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Home > Archives > March 31, 1996 > Rating Steak Houses: Bern's Steakhouse

Rating Steak Houses: Bern's Steakhouse



March 31, 1996

Rating Steak Houses

Reviews of our Top 10 and then some, from New York to Los Angeles, San Antonio to Tampa, and points in between


Lots of places serve great steaks. We want something more. Give us a flawless, perfectly broiled chunk of beef, sure, but surround it with inspired side dishes and appetizers, serve it with style and offer up a broad spectrum of wines to complete the picture. We don't think that's asking too much.

So we crisscrossed the country in search of steak-and-wine nirvana and came up with 10 top steak houses. America's best can indeed deliver the complete package.

First we compiled a list of some 50 candidates, steak houses with great reputations for their beef. Then we eliminated the ones with mediocre wine lists. In the end, we visited 35 steak houses from Seattle to San Antonio, Milwaukee to Miami, New York to New Orleans. We went anonymously, invited wine- and food-oriented friends to join us and always paid the check.

As much as possible, we ordered the same dinner in each restaurant. Steaks were strip and porterhouse, side dishes the traditional onion rings and creamed spinach. But we also tried house specialties, including appetizers, vegetables and dessert. We rated each restaurant on our 100-point scale, allowing 40 percent for the steak dinner, 30 percent for the wine list, and 15 percent each for service and ambience. Because we ignored the chicken and fish dishes, concentrating on steak for the main course, please note that we rate these as steak houses, not as all-purpose restaurants.

Bern's and The Forge showed great strength across all categories and tied for first place at 92 points, with Sparks and The Angus Barn just behind, tied at 91. Not only do they serve great steaks, but each creates a distinctive ambience. Service is friendly and efficient, maintaining the informality of a classic steak house while avoiding the gruff demeanor too often excused as authenticity or tradition. And all four already have Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine lists.

Wine Spectator has been rating restaurant wine lists since 1981. Currently, 1,751 restaurants in 47 states and 36 countries hold Wine Spectator awards for their wine lists. These are divided into three categories: the basic Award of Excellence, the more demanding Best of Award of Excellence and our top level, Grand Award. Only 93 restaurants worldwide hold Grand Awards; they generally offer lists with more than 500 selections and cellars of more than 6,000 bottles.

The rest of the top 10 have excellent wine programs, but with one exception they're not Grand Award caliber. They also serve good appetizers and side dishes, but not so many or so well as our top four. Each of the top 10 also manages to offer something extra from the kitchen, whether it's Oysters Rockefeller topped with perfect hollandaise sauce at The Angus Barn, mashed sweet potatoes with truffle oil at The Forge or queso-stuffed jalapeños at Billy Crews'.

It goes without saying that all 10 serve generous portions of top-quality steaks, cooked with skill. The Angus Barn and Harris' serve Certified Angus Beef while others specify U.S. prime. Bern's and The Forge dry age their steaks while others rely on wet aging. Grill temperatures vary from as low as 400° F to as high as 1800° F. Whatever route they take, we found the results impressive.

What makes steak houses such a pleasure is that they transcend any obsessions with cuisine or culinary preciousness. You don't need a French-trained chef or a New American maestro to eat well and include some terrific wine in the formula. All it takes is superb ingredients and a kitchen that treats them with, um, rare respect.


Bern's Steakhouse

Bern's Explains It All To You

Bern's is a mind-blowing experience. Steaks are sensational. Every detail has been carefully considered, and a long dissertation on the menu explains it all. Vegetables come from the restaurant's own organic garden. Servers train for a year to earn their stripes as waiters. Dessert is a completely separate experience (with a separate check) in a warren of private booths. And the wine list is still the longest in the world, despite some recent downsizing.

One way to approach Bern's wine list is to ignore it. Paging through a phonebook-sized tome with 212 pages of wine listings can daunt the most experienced wine lover. Better to call in advance and just ask for any win e you might like to drink. Chances are they will have it waiting for you, and the price will be fair. Markups are modest and older wines are especially good values. The highlights are endless. A quick look at 1961 Bordeaux, for example, reveals Château Latour at $812, Château Margaux at $605 and Château Lynch-Bages at $295. The wine-by-the-glass list, 12 pages long, contains some finds, all priced by the ounce (1/24 the price of a bottle). Mature wines from middling vintages that have not been selling on the main list are great values. Not having planned in advance, I plucked a Ridge Geyserville 1990 off the list for $29.10.

Bern's is big, but seems less so inside because it is divided into five dining rooms. Each one feels like a separate restaurant, their decor varies so dramatically. One looks like a Pompeian palace, with red walls and white statuettes in framed nooks. Another is brick-lined with a room-length map of Burgundy and poster-size photos of vines.

It all can be a little too much, but then, excess is Bern's' style. What other restaurant devotes the first two pages of its menu to the caviar selection? How many offer a wine-by-the-glass list that includes two pages of Sherry and 100 table wines? Not many steak houses of this quality include a bowl of freshly made soup (vichyssoise or onion), an exceptional house salad, perfectly baked potato and unlimited vegetables for the price of a steak (or any entrée, for that matter).

