It first happened to me in Chicago. I travel around the United States a great deal, and I used to think of this as an opportunity to check out all the new chefs who get written and talked about. So at the end of a long day a few years ago in Chicago, I reached for my list of restaurants--but found myself wondering, Where I can get a good steak?
I was shocked by my own question. I have never been a big meat eater. But suddenly, because I was tired, or alone, or a traveler in America--or was it all three?--I really wanted a thick steak on a bone. I found it at an institution where locals gather to watch the Cubs. It was Chicago exactly the way it was supposed to be: The steak was rare, juicy and well aged. And the Cubs lost.
Now I have discovered that in Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, even Napa Valley, fashionable new restaurants are opening that call themselves chophouses. These places serve veal chops, lamb chops and pork chops, as well as steaks, often accompanied by classic sauces flavored with mustard, herbs or red wine. Roasts, stews and other hearty dishes featuring meat, chicken and fish are also staples on their menus.
The choice of the label chophouse rather than steak house is significant, as Traci Des Jardins (an F&W Best New Chef 1995) explains. Des Jardins, who recently opened Acme Chophouse, in the San Francisco Giants' new baseball stadium complex--confirming the connection between meat and baseball--calls her place a chophouse rather than a steak house because, she says, "besides the beef, most of the food in steak houses is inedible." Although today's meat prices make it impossible for chophouses to be inexpensive, they present themselves as casual and unpretentious alternatives to steak houses.
Chophouse is an old-fashioned term, and these new chophouses are all about the old-fashioned. The word chop, referring to a piece of meat chopped off the carcass and served on the bone, was coined in seventeenth-century England. Within a few decades, there were restaurants in London called chophouses that specialized in selling these cuts. The American equivalent began appearing in the eighteenth century; one of the oldest still in existence is New York City's Keens, founded in 1885. Charles G. Shaw's 1931 book Nightlife: Vanity Fair's Intimate Guide to New York After Dark has this to say: "On the whole, you will find the chophouse plain and I fear rather noisy...On the other hand, the chophouse has a real solidity, a thorough, wholesome quality in everything from the furnishings to the cooking....these are halls of honest worth and simple fare, where show and chi-chi are unknown and the vigor of grills and roasts triumph supreme."
But how does the recent revival of the chophouse explain the return of that waterlogged lettuce introduced in 1894 by W. Atlee Burpee & Co.? Iceberg lettuce remained popular in the United States, and for a time even in France, because with reasonable care it stayed crisp. But it has a fraction of the nutritional value and even less of the flavor of other lettuces and so fell from fashion. Now it is back. All the new chophouses serve iceberg wedges, always with blue cheese dressing. Even an ambitious chef like Suzanne Tracht (an F&W Best New Chef 2002) of Jar, a "modern chophouse" in a chic area of Los Angeles, says, "Give me a porterhouse for two, creamed spinach and a wedge of iceberg, and I'm happy." This from a woman who refuses to serve "baked potatoes as big as your head," preferring fresh seasonal vegetables.
In Atlanta, Huw Thomas of Dunwoody chophouse, who will gladly serve baked potatoes as big as (or bigger than) your head, has even more shocking news: "We have creamed spinach and broccoli, but people aren't eating their vegetables anymore. They just want meat and potatoes." Yet chophouses do nod to the health movement. Acme Chophouse, for instance, advertises beef that is hormone- and antibiotic-free, plus it offers a special line of grass-fed meat. Des Jardins suggests that instead of ignoring health, "people got tired of food being an intellectual experience." Thomas agrees. "It's a return to a simpler cuisine," he says. "People don't have to think. They know what they're getting. The menu just says ‘pork chop.' It doesn't say ‘pan-seared' and so on, just ‘pork chop.'" These dark-wood restaurants clearly evoke an earlier time. "Acme is like the restaurants of old San Francisco," says Des Jardins, "the ones I grew up with."
Jar brings back the old days with desserts like chocolate pudding and banana cream pie. Cole's Chophouse in Napa Valley revives the past in other ways--for example, by offering oysters Rockefeller, the New Orleans specialty from the turn of the last century. Dunwoody has brought back beef Stroganoff and lobster Thermidor, a dish invented in Paris in 1894 to celebrate a play of that name. The celebration was a bit hasty: Thermidor was condemned for its reactionary political viewpoint and closed shortly after it opened. But French chefs popularized the dish in America over the next few decades.
Chophouses rely on customers who prefer beef Stroganoff to a T-bone, because it is very difficult for restaurants to make a profit on a dry-aged steak. Dry-aging beef (which involves hanging it in a cool place for three weeks or longer) tenderizes it and gives it an incomparable flavor. But the beef loses about 20 percent of its weight, making a dry-aged steak a very expensive piece of meat. Any restaurant that makes a profit off prime aged steak, says Stanley Lobel, the owner of Lobel's Prime Meats in Manhattan, whose family has run a butcher shop since 1840, is lying about the quality of the steak.
Prices at the new chophouses can't reflect 1950s America, but everything else about them can. And that clearly attracts us. Not because we're drawn to the memories of nuclear fallout shelters and a young and scary Richard Nixon; it wasn't a simpler or better time. But it was a time when American food was distinctly American--like baseball.
The 1938 edition of the French culinary encyclopedia Larousse Gastronomique stated that American food "is completely different from ours, but that does not necessarily mean that it is bad." It has taken decades for Americans to appreciate this.
Mark Kurlansky's most recent book is Salt: A World History.