Goodbye, Peter Luger
Peter Luger’s has changed. Where there used to not be a third large dining room there is now a third large dining room. This is odd because Peter Luger’s is not supposed to change. You are. And you do.
When I moved to the city almost 10 years ago, I didn’t know much about it that I didn’t learn on TV. As a 23-year-old moving in with a 30-year-old girlfriend, I was in for a series of introductory classes to New York and adulthood, none of which were easy. It was kind of like the first year of Law School, when they make everything hard to weed out the losers. I was determined not to be a loser.
I had very little money, however, but like a lot of new New Yorkers I had identified the place I wanted to spend large amounts of what little money I had: Peter Luger Steakhouse in Williamsburg. It wasn’t like I walked around thinking about this all the time like a 17-year-old saving for her first car, but I considered the deliberately rough-edged Luger’s as some sort of paragon of New Yorkism, the way some people would eye eating at Cipriani or sitting front row at Lincoln Center.
That was me—it was who I was. There was an everyman mystique to Peter Luger’s, which deliberately looked down at Manhattan’s raised noses, something that appealed to me. I spent more than 95 percent of my life in Queens, and the idea of going into Manhattan to be another loser dropping money he didn’t really have did not appeal to me. Luger’s famously takes one credit card—the Peter Luger credit card, a de facto corporate-only card with the balance due at the end of each month—so when you’re rolling in, you’re rolling in with cash. Translated to young me: You were coming in as a baller, or you weren’t coming in at all.
I broke that image in two last week when I went to Luger’s for the first time in five years and paid with the paper money I acquired by cashing in a year’s worth of change at the TD Bank Penny Arcade earlier in the day. One year, $216 worth of change, more than half of it converted into steak. Free steak, basically.
I don’t know if the free steak aspect of it is what has my stomach churning, even now, thinking about the meal. I don’t know if, freed from my post-adolescent view of Luger’s as a New York status symbol, I was able to focus more closely on the food than I had before. I don’t know if I just pretended to like the food before and have lost interest in pretending. I don’t know if I finally noticed that Luger’s’s scrupulous lack of pretension is itself an overwhelming pretension, or whether it has just stopped appealing to me. I don’t know if I’m just as at age and place in my life where a homemade steak, three minutes to each side, then into the oven, is far more appealing than the pretentious restaurant experience. I don’t know if this is just a phase for me, and in 10 years I’ll want to go back, and hating on Peter Luger will provoke the same type of nostalgia that loving it has churned up in the service of writing this article.
All I know is that I was unimpressed and I don’t want to go back.
I’m not a vegetarian. I’d sure like to be one, though. I think I’d save a bunch of money and animals and I’d have more energy and the only consequence would be getting laughed at by people who think that it’s funny to laugh at vegetarians. Plus I’d still eat seafood, because fish are stupid and delicious.
I’ve had a few periods of vegetarianism that last a few days at a time, but there’s always an equal and opposite reaction. I’m weak. I am a weak human, and I will come back to burgers like the guy smoking a cigarette filter hoping for just a trace of nicotine. Only I’m worse because a cow gets it in the end and I feel like a catatonic slug—which means I am like a slug compared to other slugs.
This is not a treatise on how you shouldn’t eat meat because Bessie was such a sweetheart. This is me saying I feel better when I don’t eat meat. Much like some people are soccer fans for the fashion, I’m a veggies fan for the pep in my step.
Of course, I’m writing this in another veggies binge, albeit a longer one than normal. Outside of the steak dinner, eight whole days! And there was much rejoicing. I am keenly aware a backslide might be forthcoming, however. Until then, I fight the good fight.
Hence all these words. My words are saying that, largely for the reasons I used to love it, Peter Luger’s is an overvalued commodity.
There is no argument that the quality of meat at Luger’s is quite good. It was my understanding that Luger’s staff would buy meat, hang it up in the basement, allow mold to grow on it, and at the time of cooking, effectively cook off the mold, leaving as much as the meat as possible cooked but uncharred. Kinda brilliant, if you think about it, at least to someone who doesn’t think much about cooking.
Except for also kinda not, which I’ll leave just like that as a deliberate tease.
My stomach is hurting again.
The bill came to $130 per person for the three of us, not counting the beer I got while we waited. We got steak for four instead of three, so it could have been cheaper. Also might explain the stomachache. I ran seven miles that afternoon. Leave me alone. But keep reading.
To those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of going to Luger’s, I’ll present the menu to you more or less in its entirety:
• Steak (porterhouse) for X number of people
• There are other cuts/food items on the menu but I’ll believe they exist when I see them
• Creamed Spinach
• Tomatoes and Onions
Of course, Devil+details=BFF, so let’s tackle these in reverse order with more colorful nomenclature:
• Shrimp the size of infant forearms
Did I do a bad job of making that sound appetizing? My bad. Solid “buy” rating here.
• Potatoes they will try to push on you by being like, “Potatoes?” and expecting you to say yes without thinking, which, let’s face it, you might
They’re fucking hash browns. Avoid until the next morning’s breakfast.*
• Tomatoes and Onions
It’s a plate with giant rings of tomatoes and onions. To eat with a fork. It’s quite German. It’s kind of hilarious. Avoid.
• Creamed Spinach
Order more than you think you need. This is your baseline. Add as necessary.
• “Bacon” that will change your life
Transcript-like-thing-with-hints-of-internal-monologue-thrown-in from a diner at our table on Saturday who we’ll call “Bryan J.” to protect his or her anonymity:
“If we’re going to get steak for four instead of three why should we bother with the ‘bacon?’ Yeah it’s a huge, thick and wide but we’re eating plenty of red meat later. Okay yes I know this is white meat but still. I say get the shrimp and skip the bacon. Fine, you guys get the bacon. Hey let me have some of that bacaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh oh my god.”
Get the bacon.
• Other cuts/food items are to be ignored, excluding burger
Yes, yes, the mythical Peter Luger burger, the one that’s only available at lunch and which the waiters scowl at you for ordering. I’ve had it, and it’s glorious. But there’s no glory to be gained from saying you’ve been to Luger’s and not had the steak—a burger can be pretty good, and an entire accessible food craze has been built upon this platform, but it still can only be as good as a burger can be, which is not as good as a steak. QED.
• Steak for X
About that “we cook the mold off” thing: It means you’re not really jazzing up the steak.
I’m sure this is how steak purists like it. I don’t know if they also like enough butter to fill a swimming cap with, too, but that’s how you get the steak, wading it in. The butter, not the swimming cap. There is no swimming cap. The butter doesn’t do much to flavor the meat—it actually masks the flavor. In my opinion. To the degree that eating the twix-bar sized wedges of meat ends up feeling more like a bird choking down a large fish than enjoying the process of chewing, tasting, talking way too much. You need to eat fast enough that you don’t fall asleep, because you WILL fall asleep.
It is basically an old-time feeding frenzy that I have grown out of enjoying. You pay for the brusque-ness. I get enough of that as it is.
But wait, there’s schlag
Oh yeah for dessert, and they give this to everyone, is a giant bowl of whip-cream like stuff called schlag that you scoop with milk chocolate medallions and basically if I killed someone and got the death sentence and had to have a last meal this is pretty much precisely what I would choose to please the PETA people who wouldn’t want me taking the life of another sentient being, but mostly to please myself, despite the gnarly stomachache, which obviously comes with a shelf-life, unless the governor is feeling nice.
* Except that you are clearly not eating breakfast the next day. Maybe a pear or something.