My first job in New York was as the hostess of a bustling, Upper East Side steakhouse, almost fifteen years ago now. I’d suit up in a slim black dress and click my heels up First Avenue, slipping into the dark oak entryway of what I’ll call “the Grille.”
The servers — all men and none American — were old-school career waiters, highly attuned to the preferences of their regulars: where they liked to sit, what to omit from a standing order, and what off-menu items the kitchen should be prepared to sub in. The steaks were grilled, the spinach was creamed, the mashed potatoes were loaded with butter and cheese, the Caesar was wet, the wine was Italian, and the only vegetarian option was a rather limp steamed vegetable medley.
During the holidays, I checked cashmere coats and palmed twenties wannabe bigwigs slipped me in front of their girlfriends for the table I was going to give them anyway. I met Dick Clark (kind and respectful) and Chris Noth (smarmy at the height of his Mr. Big-ness), and I received marriage proposals on more than one occasion. From the wide bay windows, I watched the snow fall in winter and the New York Marathon runners in spring, surrounded by circa-1920’s gilt in the comfort of a twenty-plus-year-old restaurant. It was masculine, romantic, and so New York.
It closed two years after I had quit.
I look back at the Grille with a nostalgia you only get after you’ve lived in New York long enough to see it change. John Meadow, the founder and president of LDV Hospitality and a lifelong New Yorker, gets nostalgic about steakhouses, too.
“Growing up, the steakhouse was Peter Luger,” he tells me. “I remember going there with my family at a very early age. It was the quintessential New York and American meal. It was an event to go out to Brooklyn, cash only, buttered steak, the double broiler. Very classic, simple, and beautiful. It was ‘This is New York.’ ”
But when Meadow set out to open his first steakhouse, American Cut, he didn’t try to compete with that memory. He recognized that eaters no longer need such a destination in order to get a good steak or killer burger and that the “boys club” environment of heavy plates doesn’t necessarily lend itself to welcoming a variety of eaters or ages. In a time when vegan, gluten-free, non-American, macro, niche restaurants take focus and fine-dining restaurateurs open more casual outposts — could he build a financially sound steakhouse restaurant and bring in a regular crowd?
Could Meadow make the great American steakhouse relevant again?
He could. He did. So successfully, in fact, that his American Cut would expand beyond New York and garner the top spot on Fox New’s list of best U.S. steakhouses, among other accolades.
“Our effort and ambition is nailing the difference between the new-American steakhouse of 2016 versus the old American-boy steakhouse of yesteryear,” Meadow explains. “It’s still Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, and dry aged meat. But you have this high technique of a precise chef applying his craft to the classics and making them his.”
That chef is Marc Forgione.
To tackle the menu, Forgione gave classic steakhouse dishes a “facelift.” There’s a standard shrimp cocktail — but it took a month of messing around to nail his cocktail sauce. There’s a Caesar salad — but he studied its Mexican origins, omitted anchovies in a nod to the original, found the exact balance he was looking for in flavor, and has it prepared table-side. There’s a wedge salad, wet and dry-aged steaks, surf and turf, and twice-baked potatoes.
“The cooks look at me like I’m crazy when they see how passionate I am about something like Caesar salad,” Forgione admits. “I found that in a lot of the classic recipes everything was about heavy cream, Worcestershire, and Tabasco. But once we rethought them a bit, those dishes were a lot of fun to do.”
The rest of the menu plays to contemporary dining sensibilities, with meticulously sourced ingredients, a variety of vegetables on the sides menu, as well as tuna, salmon, and Dover sole options for those averse to red meat.
Then there are the “chef” touches that appeal to the curious and the insatiable. A classic tuna tartare is contrasted by a hiramasa tartare with miso dashi. Bone marrow gets topped with Burgundy-laced escargot and a “James Beard salad.” Outdated creamed spinach gets some love in the form of buttery, sweet sunchokes, fries are fried in beef fat, and “sausage ‘n’ peppas” involves shishito peppers and Bang Bang (the fiery Laotian sauce Forgione’s friend and co-partner, Phet Schwader, of Khe-Yo, brought to the table).
So, yeah, the menu is stacked. The price point certainly doesn’t quite induce heart-attack scenarios for those who shell out to eat — appetizers and salads are all under $20, steaks run $32–$54, and sides are $12 each. But Meadow and Forgione know you can’t sustain a classic idea in a large restaurant within a competitive city by relying on food alone…especially not when a large demographic of young eaters usually spend on more conceptualized or “authentic” kinds of international cuisine. So Meadow and Forgione set out to create not a chain of “this is our steakhouse” spaces, but rather a concept that would retain relevance and inspire eaters because of how well it would meld into their neighborhoods.