The steak itself is irreproachable. My 14-ounce New York strip came out indescribably tender, sporting a crunchy crust despite being medium rare. It had that nutty taste that comes from dry aging, and every speck of fat was trimmed. House salad vibrated with freshness, each slice of green pepper, fennel, jicama and red tomato, each bite of lettuces and sprouts singing with its own pure flavor.

Despite the generally high level of aspiration and execution, we had minor complaints. For an adult palate, sweet flavors play a big role at Bern's. Grand Marnier sweetened shredded carrots and honey did the same for steamed mustard greens. Not just vegetables, but breads and spreads all had noticeable sugar in them. A weird assortment of curry, avocado, sweet onion and other spreads clashed with perfectly fresh Tennessee caviar.

Servers operate with remarkable skill, although our waiter disappeared several times after delivering a course, which made it difficult to address problems. With a little patience and consultation, however, things got back on track, running smoothly. I got some plain sour cream (and a glass of Perrier-Jouët) for my caviar and terrific steamed broccoli and carrots to replace the sweet veggies.

Dessert sends you upstairs to a private booth. I had a nicely done citrus-scented cheesecake slice with a glass of 1966 Port from Ferreira, which tasted more like a tawny. The booths are wired for 12 different kinds of music and television, a nice idea except that they're not soundproof.

The menu hype can raise expectations so high that it's easy to underrate Bern's, but despite a few blue notes, there is no disputing the great wine list and the glory of the steak itself, the exemplary quality of the ingredients and care in preparation. The gewgaws just make it a giddier experience. --H.S.

Bern's Steakhouse

Food / 91

Wine / 95

Service / 90

Ambience / 90

Overall / 92

Address 1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, Fla. 33606

Phone (813) 251-2421

Open Dinner only, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, Discover


The Forge

Versailles of Steaks on Arthur Godfrey Road

The Forge calls itself a "continental" restaurant, not a steak house, but with a page and a half of steaks on the menu, three guesses what the prime attraction is. The menu does shy away from the straightforward descriptions favored by most steak houses, so you must query the waiter to determine that the "super steak" is indeed a New York strip and read the fine print to clarify that the "prime rib" is actually a grilled rib eye. And oh, boy, are they good--perfectly crusty, meltingly tender, infused with flavor. "Hobo steak" is a sirloin dressed with a balsamic vinegar marinade. The "special steak" brings a similar sirloin grilled Tuscan style, which is to say brushed with olive oil.

Chef Khalad Abdalla confirms The Forge's return to its steak house roots. "Five years ago all we were selling was fish and chicken, but the past two or three years it's back to beef. More than half of our guests order beef." He has U.S. prime dry-aged beef flown in from Chicago.

Impeccable as the beef is, The Forge gets a leg up on other steak houses with its side dishes. Salads are fresh and imaginative, dressed with taste and presented with wit; long strips of cucumber corral the house salad into a center-of-the-plate cylinder. A Caesar has rich flavors. Vegetables are a revelation--crisply glazed yuca (a delicate root vegetable used in Cuban cuisine), perfectly cooked honest-to-goodness haricots verts (although the menu mangles the French), mashed sweet potatoes with truffle oil that are to swoon over. Even the standard steak fries and creamed spinach are several notches above.

The ornate decor stops just short of gaudy. The place is filled with stained glass, mirrors, carved wood and amusing sculptures. The exterior looks like it was transported from Versailles and plunked down amongst Miami Beach office buildings and stores. It was damaged by fire about five years ago, but the only evidence of the conflagration is the spacious and impressive wine cellar, built where the building was hardest hit.

The wine cellar holds 300,000 bottles and more than 1,000 selections between the regular list and the reserve list. The reserve list bristles with old Bordeaux and Burgundy, most of it acquired at auction, all of it in four and five figures. (The legendary Château Lafite Rothschild 1870 is available, for example, for $17,000.) But there are also plenty of 5-, 10- and 15-year-old California, French and Italian reds that are just begging to go along with those steaks, such as a Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Monte Bello 1987 for $49 or an Antinori Tignanello 1985 for $75. Better wines get fine crystal glasses.

There were a few missteps, alas. No one offered us the reserve wine list. Grilled buffalo steak was a low-intensity experience next to those glorious beefsteaks. "Key Lime Snow," a frozen mousselike dessert, tasted of refrigerator. The much-vaunted chocolate and Grand Marnier dessert soufflé could have been lighter. But these are quibbles measured against the strong points. No complaints about service, either, which operates with considerable aplomb and impressive proficiency.

When you add it up, The Forge has managed a neat trick. It feels like an old-fashioned restaurant, and it rides to its success on great steaks, but it is not caught in a time warp, either. With its inventive salads, serious vegetables and artful appetizers, it delivers more than meat and potatoes in fancy digs. It qualifies as a genuine experience. Well-heeled wine lovers can indulge splendidly in the expensive offerings, but back here on Earth the list has plenty to recommend it, too. --H.S.

