Steakhouse Stakeout

Family Run Select Cut Steakhouse 2808 N Halsted St, 773-244-1500 The utilitarian décor at this tightly quartered dining room ensures that the...
By Margaret Littman, Jody Robbins, Heather Shouse and David Tamarkin Photograph by Christopher K. GeorgeInterior portraits by Chris Lake |
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Family Run

Select Cut Steakhouse
2808 N Halsted St, 773-244-1500

The utilitarian décor at this tightly quartered dining room ensures that the joint’s regulars are all about the meat. Operated by Tony and Gail Muñoz (veterans of Old Town’s Fireplace Inn; pictured), the place is ably run by a sparse-but-adequate crew, and prices are well below those at most steakhouses.

Overall moo’d Trendy this place is not, but the white tablecloths and candle-lit tables add a subtly formal feel. “It’s comfortable here,” said Javier Garcia of Morris Meat Packing, Inc. “It’s a nice, quiet place, and I would bring my wife.”
Tableside manner Our affable waiter ended up getting schooled about the quality of the meat: The cuts were supposedly graded prime, but the butchers insisted they were select or choice (see “Word on the meat,” page 20). Rather than argue, he hightailed it away from the table. (He made up for his hasty exit later, though, with a round of free drinks.)
Making the grade Oddly, the butchers ordered their meat well-done, but they insisted that shouldn’t detract from the taste. “If it is prime, well-done should be fine,” said Bill Begale, owner and chief butcher at the Paulina Meat Market. And in some cases, the well-done cooking didn’t hurt the taste: “That filet had as much flavor as I’ve ever gotten out of one,” he said. But the rib eye couldn’t quite handle the well-done request, another sign that it may not have been a top-grade cut, as the fat-laden rib eye should be able to stand up to the heat. The New York strip was also flavorful, but a little dry and in need of marbling. So the steaks here were short of perfection, but that could have been caused by the questionable call to order the steaks well-done.
Taking sides A baked potato, broccoli and baby carrots accompanied each steak, and they were adequate—if a little waxy.
The final cut Begale wasn’t wowed by the meat, but Garcia was sold on the place: “I would come back here,” he said.
Family run runners-upCy’s Steak and Chop House 4138 N Lincoln Ave, 773-404-5800; Pete Miller’s 1557 Sherman Ave, Evanston, 847-328-0399; Myron & Phil’s 3900 W Devon Ave, Lincolnwood, 847-677-6663

Green gobblin’: veggie options
There was a slight pause when the waitress was told one of us was a vegetarian. She asked if seafood was okay, and when we said nope, she improvised with a list of menu alterations. Because Select Cut’s menu has a large selection of skewer dishes and stir-fry entrées, it wasn’t a stretch for the chef to hold the beef. Side dishes are varied, with carrots and pea pods in addition to garlic mushrooms and tomato-and-onion salad. We laughed when the waitress brought us the massive steak knife. She had the last laugh, though, when we needed it to cut the broccoli. The stir fry was heavy on the soy sauce, but the pea pods, carrots and peppers were fresh and served on an ample bed of rice.—Margaret Littman

The Cheapie

Ronny’s Original Chicago Steakhouse
(100 W Randolph St, 312-346-9487)

This low-priced Loop mainstay has been offering up steaks and sides since 1963. Ronny’s is in the Thompson Center at Clark and Lake, and the joint’s high-backed, green booths are full breakfast, lunch and dinner with those drawn to full-size meals maxing out at $15.99.

