8 Chefs' Tips for Ordering the Best Meal at a Steakhouse
There's a lot more to dining at a steakhouse than deciding which cut of beef to order. Far more nuanced than most carnivores might believe, a sterling steakhouse meal is about the little details and the finer points that take the experience from a typical dinner to a night to remember. Just as there are certain dishes to avoid, like terrible-for-you sides and well-done steak, there are other items that are well worth the splurge.
From time-tested—and chef-approved—classic orders to contemporary creations, America's best steakhouses are perfect destinations for a memorable meal. Not only are these the types of restaurants that use the best quality ingredients on the market, but they're places where chefs and servers are well-versed in the art of making recommendations.
If you're looking to ensure the ultimate, splurge-worthy feast at a steakhouse, follow these tips from seasoned chefs.
Start with a cocktail
A good meal at a steakhouse should start with a stiff drink, especially one with a little pomp and circumstance. So says Eric Johnson, chef of Patton's Steakhouse in Houston. "When dining at a steakhouse, my first step is ordering an expertly made cocktail, and then selecting a bottle of wine to allow some time for it to decant," says the chef, citing a signature Patton's cocktail, the A5 fat-washed Old Fashioned, as his prime choice. "The showmanship in the table-side presentation really sets the tone for a wonderful dining experience."
John Manion, the chef at El Che Steakhouse & Bar in Chicago, enthusiastically agrees. "If you've elected to dine at a steakhouse, that means you're a grown person, and having a cocktail before dinner is what grown people (used to) do." In this case, he advises sticking with the classics: "If ever there was a time to order a gin martini, up, with olives, this would be it."
Another advocate for a pre-dinner drink is Nick Gaube, chief executive chef at Quality Meats and Quality Italian in New York City. "A cocktail is the first thing I'm ordering, probably a Boulevardier. Once I get one or two of those down, I've usually made my selection of what I'm going to eat."
Treat yourself, from start to finish
If ever there was a restaurant worth splurging at, it's a steakhouse. That's the ethos according to many chefs, including Taylor Kearney, corporate chef for Dallas-based Harwood Hospitality Group. "If you are going out to a steakhouse for a nice heavy meal, splurge! I have been at the helm at some of the nicest steakhouses in the country and our philosophy was always about overindulgence. Pick a ton of appetizers, a great steak, a big bottle of wine, and all the sides! When it comes to dessert, don't skimp. Treat yourself!"
And never underestimate the classic pleasures of a little bubbly. Nick Fine, culinary director of Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, says he always likes to splurge on champagne and oysters, while Brad Wise, head chef and owner of San Diego-based Rare Society Steakhouse, describes champagne as pure indulgence. "If I'm going to a steakhouse, it's a celebration, so I want to start the night off right," says Wise. "In my opinion, wine or champagne is the way to splurge. You know you'll get a quality piece of meat cooked perfectly, so make this an opportunity to indulge in a really nice bottle."
In terms of dishes worth the splurge, Manion suggests skipping the appetizers entirely and going right for the chilled seafood, like king crab, oysters, and seafood towers. "If you see that there's a seafood tower situation, take it as an opportunity to remind yourself that we only go this way once, and you can't take it with you and splurge," says the chef. "One-hundred percent my idea of a good time."
For an entree, don't shy away from the ritzier cuts of meat. "If you haven't had Japanese Wagyu, just know that it is a totally unique culinary experience that's worth the money." That's according to Dustin Falcon, chef of Niku Steakhouse in San Francisco.
After dinner, keep the celebration going with a nightcap. For Greg Peters, executive chef of Houston's Georgia James, he's talking about bourbon. "Great bourbon is always worth the splurge (Old Forester Prohibition Style is fantastic)," he says. "I'm also a big fan of a B&B (Brandy and Bénédictine) at the end of a meal and will definitely splurge on that."
Plan well to avoid a food coma
While steakhouses are prime places to splurge, there's a fine line between celebration and food coma, which is why some chefs recommend indulging without the unnecessary excess.
"When I order at steakhouses, I tend to keep things light because the portions are usually bigger," explains Ryan Schmidtberger, executive chef and partner of New York City's Hancock St. He recommends oysters, tartares, crudos, and salads to start, followed by a steak with a green vegetable as an entree. "If I'm with a larger group, then maybe we'll share a starchy side but still keep it healthy."
Another great way to cut down on the excess is by sharing, as is par for the course at Lolinda in San Francisco. "We're a bit atypical for a steakhouse because we encourage sharing, so my go-to is order a rib-eye (medium rare of course!) to share with the table," suggests chef Juan Torres. "That way I have room for other things."
Keep it classic
While plenty of solid steakhouses offer contemporary riffs and novel recipes, these are restaurants rightfully rooted in the classics, which is why many chefs opt for the latter.
"When I go to a steakhouse, I love to get simple things like an Old Fashioned, wedge salad, rib-eye, and creamed corn," says Megan Vaughan, executive chef of Bourbon Steak Seattle. "All these dishes are not new or inventive but are comfort foods that are cooked and made perfectly. The product is the star of the show."
According to Peters, several of his must-get steakhouse dishes are also of the classic persuasion. "I really like to stick to the classics here because it's a great way to get acquainted with the restaurant," he says. "Shrimp cocktail is a go-to because even though it's so standard, it really gives you insight into the execution and consistency of a restaurant."
Right up there with shrimp cocktail, Manion sings the praises of a good old-fashioned wedge salad. "Truly American cuisine at its apex, the wedge is the platonic ideal of what a salad should be, devoid of nutritional value, its simplicity almost poetic. The wedge is also your best opportunity to ingest bacon before taking on a large slab of USDA prime beef."