The Forge

Food / 91

Wine / 94

Service / 91

Ambience / 93

Overall / 92

Address 432 Arthur Godfrey Road, Miami Beach, Fla. 33140

Phone (305) 538-8533

Open Dinner only, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club


The Angus Barn

Chow Down and Hoedown at The Angus Barn

You know it's a big party. From the air, the Angus Barn steak house complex looks like a small city. Official signs mark the exit from the highway. After the valet parks your car, the hostess gives you a pager that buzzes when your table is ready. Now you can wander through the huge barn that makes country living more exciting than it ever was on the farm.

Check out founder Thad Eure Jr.'s collection of firearms, including rare Colt revolvers and Civil War swords. There's an open buffet stocked with crackers, potted cheeses, celery, carrots and sour pickles. The Wild Turkey Lounge shows off Eure's 400 decanters of Wild Turkey whiskey. A country store sells souvenirs, barbecue sauce, cigars. The open interior could be a barn museum, rough-hewn yet carefully designed, with wooden walls, massive beams and lanterns hanging in wagon wheels and oxen yokes. Wooden tables are covered with tablecloths checked blue and white.

The dining areas seat 500, full of people celebrating birthdays, out with family, meeting with colleagues after work. Everyone relaxes; the place is impressive, but it's still a barn. The servers add to the ease. When a guest tucked her napkin into her collar, a waiter immediately brought a small Angus Barn apron to protect her clothes. A wine steward, wearing jeans and a cotton shirt, decanted a bottle of Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1990 (only $34.50) in a friendly manner that would reassure a neophyte but still satisfy a connoisseur.

"If a customer wanted frozen yogurt, a waiter would jump in a car to go to the supermarket," insists daughter and current manager, Van Eure. "If it's not illegal or immoral, we get it for them."

The Angus Barn wine list, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner since 1989, has no rivals between northern Virginia and Atlanta. There are 1,100 selections, with 55,000 bottles in the cellar. (A luxurious dining room in the wine cellar offers a six-course Provençal meal including wines for $95 per person.) The list manages to explore most of the wine world, including a page of wines from North Carolina. Reds from California and France are the strengths, with verticals of Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from 1988 to 1969, or Bordeaux, such as Château Latour from 1988 to 1953. Two-thirds of the customers buy wine, for an average bottle price of $30, according to Eure.

The food is reliable, rising occasionally to outstanding. The steaks are cut from Certified Angus Beef wet aged three weeks; a new custom-built aging room will bring that in-house soon. Rib eye is the most popular cut and the one I enjoyed most, very tender with mild, sweet beefy flavor. The grill men are expert; however, the steaks are served on sizzling cast-iron skillets (on top of wooden chargers) and tend to continue cooking slightly, so order on the rare side of your preference. Unlike most steak houses, the Angus Barn includes a salad and potato with the steak, and both the spinach and Caesar salads are large and tasty. Oysters Rockefeller are Atlantic oysters, topped with spinach, bacon and a dab of hollandaise sauce, then run under the broiler. The blackberries in a giant cobbler come from a local farm and, buried under a drift of vanilla ice cream, have summer flavor even in November.

The Angus Barn opened in 1960 and burned to the ground in 1964. Undaunted, the Eure family rebuilt. Today the restaurant serves more than 20,000 steaks a month. The Angus Barn thrives on a survivor's sense of gratitude and willingness to do what it takes. As a result, it's one of the best places in America to enjoy red meat and a bottle of wine. --T.M.

The Angus Barn

Food / 89

Wine / 94

Service / 90

Ambience / 91

Overall / 91

Address Highway 70 West at Aviation Parkway, Raleigh, N.C. 27612

Phone (919) 787-3505

Open Dinner only, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club


Sparks Steak House

Where Everyone is on the Team

Sparks can be intimidating the first time you go. The coat check is stuffed with leather briefcases; the bar is thick with burly businessmen. Every table is full. But have patience. Once you're seated, you'll feel right at home.

It's not a fancy place. Low light, wood floors, white tablecloths give it a clubby feel; simple landscapes in discreet gold frames hang above the booths that line the walls. Parties of six squeeze around tables for four, radiating cheerful gluttony. "We haven't had an empty seat in 16 years," says Pat Cetta, who owns Sparks with his brother Michael.

Yet the waiters never miss a beat. It's a steak house tradition for men to drape their jackets over the back of their chairs; at Sparks, the waiter carefully places a napkin over your jacket to protect it from spills. Before dessert he'll whisk away the old tablecloth for a fresh one. I say "he" because all the servers are men, strong enough to carry huge platters of meat and gigantic bottles of wine, friendly enough to kid around with regulars, discreet enough to know when to leave you alone.

Sparks has built the best wine list in New York. The front wall of the restaurant and large tables just inside the entry are stacked high with double magnums and jeroboams, many signed by their winemakers or owners. The list offers 300 selections backed by a 100,000-bottle cellar; it has been a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner since 1981. Sparks is exceptionally strong in California, Bordeaux and Italy. Though a bit disorganized, and younger now than it was a few years ago (the 1970 Bordeaux have largely given way to the '78s, for example), the list still offers a tremendous range of drinking pleasure. Not all the waiters are experts on wine, but Cetta is usually nearby to answer questions or make a recommendation.

