PETER LUGER STEAKHOUSE
255 Northern Blvd., Great Neck
SERVICE: Brisk and aggressive, but not unfriendly.
AMBIENCE: Both timeless and stuck in time, with beamed ceilings, wood-paneled walls, stained glass and brass chandeliers that have seen better days.
ESSENTIALS: Open daily for lunch and dinner. Cash or debit card only. Full bar. Valet parking. Wheelchair accessible.
The time warp begins moments after I heave open the door to Peter Luger and stumble in from the rain. The hostess glances up with a world-weary look, checks the reservation, then cuts to the chase. “You’re aware, no credit cards?”
There are rules here: Cash or debit card only. No burgers after 4 o’clock. There are also brusque servers, great dinner rolls and terrible coffee, and puzzled looks when you ask a silly question like, what kind of teas do you have? The answer: “The only kind.”
“The only kind” explains much inside the most well-known of New York steakhouses, born in Brooklyn in 1887 as Carl Luger’s Cafe, Billiards and Bowling Alley. The Great Neck satellite opened in 1960, and is a marooned castle of beamed ceilings, oak-paneled walls, leather banquettes and stained glass. Servers rush beneath brass chandeliers and past paintings clouded with age. The same theater unfolds each night as it has for decades: dry-aged porterhouse steaks that arrive spitting and sizzling.
Those waiting for a table congregate in the small bar, clad in body-con dresses and sweatshirts and suits. If you wish, a cordial barkeep will pour a quick but excellent manhattan, served in a tumbler that’s probably survived a thousand washes. It can serve as a precursor to a wine list heavy on California cabs and Bordeaux, few bottles south of $100.
For a woman dining here, the overwhelming maleness is stark: Servers are all men, and the kind of men I imagined begrudgingly tossing back the last of an espresso before driving in from Queens or the Bronx. Despite their laconic natures, they are consummate professionals, brisk in movement and sparing of speech but vigilant to the rhythms of your table.
Ordering off theme can invite disappointment, whether a halfhearted Caesar salad, overcooked fillet of sole or rubbery shrimp cocktail. The thick slices of the enduring tomato salad are wan, though spark to life dabbed with anchovy-esque steak sauce parked on every table. It really does go with everything.
Brio is evident at many turns, such as in oblong slabs of bacon ordered by the slice and served glistening and ungarnished, in all their fatty glory. These reappear sliced over an iceberg wedge salad that’s a poster child for wedges everywhere — the head of lettuce falling open like a flower, hot bacon melting the blue-cheese crumbles below.
Chops are listed simply as “steak for two,” “steak for three,” and so on, and these are porterhouses, dry-aged just long enough (ask how long and the question is deflected) to lend them earthy personality. They arrive on a platter and hiss and sizzle as a server slices the filet mignon on one side, the strip steak on the other, then runs the slices around the platter for a last, furtive sear. He’ll tip the dish to collect the juices, spoon these over the meat, and follow with chosen sides — dense, barely-creamy creamed spinach, maybe, or hashlike German potatoes with crispy blackened bits I’d later scrape from the plate. Then you’re off to the races.
It’s fine steak, crusty and impeccably cooked, with the faintest hint of offal. Is it the best you will ever have? Probably not. The strip was slightly tough, and the depth of flavor stopped short of the finish line. Another night, the smaller and less expensive rib-eye (split between two, we had some to spare) was similarly muted, and a tad lean.
The experience is so engrossing, these small details might escape you, if it weren’t for the matter of cost — which can make porterhouses elsewhere seem like bargains. Less pricey, but expertly realized, are a roasted-to-burnish half-chicken or grilled lamb shoulder chops rimmed with bubbles of toasty fat.
For all of the ballyhoo over schlag, or Peter Luger’s Austrian-style whipped cream, it had a processed flavor that detracts from desserts, whether a middling sundae or a caramelized apple strudel.
Nothing you can do or say will nab a burger in the evening, but in the afternoon, when lunchers might be cracking open whole lobsters and the dining room seems caught in a relaxed timelessness, it’s here: A mound of ground sirloin, a slab of white onion on a sesame bun. No bells, no whistles, just a solid, serviceable burger from an era when you could still smoke at tables and burgers were just burgers.