Major focus went into American Cut’s New York flagship in Tribeca, where the massive space inherently had an industrial vibe. There’s exposed brick and ceilings, the design leans toward the 1920s, and a painting of Muhammad Ali looks down over the bar. “It’s funky, raw, visceral, and masculine,” says Meadow. “It’s gritty rock meets Art Deco.” Which, he says, quite aptly summarizes the contrast between Forgione and himself. The servers are collectively young and old, male and female, and a mix of cultures — all working to offer exceptional, welcoming service. “The reality is we have an extraordinary team behind us. Ninety-five percent of the people in Tribeca have been with us since the first day. The team of people is why we have a great restaurant.”
In San Juan, Puerto Rico, the dining room is flanked with cedar, there are rice and beans on the menu, and the high-energy, party-like feel is capped with salsa spinning every few songs. With the upcoming Atlanta restaurant, Meadow plans to work with the sense of southern small-town hospitality and the communal dining experience the vibrant city is known for. “If that means Southern rock and roll and not the Bowery…a walnut bar top instead of black marble…and teak instead of brushed finishes, so that it feels more ‘Southern bourbon gentleman,’ [that’s what we’ll do]. While it’s not my world, the sense of community and Southern hospitality will be very palpable and apparent. That’s what we want to be a part of.”
Then there’s the recently opened midtown location. When restaurant groups expand a concept within one city, it’s easy for them to rest on their laurels and keep design, menu, and service consistent from one spot to the next. If it ain’t broke, right? But recognizing how vital a sense of place is — even within New York — Meadow and Forgione pushed themselves to revive American Cut as much as possible with the 6,000-square-foot, 130-seat space behind the Lombardy Hotel. Tribeca had Muhammad Ali, but midtown found its muse in Debbie Harry.
“We have this huge installation of her, and all the art around is 1970s glam,” Meadow says. “So it’s not gritty rock — it’s glam sexuality meets deco. It’s a hint softer and a bit lighter. Both are icons, and both spaces are high energy. But the whole experience feels a hint more decadent, social, and clubby as opposed to Tribeca’s ‘elegant meets down-and-dirty feast.’ Uptown is a dinner party. It’s indicative of the neighborhood.”
For the most part, Forgione marvels at how welcoming both neighborhoods have been of his menus. Whereas the Puerto Rico and New Jersey restaurants required four or five menu alterations and edits, Tribeca and Midtown were relative hits early on. He credits this largely to the fact that his traditionally classic training and years working the fine-dining menu at his restaurant Marc Forgione meant that his American Cut menus would contain the same level of quality New Yorkers require — with food they’d always want to eat.
“It’s about doing New York classics with the exact same care and passion as I have for a wild Devil’s Walking Stick plant I’ve never seen before,” Forgione explains. “I treat broccoli the same way here as I do at Forge. Something as common as pastrami! I knew we were going to open for lunch in Midtown, and I told my guys I wanted the same classic pastrami you could get in the delis in New York. It took us a month, but we got it.”
Looking back at the Grille now, the nostalgia I feel for its absence is mingled with a newfound understanding for why it closed. As far as I know, the menu was never updated for the newer New York eating audience. I remember the names of the cooks who were funny and kind to me, but can’t recall one time a “chef” shook things up. The steaks were delicious, but no one in the dining room could tell you where they came from. Creamed spinach and steamed asparagus were passé. The restaurant – those who worked there and our guests – felt like a family that was ready to move on.
With the contemporary success of American Cut balancing menu, service, and décor in a way that welcomes their continued expansion, Meadow and Forgione are still not immune to slipping into nostalgia. “I’ve waited a lifetime to get a restaurant in Midtown,” Meadow swears. “We have ten restaurants in New York west of Tenth Avenue and south of 42nd street. So this is the big dance. This is so exciting. This is my life’s ambition. I’m speaking in hyperbole, but I live in hyperbole in my head.”
“The most fulfilling thing about Midtown for me is personal,” Forgione says. “I started my career when I was eighteen years old at the Benjamin Hotel. The six train drops me from where I live now in SoHo right in front of the Benjamin. Walking up those steps almost twenty years later, I emotionally remember being an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old kid, not knowing the hell what I wanted to do in the world. Now, walking to my brand-new restaurant from those same steps is pretty wild. That was a pretty fulfilling moment.”