Curiously for a steak house, fish entrées outnumber beef by 11 to seven. No porterhouse, T-bone or rib eye cuts are offered, because Cetta thinks they don't age well. Yet 90 percent of dinner customers order meat, and they've got the right idea. They don't call it a "New York" strip for nothing: Sparks' version weighs in at 16 ounces and that's pure tender juicy meat, no bone, no fat, no gristle, crusty with a smoky, moderate char, yet tender and juicy, perfectly cooked. If dads get to barbecue in heaven, this is how the steak always turns out. The meat is all U.S. prime, aged for three weeks in-house with a proprietary mix of wet and dry aging, according to Cetta.

Side dishes are simple but as generous and well executed as the steaks. A giant baked potato, a mountain of crusty, creamy hash browns, a bale of fresh steamed spinach are all delicious. But don't get too fancy. When you see a dozen pats of butter on a table set for two, you know that it's possible to get too much of a good thing. Stick with cold shellfish appetizers and skip the desserts--they aren't made here anyway. Instead, check out the extraordinary list of dessert wines, available by the glass, half-bottle and bottle and even magnum, ranging from great Sauternes (Château Climens 1976, only $70 per bottle) to a 1948 Taylor Fladgate vintage Port ($295 per bottle) to late-harvest Rieslings from Germany, California and New York.

There are many great steak houses in New York. Some may rival Sparks in age, ambience or food. But none can match Sparks' wine list, and none can exceed its friendliness. The Cetta brothers have managed to create a restaurant that embodies all the steak house comforts without falling into any of its clichés. For wine lovers, Sparks offers the most satisfying steak dinner in town. --T.M.

Sparks Steak House

Food / 90

Wine / 94

Service / 89

Ambience / 88

Overall / 91

Address 210 E. 46th St., New York 10017

Phone (212) 687-4855

Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday; closed Sunday

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club


Pacific Dining Car

Unpretentiousness in Trendy L.A.

Two big black life-sized steer statues guard the entrance to one of trendy Los Angeles' least pretentious fine dining establishments. The menu may nod to fashion with chicken, fish and pasta, but the focal point is good old-fashioned steak.

The blackboard menu, brought to each table and annotated by the waiters and waitresses, lists six or seven cuts, ranging from a double-cut porterhouse (listed for two but it would feed four easily) to a lunchtime portion of New York strip, cut lengthwise to an arrowhead shape to keep its thickness but make it manageable. The beef is dry-aged Midwestern corn-fed U.S. prime and tastes like it. The kitchen does a commendable job of broiling steaks, getting a nice crust without overdoing it.

The cooks also toss a Caesar salad generous with shavings of Parmesan and creamy, garlicky, anchovy-zippy dressing. They fry onion rings and shoestring-cut zucchini with skill and steam plain broccoli without overdoing it. Onions browned slowly for a culotte steak managed to be deep mahogany and sweet without being burnt. One serving of almost any à la carte vegetable would be enough for four. On the down side, all the food seems consistently undersalted and desserts are on the mild side (but big).

The original dining car still exists, comprising the entryway and a counter dining area. Over the years the expanding and handsomely designed restaurant has engulfed the dining car, but part of that expansion is a huge temperature-controlled wine cellar. Pictures of restaurant principals with various famous winemakers festoon one wall of the main hallway and, sure enough, the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence wine list offers generous vertical selections of their hottest Cabernets, Merlots and Zinfandels. We found a silky-smooth Waterbrook Merlot 1993 from Washington ($27). Pacific Dining Car is one of a handful of L.A. restaurants with a full-time sommelier, Ron Washam, who, like the other servers, displays old-fashioned deference and competence, unusual for this city.

Even though the neighborhood around the original location is anything but luxurious, the line of Jaguars, BMWs and Lexuses in the shadow of the steer sculptures testifies to the moneyed clientele. It's not so much trendy as it is a watering hole for the big grazers of local business and politics. (There is another Pacific Dining Car in upscale Santa Monica, some 10 miles west.) And if you get a hankering for steak at 3:30 a.m., Pacific Dining Car can fill the need admirably. It's open 24 hours a day--a remnant of its early history as a Prohibition-era political hangout and speakeasy. --H.S.

Pacific Dining Car

Food / 89

Wine / 88

Service / 90

Ambience / 90

Overall / 89

Address 1310 W. Sixth St., Los Angeles 90017

Phone (213) 483-6000

Open 24 hours, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club


Billy Crews Dining Room

Dining With Billy in the Old West

There really is a Billy Crews, a rotund, mild-mannered fellow whose no-frills New Mexico steak house has been making residents of nearby El Paso, Texas, happy with big steaks cut to order since 1976 and a 1,500-choice wine list that has been a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner since 1986. Prices seem locked in that era, too; $10 for a 12- to 14-ounce rib eye steak is typical. Wines are priced 25 percent over retail.

A few caveats. The steaks are U.S. choice, not prime, and they age in plastic rather than dry aging, but they are cut to order at a butcher station that occupies a corner of the main dining room, and at those prices who's complaining? The rib eye is tender and juicy, even if it misses the buttery texture and hint of nutty flavor characteristic of a dry aged steak. Wine glasses are not fine crystal, but at least they are big enough to slosh the wine around generously.