Overall moo’d The night we visited, customers ranged from a table of cleaning ladies to a couple of undercover cops. The décor is mostly photos of local news stars and Chicago politicos (including both Daleys), and what blue-collar steak joint would be complete without a pic of Da Coach, Mike Ditka?
Tableside manner We had trouble finding the restaurant, initially—mostly because the man who answered the phone refused to give us directions. Once there, the service we received was warm and gracious, but you’re mostly on your own: You take a plastic tray, order your meal, and then collect it while you slide the tray toward the cash register.
Making the grade There were only two steak choices this night, a 20-ounce T-bone and a 14-ounce bone-in New York strip. While the strip was thin and gray, the T-bone seemed undercooked. Thankfully, we ordered the steaks smothered in sautéed peppers and onions: The topping added moistness to otherwise dry pieces of meat. But Garcia felt the overall package was strong: “I liked it better than Select Cut. The meat was more tasty, tender and flavorful,” he said. “Of course, we ate the steak dry at Select Cut.” For his part, Don McCormick, a butcher at Lincoln Park’s Gepperth’s Meat Market, felt the T-bone was too rare, while the strip spent too much time on the grill. “Sometimes cooks forget how long a steak has been cooking, and think it’s done when it’s not,” he said.
Taking sides The butter-soaked corn on the cob was the star of the show here. The lettuce in the house salad was slightly brown, though not quite the color of the baked potato that doubled as a bucket of melted butter.
The final cut “Definitely worth the price,” McCormick said. You won’t find beautiful char marks on your steak, but the beefy flavor is there, and the side dishes stick to your ribs and almost taste homemade. Still, “I probably wouldn’t eat here again, unless I worked somewhere close,” McCormick said. “I can do a lot better than this at home with a steak I bring home from the market.”
Cheapie Runners-upBiasetti’s 1625 W Irving Park Rd, 773-281-4442; Las Tablas 2965 N Lincoln Ave, 773-871-2414, and 4920 W Irving Park Rd, 773-202-0999; Tango Sur 3763 N Southport Ave, 773-477-5466

Green gobblin’: veggie options
The chef ticked off possibilities: cheese pizza, salad, spinach calzone, onions, fries, corn on the cob, and mac and cheese. Sounds great, but Ronny’s is a little unclear on the concept of “vegetarian.” The fried onions had chunks of sausage heaped on top, and the cheese pizza was actually just half of a pepperoni pie, meaning there was a good chance the toppings had mingled among the grease.The calzone looked delicious and was a sizeable portion, but tasted like a pile of steamed spinach, without much cheese, sauce or, well, flavor. Luckily, the cheese fries made up for it.—Margaret Littman

The Chain

Smith & Wollensky
318 N State St, 312-670-9900

This New York–based steakhouse chain has built a solid reputation in Chicago, anchored by its labor-intensive method of dry-aging its beef on the premises. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of prime-grade beef is rotated through a humidity-depleting walk-in cooler in the riverside restaurant’s basement.

Overall moo’d A classic steakhouse, with polished brass and dark wood mixed with a forest-green color scheme. The bar can get hec-tic at times, but the dining-room tables are gen-erously spaced—giving customers more room to handle the signature oversized steak knives.
Tableside manner Jacketed waiters are pro-fessional yet casual, and everyone on the floor, from the manager to the busboys, seemed intent on and committed to their jobs.
Making the grade We ordered the dry-aged (see “Word on the meat,” page 20) bone-in strip, the dry-aged rib eye and the porterhouse, all medium-rare. The rib eye garnered glowing feedback: “This is the best steak, always,” said Morris Meat Packing’s Garcia. Gary Hinton, a butcher at Gepperth’s Meat’s, preferred the porterhouse, though: “I like the flavor a lot bet-ter in this cut,” he said. “It’s gotta be the bone. I never realized the bone made that much of a difference.” The strip went over well, too, but didn’t quite earn the raves of the other two cuts. “It’s definitely prime meat, and is nicely charred on the outside, but it didn’t have the flavor of the rib eye or the porterhouse,” said Otto Demke, owner and chief butcher at Gepperth’s.
Taking sides The “hashed browns” were moist, a little tangy and delicious.
The final cut The caliber of the meat convinced Demke to look into carrying more dry-aged products. “The rib eye was excellent, almost like it melts in your mouth,” he said. “They certainly know their meat, but it’s a little busy here for me to come here with my family.”
Chain runners-upCapital Grille 633 N St Clair St, 312-337-9400; Ruth’s Chris 431 N Dearborn St, 312-321-2725; Weber Grill 539 N State St, 312-467-9696

