price sales tax and a 20% tip and it gets positively bonkers. Lucy had a glass of an Oregon Pinot that cost $21. That’s about $28 (£17) by the time you’ve actually paid for it. For a 6oz glass. My Zinfandel was $17. And these were on the cheaper end of the list. You can see why the Don Drapers of this world stick to Martinis at $12 a pop. Benny’s Chop House sells a Richard Hennessy cognac for an astounding $375 a glass. How that single brandy would then merit a $70 tip beats me, but so it goes.
When you’re spending that sort of money on a bevvy then you must surely be in a macho world that I find quite disgusting; one where businessmen try and out-impress each other with the size of their willies, I mean expense allowances.
Don’t get me wrong. We had a good evening. I just think I’d rather blow $100 a head on, say, a tasting menu of small dishes at a French restaurant with a shared bottle of wine, than a meal that, let’s face it, consisted solely of a big steak, chips and salad, washed down with a couple of drinks. That is, after all, all that we ate. No starters or puddings.
So that’s your Chicago steakhouse for you.
A bit stunned, we walked around the streets of Chicago and into the lobbies of some of its astonishing buildings. Then we bought a tub of Ben & Jerry’s “Americone Dream” from a Seven-Eleven and ate it with plastic spoons lying on our hotel bed, watching The Late Show.
I’ll be posting this from back home in England having only had time to write on the overnight flight. I had hoped to sleep but that didn’t work out.
I’m sure we’re all used to looking around a departure area and thinking “oh please, please, don’t let me be sat next to him.” No? I do it all the time. The guy I picked out was a 70 year old Indian man who must have been sitting a good ten feet away. The thing that was bugging me was that every two minutes he would clear his throat noisily, as if dealing with a serious case of post-nasal drip.
Well sure enough he’s in the very next seat to me and he has cleared his throat for the entirety of the eight hour flight. Not only that, but he has quite stupefying BO, so bad that I worry it is seeping into my clothes as well as his.
So if this is full of typos I apologise but I haven’t slept a wink.