There are two ways to approach the wine list. One is to drive yourself nuts trying to decide which of the many temptingly priced plums to pluck for your dinner. Let's see, shall we spend $30 on Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1990 or $180 on Château Haut-Brion 1985? The other is to take a right turn just before the bar and walk through Crews' adjacent wine shop, its shelves lined with an array of ready-to-drink wines that would shame many big-name shops. Either way, the temptation is to sample two or three bottles for what it would cost to drink one at most restaurants. A 16-bottle nitrogen wine keeper holds a nice selection of wines by the glass, too.

The dining room feels like an old-fashioned family restaurant, the sort of place Mom, Pop and the kids frequented for Sunday dinner in mid-century. Comfortable armchairs look out the window at the lights of El Paso twinkling in the distance through a line of palm trees. There are private rooms where the restaurant holds special wine dinners every couple of weeks, and a patio suitable for apéritifs on a warm summer evening. An easy 10-minute drive from El Paso, the restaurant occupies a low-slung building on what was once the main highway to Las Cruces, N.M.

Big, pillowy hot rolls keep coming throughout dinner. The stuffed baked potato is creamy and fluffy at the same time. Caesar salad is a little vinegary but it uses real anchovies. A fresh spinach salad is better, but the real hits among the preliminaries are the stuffed red and green jalapeño peppers. Crisply breaded on the outside, creamy inside, they set off a well-chilled herbal Sauvignon Blanc like nothing else. Homemade butterscotch pie is a winner for dessert, as are the homemade ice creams.

If Billy Crews' seems a little old-fashioned, it comes by the trait honestly. It delivers some old-fashioned, honest value and a mind-boggling wine selection. -- H.S

.

Billy Crews Dining Room

Food / 86

Wine / 92

Service / 87

Ambience / 86

Overall / 88

Address 1200 Country Club Road, Santa Teresa, N.M. 88008

Phone (505) 589-2071

Open Dinner only, 7 days

Cost Moderate

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club


Chops

Luxury Enters the Steak House at Chops

Chops is a butcher in a tuxedo. A glass-walled locker by the entrance holds sides of raw beef, a nod to the gritty authenticity of the old meat market dives, but there is no sawdust on the floor to soil an expensive suit. Pat Kuleto, whose credits include San Francisco's Fog City Diner and Boulevard, designed the $2 million Atlanta steak house, and instead of the usual pressed tin and red leather, the opulent interior features rare hardwoods, black Italian marble and hundreds of custom-made lights.

The service sustains the air of luxury. In place of the classic steak house curmudgeons, enthusiastic young men and women are nothing if not solicitous. When I mentioned that my smoked salmon was buried under unwanted diced onion, my waiter offered to replace it; when I declined, he served a dessert on the house. There's room for improvement, though: "Decanting" meant draining my bottle of red into a chunky carafe, with no concern for sediment.

The delicious Norwegian salmon, creamy and full-flavored, showed off another ace in Chops' hand. The steak house is part of the upscale Buckhead Life Restaurant Group; seafood comes from the group's fine seafood restaurant and breads from its terrific bakery. Gulf shrimp, Florida stone crabs, Maryland crab cakes and Long Island Blue Point oysters all make fine first courses.

The beef is all wet-aged prime, and there's something for every appetite: New York strip in three sizes, filet mignon in two, porterhouse and prime rib. My favorite is the rib eye, moderately charred, tender and juicy, a plump 16 ounces. Standouts among the side dishes include smooth creamed spinach and sweet Vidalia onion rings with a tangy barbecue sauce. The house specialty dessert is black-bottom pie, five inches of chocolate pudding, vanilla custard and whipped cream that will satisfy the biggest sweet tooth.

The weakest link in Chops' lineup is the wine list. Though it offers around 300 selections from mostly fine producers, the range is relatively young, and generally expensive. There is some vintage depth in Bordeaux (Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac 1961 for $350, for example), but few French wines list for under $50. California offers better value, but budget-minded wine lovers don't have an easy time here.

Still, business is booming. The boisterous but well-tailored crowd can either afford the bottles they want, or settle for iced tea and bourbon. They're after good food in a luxurious setting, and Chops delivers the goods --T.M.

Chops

Food / 89

Wine / 86

Service / 88

Ambience / 91

Overall / 88

Address 70 West Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta, 30305

Phone (404) 262-2675

Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club


Grey Moss Inn

Stepping Back in Time

Grey Forest, Texas, is a 15-minute drive from the freeway that rings San Antonio, but it's another world. Drive up a woodsy road and there it is, an old stone building, an erstwhile stagecoach stop. Next to the entrance is a flagstone patio with what appears at first to be a round water well. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a pit where all the steaks are grilled over mesquite wood.

Inside, the walls are lined with high dish rails displaying antique plates. Old-fashioned tables and chairs could have come out of Grandma's Early American kitchen. There is a fireplace--it does get chilly in late fall and winter here. Only the ceiling tiles destroy the image of old Texas.