Green gobblin’: veggie options
This place won’t apologize for having meat stock in all three soups, but it’ll reluctantly point you toward some sides and appetizers. While some of the salads are not veggie-friendly—steak and bacon mixed with the greens—there’s enough to piece together a decent meal. The standard sides here are meant for two, so you’ll get plenty of zucchini, hash browns, or mac and cheese. Your best bet, though, is the thin-crust pizza appetizer. The pizza won’t win any innovation awards, but the crust is crispy, the basil fresh and the preparation refreshingly simple. It may be the only light meal available here.—Margaret Littman

The Classic

Gene & Georgetti
500 N Franklin St, 312-527-3718

Overall moo’d The only thing skimpy here is natural light—all the better to view the pics of old-school celebs, like Bob Hope, who’ve stopped by the walnut-paneled dining room. Waiters, dressed in crisp white jackets, are considerate, experienced and mostly male, adding to the gentleman’s club–like atmosphere.
Tableside manner The experienced staff shepherds diners through a perfectly timed eating experience, and the waiters were accom-modating of all our mysterious meat talk. “The service was the best here so far, which I’d guess you’d expect,” said Paulina Meat Market’s Begale. “It’s an old-fashioned place, and you can tell.”
Making the grade The steak selection is adequate but not expansive, and all the steaks are precut, so there is little flexibility in ordering. “I thought they would have different sizes available,” said George Lekan, a butcher at Paulina. We ordered the rib eye, the T-bone and a stand-alone filet, all medium-rare. The first taste of the boneless filet was met with indifference: “There’s not much flavor,” Lekan said. “But the filet is generally the least flavorful of all the steaks, so what you’re looking for is the tenderness, which this has,” he added. The rib eye was juicy and buttery, eliciting a “Try it and you’ll never go back” soliloquy on the high points of the rib eye by Otto Demke. The T-bone was a little shy of medium-rare, but, as we found throughout our steak tastings, the filet and strip sections of the T-bone were juicier and more flavorful than their boneless counterparts. TAKING SIDES The house salad was simply iceberg lettuce, a tomato wedge, and some seasoning, but the signature cottage fries were delicious.
The final cut Overall, this well-aged steakhouse did not disappoint; neither did the steaks overwhelm. “I like it here,” Lekan said. “The meat was definitely prime, and it’s a comfortable place, not over the top.”
The classic runners-up There are none—Gene & Georgetti is in a class by itself.

Green gobblin’: veggie options
Given the joint’s rep as an old-boys club, we were expecting plenty of eye rolling when the word vegetarian came out of our mouths. We had to eat our words, as the waiter not only pointed to several vegetarian items on the menu, but seemed to have tried many of them himself.In addition to the salads, appetizers and a handful of meat-free entrées, our waiter offered to have the chef whip up whatever we wanted. We decided to stick with the menu, and went with mostaccioli and angel-hair pasta and several entrée-size salads.The salad was drenched in dressing, but at least this was a balsamic vinaigrette instead of a mound of blue cheese. The marinara sauce was fairly standard. The angel hair with tomato and basil was a little lighter, and the massive portion meant dinner was also the next day’s lunch.—Margaret Littman

Suits and stogies

Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse
1028 N Rush St, 312-266-8999

Located in the heart of the Gold Coast, this is a hot spot where you’re likely to spot Eva Longoria or Jon Bon Jovi—if you can get in the door. Our party of four waited an hour before we were deposited on stools at a small, round table in the bar.