Beef up your steak order
When the time comes for the main attraction at a steakhouse, the beefier the better.
"When I am at a steakhouse, I always prefer cuts of meat that still have their bone attached," proclaims Paul Chadwick, a senior sous chef at Shula's Steak House. He notes that the bone adds a tremendous amount of flavor, with tomahawks and porterhouses as particular favorites. He also suggests looking for grass-finished beef and dry-aged beef. "Grass-finished beef is far superior to the misleading labeled grass-fed beef," he says. "With grass-finished beef, the cattle have spent their entire lives foraging and only feeding on grass. Whereas grass-fed beef, the cattle began their life feeding on grass and then switch to a grain-based diet."
Finally, he says dry-aging adds an amazing depth of flavor. "The reason why dry-aging is so advantageous is that during the aging process moisture evaporates from the meat, concentrating its flavors, all while naturally occurring enzymes begin breaking down the steak, making it so much more tender."
Now that you know what types of steaks to look for, how about the cut? According to Fine, the must-order is the rib-eye. "This might be a bit too 'inside baseball,' but when the USDA grades a cow, it does so based on the thirteenth rib, which is where the rib-eye comes from. To me, it showcases exactly what beef should taste like." Schmidtberger is another fan of rib-eyes, "because I feel they have the most flavor compared to strip steaks or filet."
That being said, there's always a time and a place for a good filet. "It's trendy to bash filets as 'flavorless,'" says Manion. "Not every beer needs to be an IPA, you know what I mean? There is room in life for subtlety, and I do really enjoy the subtle beefiness of a filet." An added benefit of a filet, he says, is that it won't put you down for the count if you have things to do later.
In line with the splurge-worthy theme, Scott Kroener has a few particularly robust recommendations from his restaurant, Oak Steakhouse in Nashville. "We sell certified Angus beef, both wet- and dry-aged. In addition, we of Japanese A5 Wagyu beef. Considered by many to be the pinnacle of flavor and texture for beef. Highly marbled with luscious streaks of fat. the flavor is so rich that not a lot is necessary to fill you up."
Don't neglect the sides
As essential as the steaks are, don't overlook the equally important sides.
"While the steak is usually the star of the show, the sides are the supporting actors, so make sure you add your favorites to your meal." So says Ray Rastelli, Jr., butcher and president of New Jersey-based Rastelli Foods Group. "I always recommend ordering several sides to share amongst the table, as this allows everyone to be a part of a true steakhouse experience." His picks? Traditional sides like mashed potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, sautéed onions, and sautéed spinach."
As Manion describes, sides are the low-key reason why a surprising amount of people actually go to steakhouses. "Chances are the portions are huge, but you're going to need a variety," he says, suggesting two potato experiences: "One crunchy (fries, hashbrowns) to soak up the meat juices, and one creamy (mashed, gratin, baked and fully-loaded) because you need to."
Juan Rivera of Miami's ADDiKT Modern Kitchen supports that potato hypothesis. "Ideally, steak is paired with potatoes because they serve as a canvas for the savoriness. The steak juices make an excellent gravy for mashed potatoes, but my personal favorite, and highly recommended, is a truffle potato casserole."
Make sure your wine complements the food
Just as requisite with steak is a nice glass—or let's be honest, bottle—of wine.
"When it comes to your wine selections, keep in mind that your wine choice should bring out the key tones or flavor in the meal that you are eating," explains Rastelli, Jr. "Red wines are made from red grapes with the skin left on, creating a better ability to bring out the flavors in red meat. White wines are less subtle than red, as well as sweeter, so when you have the delicateness of fish, you want to choose a white wine so you don't overshadow the protein." His picks include Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot with steak, or even a heavy oak Chardonnay.
"Wine pairings are awesome, and this is where I really enjoy talking with servers and sommeliers," raves Peters, who starts his meals off with Grüner Veltliner before progressing to Barolo with steak, because it "has great tannin and an acidity that pairs well with the fattiness of a rib-eye."
For Falcon, he likes to steer clear of the stereotypically big, bold Cabernets. "I gravitate towards lighter Pinot Noirs, sakes, and if I do go heavier, I prefer something aged, which makes the wine softer on the palate. These wines pair well with the dry age, Japanese wagyu, and non-beef cuts on the menu."
Make dessert mandatory
After all those starters, steaks, sides, and wines, it can be hard to prioritize dessert, but plenty of steakhouse chefs agree that it's worth making stomach space for.
"I personally think desserts are always mandatory whenever one goes out to dinner, no matter what type of restaurant," says Vaughan, who "always get desserts because it completes the meal."
And what better way to complete a steakhouse meal than with cake? According to Wise, dessert is especially mandatory when cake is involved. "Always go for the cake choice at a steakhouse, because it's usually their signature and always worth it."
"You've come this far. Don't stop now." That's the ethos for Manion, who keeps the splurge theme going by getting "the biggest, stupidest thing they have." Examples include a gigantic slice of chocolate cake or a gargantuan ice cream sundae. "You won't regret it."
At the end of the day, a steakhouse meal is one of innate excess, decadence, and celebration splashed with champagne and enhanced with potatoes in all forms. Rather than skimp (or worse, order your steak over-cooked), these are restaurants well worth the surcharge.
"I believe the overall experience at a steakhouse is worth the expense, from the perfect wine pairing and top-quality selection of steaks to the most decadent dessert," summarizes Rivera. "Because not all steakhouses are the same, I recommend that guests select a steakhouse that provides impeccable service, knowledgeable staff, and an inviting atmosphere."