Grey Moss Inn is a venerable place, all right. San Antonio residents have been coming here for decades to propose to each other and celebrate anniversaries. And it serves a unique steak. Smoky from the pit-broiling, the T-bone is cut thinner than in most steak houses, and unless you ask for it without, it comes on a plate with a Worcestershire-based jus. Even better is the sensational smoked prime rib, infused with smoky mesquite flavor as it roasts to the rare stage, and only then cut and grilled to order in the wood pit. The plain rib eye is also fine.

White onion dressing enlivens a good green salad, and the square of yellow squash casserole that accompanies every steak is aromatic with cumin. Don't miss the jalapeño-stuffed potatoes, a house specialty. Although the first bite seems not too spicy, the fresh chiles do build up the heat as one works through the addictive potato.

All the spicy flavors interfere with wine a lot less than that Worcestershire-based steak sauce. My advice is to ask for the steak unadorned, especially if you take advantage of one of the best fairly priced cellars anywhere. The Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence list brims with recent-vintage reds at amazing prices. We pinpointed a Ridge Lytton Springs 1992 for $22, but the waiter came back with regrets that the wine was gone and bottles of the 1990 and 1993 in hand at the same price. The '90 was fat, rich and immediately likable. We also found Luciano Sandrone Barolo Cannubi Boschis 1989 for $54, a wine from the hottest Barolo producer that is essentially unavailable anywhere in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco at any price.

With these kinds of wines, plus the distinctive personality of the restaurant and its food, Grey Moss Inn qualifies as definitely worth the side trip for any wine fancier in range of San Antonio.--H.S.

Grey Moss Inn

Food / 87

Wine / 89

Service / 88

Ambience / 88

Overall / 88

Address 19010 Scenic Loop Road, Grey Forest, Texas 78023

Phone (210) 695-8301

Open Dinner only, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, Discover


Harris'

The California Touch

Harris' is what happens when a darned good steak house layers on some modern California sensibilities. The wood-paneled room feels lighter and more open, although the brass chandeliers and sconces speak of an earlier age. Steaks are first-rate, side dishes show more imagination and care for freshness than most steak houses' and the wine list pegs a goodly number of trendy choices from Pacific Rim growers.

Ann Harris opened this restaurant more than a decade ago. Although fear of beef was in full swing then, it was easy for her to be a believer. Her family owns Harris Ranch, a huge feeding and packing operation in central California. She does not use Harris beef, however, preferring the taste and texture of Certified Angus Beef, identified on the menu only as "Midwestern beef." An exterior window displays the aging beef to passersby and a plaque explains that it dry ages for 21 days.

The Harris' steak is a bone-in New York strip (known in other circles as club steak) with a texture that is both succulent and a little chewy, showing real aged flavors. Ours was perfectly broiled, and even a filet ordered well-done was juicy and flavorful. Steaks come with a nicely baked but not outsized potato and a green vegetable--crisply sautéed sugar snap peas on our visit. Side dishes like scalloped potatoes and lightly creamed spinach are competently done, but don't miss the Japanese mushrooms, a house specialty of shiitakes cooked with a dash of soy sauce and garlic.

Garlicky Caesar salad tastes fresh and lively and comes with a whole anchovy on top. Watercress salad is an interesting variation on spinach salad, with its avocados and designer tomatoes, and the smoked salmon appetizer is mild in flavor but rich in texture. Curiously, bread is not San Francisco sourdough but a nice but unexceptional light French baguette. That fits with the general tone, which is to lighten up the steak experience.

Desserts are another matter. Cheesecake is classic New York style, and the kitchen makes its own sorbets (peach with Zinfandel was a winner). Our favorite was the warm apple gingerbread, a moist, almost puddinglike cake with exuberant sweet-spicy ginger flavors, balanced nicely with the rich texture. It is a great dessert.

The 175-wine list lacks older, more mature wines, but contains some insiders' Zinfandels, Syrahs and Cabernets. We found a Penfolds Cabernet-Shiraz 1991 at $28. The Aussie wine has matured nicely since its release, gaining depth and richness, making it a wonderful companion to a chunk of meat. So are the imaginative salads, side dishes and desserts.--H.S.

Harris'

Food / 89

Wine / 86

Service / 88

Ambience / 88

Overall / 88

Address 2100 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco 94109

Phone (415) 673-1888,

Fax (415) 673-8817

Open Dinner only, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, Discover


The Post House

Art House Meets Steak House

With its art-filled decor and wide-ranging menu, The Post House ventures beyond beef to become a sophisticated American restaurant, but happily it's a steak house at heart.

These two personalities slide in and out of focus as the meal progresses. The multilevel dining room offers an appealing collection of Americana, from antique wooden turkeys to contemporary art, but conversations still echo off traditional steak house wood and tile. The menu offers free interpretations of regional specialties, such as chicken breast served with corn, shiitake mushrooms and country ham, along with the usual steaks. The waiters pretend to be gruff old men, but make a joke or a request and they are quick to smile and help. The result is a restaurant where steak lovers and more adventurous palates can both find something to eat.