Overall moo’d The wood-and-leather motif here provides a neutral background for all the characters, famous or not, that make this a regular stop. The dining room is filled with tightly spaced tables set between rows of high-backed banquettes.
Tableside manner Our server made her way to our table promptly—but sans the raw-meat platter. This presentation is usually a big part of the allure, as the waiters rhapsodize about the quality of each piece of meat they display on a large wooden tray. Thankfully, she left and returned with the meat, and showed us examples of the offerings on the menu.
Making the grade We ordered the signature W.R.’s Chicago Cut (a bone-in rib eye named after former Trib food writer William Rice), plus the porterhouse and the London broil. After an iceberg lettuce–based salad, the steaks came out almost immediately. We ordered everything medium-rare, but right away, the butchers noticed the meat was undercooked. “It’s rare,” Demke said. “You can see the red.” Garcia pressed his finger against the bone of the signature cut. “It’s cold right here on the bone,” he said. The porterhouse fared better, with its generous tenderloin slightly more done than everything else. It was juicy, almost like a rib eye. “I believe the porterhouse is cooked a little bit more,” Demke said. The London broil was cooked medium-rare, and was tender for such a lean piece of meat. A bargain cut at $23.75, it was very satisfying, and its tricky preparation was handled well.
Taking sides The double-baked potato here comes covered in cheddar, and the asparagus is accompanied by a creamy hollandaise sauce. Garcia loved the giardiniera-covered vegeta-bles that accompanied the London broil.
The final cut This Chicago mainstay was off a bit this one night, according to our meat cutters. “I think we did ourselves an injustice by not returning the meat,” Demke said. “We knew that it was too rare, and I think a good steakhouse expects you to tell them if it’s not cooked the way you wanted it to be.”
Suits and stogies runners-upChicago Chop House 60 W Ontario St, 312-787-7100; Drake Bros.’ 140 E Walton Pl, 312-932-4626; Saloon Steakhouse 200 E Chestnut St, 312-280-5454

Green gobblin’: veggie options
Service at Gibsons runs like a Swiss train. Workers are not going to let a mere vegetarian get in the way of their ruthlessly efficient system, and they didn’t stick around to offer any suggestions.After the big martini and the big steak, Gibsons is known best for its big double-baked potatoes. Given that Gibsons likes to do everything oversized, the potato itself is big enough for a meal. If you’re counting carbs, other meat-free options include a tomato-and-goat-cheese salad, sautéed spinach and mushroom or broccoli with garlic—all delivered as sides, not combined into a pseudo entrée for vegetarians.As for the taste, what’s not to like about a double-baked potato?—Margaret Littman

The Progressive

Custom House
500 S Dearborn St, 312-523-0200

This sophisticated restaurant represents Shawn McClain’s foray into the steak world. McClain is renowned as one of the country’s top chefs, first winning acclaim at Trio, then at his own restaurants, Spring and Green Zebra, and now this South Loop spot, which opened last October.

Overall moo’d The red-and-tan dining room has a light touch, from the delicate silverware to its elegant menu. The dishes here were the fanciest we’ve seen, as were the sleek, stainless-steel steak knives.
Tableside manner The service was both attentive and subtle. Our server was careful to refrain from ever saying the word no, and was in full command of a complicated menu.
Making the grade We ordered the dry-aged New York strip, the bone-in rib eye and the prime sirloin. The dry-aged (see “Word on the meat,” page 20) strip was succulent and flavorful, and the butchers agreed it was likely the best steak they’d had on our restaurant trek. “I like the juiciness of it—it’s got good flavor,” said Demke. “When we went in the cooler [at Smith & Wollensky], you noticed that smell, from the aging process, and I get that here,” said Garcia. The rib eye earned similar praise: “It’s more tender, like it should be,” he said. The sirloin was a good piece of meat, but lacked the robust flavor or tenderness of the rib eye or the strip.
Taking sides The inventive sides included a potatoes gratin with sheep’s milk cheese, short-rib ravioli and cauliflower gratin. The house salad, a mixture of designer greens lightly doused with pumpkin-seed dressing, was ex-cellent, as was the silky butternut-squash soup.
The final cut The butchers were a little put off by the prices here, but not the quality of the meat. “If someone is going out for steak, I would recommend this place,” Demke said. “You can tell they really care about what they do.”
Progressive runners-upPrimehouse David Burke 616 N Rush St, 312-660-6000; Keefer’s 20 W Kinzie St, 312-467-9525; Nine, 440 W Randolph St, 312-575-9900

Green gobblin’: veggie options
The well-trained staff gave us a detailed run-down on the many meat-free menu items. Owner McClain also runs vegetarian mecca Green Zebra, so we weren’t surprised his steakhouse had so many options. The truffle risotto and the Meyer lemon risotto were worth every carb-laden bite. Seasonal soups, like pumpkin, are rich, but, unlike every other steakhouse in town, Custom House doesn’t believe bigger is better. So you’ll get a portion you can actually finish and enjoy without feeling stuffed. And while beet salads are common these days, these baby beets with mascarpone shouldn’t be missed.—Margaret Littman

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