In the New York Times today, restaurant critic Pete Wells spoke a truth few had dared say before: Peter Luger Steak House is bad.
Wells awarded the famous Brooklyn steakhouse zero stars, down from the two stars Frank Bruni had awarded in 2007. Ruth Reichl gave the steakhouse three stars for the Times in 1995. But the most telling aspect of Wells’s harsh review is how he implicitly acknowledges that Luger hasn’t just gone downhill. Luger was always bad, even when people talked endlessly about how good it was.
“The shrimp cocktail has always tasted like cold latex dipped in ketchup and horseradish,” he says. “The steak sauce has always tasted like the same ketchup and horseradish fortified by corn syrup.” The service has always been unfriendly. The tomatoes have always been flavorless and expensive. It’s always been annoying that they don’t accept credit cards. I would add to this list of complaints that the dining room has always been overlit — “brutally illuminated,” as Bruni said in 2007.
Luger’s advocates have always acknowledged its flaws, sometimes trying to paint them as positives. Wells says he actually likes the bright lighting and that service at Luger used to be “charmingly brusque,” though he now acknowledges that it’s simply rude. Most often, Luger fans say the restaurant’s flaws should be overlooked in the face of its transcendent, awesome steaks. But as Wells (and even Bruni 12 years earlier) note, the quality of steak at Luger itself, both in the aging and the cooking, is uneven. This is inexcusable at a time when excellent steak is ubiquitous, if you are willing to pay for it.
Steakhouses are the simplest fine-dining restaurant model to execute, which is why there are so many of them and why they work as national chains. The Capital Grille has 59 locations and has more consistent execution, better service, better sides, better lighting, and a better wine list than Peter Luger. I’m not saying Capital Grille, corporate cousin to the Olive Garden, is my very favorite steakhouse in New York — I’d sooner go to Quality Meats or Strip House, given the choice — but that Luger can only stand out from its cookie-cutter corporate competition by being worse in various ways is precisely why the hype has never made any sense.