We left the coconut shrimp with curry for another visit, to concentrate on steak house classics. First courses are generous and innovative without losing their roots. Oysters fried in cornmeal, served on cole slaw and crisp potatoes, are fresh and lively; a huge pile of crabmeat is firm and sweet. Among the side dishes, delicious fried zucchini sticks are crisp outside, meltingly tender and sweet inside. Sautéed spinach is deep green and toothsome, a bit salty but real. The steak selection is limited (no porterhouse or T-bone) and fancy (the prime rib comes with a giant popover), but the quality of the dry-aged beef is impeccable, from the butter-tender filet mignon to the charred, firm strip. Rib steak served on the bone is rich and beefy and melting with delicious fat.

The Post House is managed by Alan Stillman's New York Restaurant group, which also includes Smith & Wollensky, another steak house institution, and all of its members have strong wine lists. The Post House holds Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence and, naturally, the strong suit here is American wines. The whites are broad and the California Cabernets offer exceptional depth. Plus there are plenty of mature Bordeaux for Francophiles. Prices tend toward the high side, but there are bargains, such as the sturdy and deeply fruity Contino Rioja Reserva 1988 ($28). Service is wine-savvy, too; when I sent back a corked bottle, the waiter brought another one without hesitation or complaint.

The Post House makes our top 10 list by virtue of its range, consistency and distinctive personality. It's not a classic steak house, but it has managed to broaden its reach while maintaining the essential core of prime beef and fine wines.--T.M.

The Post House

Food / 88

Wine / 87

Service / 88

Ambience / 90

Overall / 88

Address 28 E. 63rd St., New York 10021

Phone (212) 935-2888

Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, Discover


Other Steak Houses of Interest


Bone's Restaurant

Food / 88

Wine / 88

Service / 85

Ambience / 86

Overall / 87

Address 3130 Piedmont Road, Atlanta 30305

Phone (404) 237-2663

Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, Discover

Bone's opened in 1979 but feels older. Its style bridges the tin ceilings of turn-of-the-century steak houses and the marble floors of contemporary upscale versions. It's a clubby place that pours an honest drink and cooks beef as well as the rest of them.

The dry-aged, prime steaks have that distinctive nutty flavor and chewy texture; a 22-ounce bone-in rib steak rivaled a good strip steak in its depth and intensity of flavor. Grits fritters, small balls crispy on the outside and melting inside, remind you you're in the South. And the wine list, a Best of Award of Excellence winner since 1990, offers a strong selection of reds from all over the world, with many good buys. A vertical of Château Mouton-Rothschild, for example, extends from 1985 back to 1961 (a reasonable $890).

Ask for one of the small private dining rooms, stick with simpler dishes and order two bottles of wine at once. That way you can avoid the shortcomings--a kitchen that can't always deliver its menu and waiters that may serenely assume you know what they have and they know what you want. And enjoy good beef in a convivial setting that feels as comfy as the 1950s. --T.M.


Smith & Wollensky

Food / 87

Wine / 87

Service / 85

Ambience / 86

Overall / 87

Address 201 E. 49th St., New York 10017

Phone (212) 753-1530

Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, Discover

Smith & Wollensky re-creates the saloons of the heroic age of the steak house. From the well-aged beef to the long-suffering waiters to the manly toys hanging from the well-scuffed walls, it encourages a boisterous well-being defiant in this anxious, careful culture.

The prime beef, dry aged on the premises, fuels the party. It's outstanding, especially the crusty, juicy New York strip. The sweet rib eye comes with a spicy Cajun marinade. prime rib comes in a pool of fragrant juices. But side dishes can be indifferent, from overcooked asparagus to dry onion rings. And while the waiters know their business, they are sometimes harried into clumsiness; Champagne foams over the glass, a decanter is full of sediment.

Wine is everywhere: in bins behind the bar, lined up on tables in the dining room, even big bottles mounted in cradles on the walls. But although the restaurant received a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 1987, the list has suffered in recent years. Older vintages have not been replaced, and prices have risen steeply. Still, the restaurant's decline is slight, from a high level, and the lively crowd--business colleagues, friends, fathers with sons--hardly seems to care. The beef is good and the mood is right. For a steak house, that's most of the battle already won. --T.M.


St. Elmo Steak House

Food / 85

Wine / 89

Service / 90

Ambience / 86

Overall / 87

Address 127 S. Illinois St., Indianapolis 46225

Phone (317) 635-0636

Open Dinner, 7 days

Cost Moderate

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, Discover

St. Elmo still cooks in the same kitchen as when it opened in 1902: a cold case and a small grill just inside the door, dwarfed by the massive wooden bar across the room. It's an old-fashioned place, and offers traditional food and mature wines at yesterday's prices.

The small grill turns out 900 steaks on a busy night, and each comes with a full meal. Navy bean soup is rich and smoky with ham. Crisp iceberg lettuce and a fluffy baked potato are irreproachable. The well-aged strip steak is firm yet juicy, with a bit of gristle; the 24-ounce porterhouse is beefy and sweet on the tenderloin side. The beef is "usually prime," according to partner Jeff Dunaway, and is wet aged for three weeks and butchered on the premises.

The wine list, holder of Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence since 1990, offers extraordinary bargains to those willing to experiment. How about a selection of Steltzner Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons that includes the 1984 ($38), the 1985 ($36) and the 1986 ($29)? The 450-selection list is strongest in California reds, but includes some mature Bordeaux as well.

St. Elmo is always crowded, yet the service is cheerful and efficient. One busboy can whip a tablecloth from under a dozen dishes and wineglasses, and draws big tips from the astonished customers. Don't expect luxury or sophistication here, but a good time is on the table at a very reasonable price. --T.M.


Taste of Texas Restaurant

Food / 85

Wine / 87

Service / 86

Ambience 86

Overall / 86

Address 10505 Katy Freeway (Beltway 8 and Gessner), Houston 77024

Phone (713) 932-6901

Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, 7 days

Cost Expensive

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club, Discover

Houston is a city of terrific steak houses with short, uninspiring wine lists, and then there's Taste of Texas. It not only has an eclectic wine list worth studying, it has a wine room. Try for a seat there. It puts you in proximity to polished-wood racks full of drink-me wines, and with only eight tables and a low ceiling, it's one of the quieter sections in a big loud barn of a restaurant.

The mostly current vintages focus on California, France and Texas, arranged by wine style rather than geography. There are some verticals of high-profile California and Bordeaux reds.

Steaks have the right flavor, although despite being billed as U.S. prime they don't quite deliver the velvety texture. The uninspiring salad bar does offer hot corn, white and jalapeño breads. Try the plate of medium-size Gulf shrimp, sweet and very fresh, better than most shrimp cocktails. Baked potato soup is more interesting than the foil-wrapped baked potato. Vegetables in general disappoint, but the pecan pie and the Bluebell brand ice cream are worth ordering for dessert.

With no reservations taken, the wait can easily exceed an hour. Locals know they can show up, get a number and an accurate prediction of when it will come up and while away the time somewhere else. Those who hang around can sip free soft drinks or iced tea or something stronger (but not free) in the bar.--H.S.


Steakhouse 100 Restaurant

Food / 86

Wine / 88

Service / 86

Ambience / 84

Overall / 86

Address 10725 W. Greenfield Ave., West Allis, Wis. 53214

Phone (414) 771-2223

Open Lunch and dinner, 7 days

Cost Moderate

Credit Cards American Express, Visa, Mastercard, Carte Blanche, Diners Club, Discover

Steakhouse 100, about 15 miles west of Milwaukee, has a vague air of The Flintstones about it. Maybe it's the flagstone walls and yabba-dabba-doo neon that calls hungry diners from busy Route 100, just a block away. Thick steaks are sizzling over hardwood fires on open grills. Wine prices are almost prehistoric. And the heavyset guy in the flannel shirt and baseball cap might almost be ... but then you see a stylish young woman in the same outfit, except her cap is turned jauntily backward, and you snap back into the 1990s.

Chef-owner Tom Miller knows beef and loves wine. He's built a wine list with good depth and great prices, especially in California and Bordeaux. Joseph Phelps Syrah 1985 for $26 is an irresistible experiment; Château Cantemerle 1988 is a steal at $32; and Château Cos-d'Estournel 1970 for $105 is a wholly affordable celebration.

The food is affordable, too; in fact, the menu offers a choice between Certified Angus Beef and regular U.S. choice, $3 less for the same cuts. A homey relish tray of carrots, celery and radishes begins the meal and indicates the sophistication of the kitchen. Skinny onion rings are savory and just greasy enough. The Angus is juicy and firm. The meat comes with a "secret seasoning"; it tasted of garlic salt and I liked it. Whatever the restaurant's era, it's doing fine right now.--T.M.


TOP 7 STEAK HOUSES BY FOOD

Score / Restaurant

91 / Bern's Steakhouse

91 / The Forge

90 / Sparks Steak House

89 / The Angus Barn

89 / Chops

89 / Harris'

89 / Pacific Dining Car

TOP 5 STEAK HOUSES BY WINE

Score / Restaurant

95 / Bern's Steakhouse

94 / The Angus Barn

94 / The Forge

94 / Sparks Steak House

92 / Billy Crews Dining Room

TOP 10 STEAK HOUSES IN AMERICA

Restaurant / Food / Wine / Service / Ambience / Overall

Bern's Steakhouse / 91 / 95 / 90 / 90 / 92

The Forge / 91 / 94 / 91 / 93 / 92

The Angus Barn / 89 / 94 / 90 / 91 / 91

Sparks Steak House / 90 / 94 / 89 / 88 / 91

Pacific Dining Car / 89 / 88 / 90 / 90 / 89

Billy Crews Dining Room / 86 / 92 / 87 / 86 / 88

Chops / 89 / 86 / 88 / 91 / 88

Grey Moss Inn / 87 / 89 / 88 / 88 / 88

Harris' / 89 / 86 / 88 / 88 / 88

The Post House / 88 / 87 / 88 / 90 / 88


Inexpensive: under $30

Moderate: $30 to $50

Expensive: $50 to $75

Very Expensive: over $75

Prices include appetizer, steak and side dishes, dessert, tax and tip, but not wine.

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