History of the American Steakhouse

steak on a black plate and on a wood table

 

It’s no secret that our original dressing was inspired by a local Midwestern steakhouse. While we’ll argue that our tangy and tasty sauce is a step above any restaurant, we have no problem paying respect where respect is due—with the classic American steakhouse.

Let’s take a trip back in time to discover the history of the American steakhouse and how it influenced Big Charlie’s Original Dressing.

The Not-So-American Steakhouse

Before we talk about the American steakhouse, let’s jump across the pond and mention its predecessor: the London chophouse.

Starting in the late 1600’s, hard working Londoners were served “chops,'' or individual cuts of meat, in these men’s-only establishments. (Eventually, women were invited to the fold.) The service was fast and the establishments noisy and action-packed. But the meat was delicious, and it was often accompanied by traditional English food.

And tradition, over ingenuity, was the name of the game. Chophouse cooks prided themselves on age-old recipes (some claiming to be hundreds of years old) that set themselves above the fluff.

The New York Beefsteak Banquet

Flash forward to New York City in the mid-1800’s, where musty and dank chophouses have started to take hold. But there’s another meat-heavy tradition gaining its stride: the beefsteak banquet.

These were men’s only affairs that started out as political fundraisers for the working class.

Men would shell out a fixed price for unlimited thin cuts of steak served on bread and all-you-can-drink beer. With a lack of utensils, these were the type of events where you expected to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Very similar in nature to the hustle and bustle of chophouses.

The First American Steakhouse

As beefsteak banquets were becoming all the rage for blue-collar workers, Delmonico’s, the first American steakhouse, was setting its sights on the upper class.

The first Delmonico’s opened its doors in 1827 as a small café. Over the course of the next few decades it would evolve into a full-scale restaurant serving its first steaks by 1850.

While Delmonico’s has had many different addresses and multiple restaurants, it rose to fame as a beacon for fine dining due to its signature dishes and its famous clientele. (We’re talking Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and Nikola Tesla, among others.) A far cry from the traditional London chophouses of yore and the laid-back affairs that were beefsteak banquets.

Customers could order off a menu (à la carte) as opposed to from a fixed price or set menu (table d'hôte). There was even a wine list—which is rumored to be a first for its time—that may have contributed to Delmonico’s downfall during prohibition when the last original Delmonico’s closed down in 1923.

Of its most famous dishes is Delmonico steak, a thick cut of steak (typically a rib eye, but it can be one of many cuts), and Delmonico potatoes, a type of mashed potato served with cheese and breadcrumbs that Abraham Lincoln was particularly fond of.

The Evolution of the American Steakhouse

So how did the American steakhouse grow from there?

Throughout the 1800’s more and more steakhouses began to crop up offering upper-class diners a more upscale experience than what they were used to.

You’ve got Old Homestead Steakhouse founded in 1868, most notable for being the longest continuously running steakhouse in America, and the original Smith & Wollensky founded in 1897 (the current Smith & Wollensky was founded in 1977), associated with its infamous white and green color scheme.

While steakhouses got their start in New York City, they made their way through the rest of the country throughout the 1900’s. That includes Midwestern gems, like Indianapolis’s St. Elmo Steak House established in 1902, the 1946 founding of Minneaopolis’s Murray’s, and Milwaukee’s Five O’Clock Steakhouse (previously Coerper’s Five O’Clock Club) founded in 1948.

Today it’s not hard to find your nearest steakhouse, no matter what city you’re in or your budget. They range from casual to fine dining and are places to hold business meetings, family celebrations, or a typical night-out. And everybody (including Big Charlie) has their say on which is the best of the best.

While the original American steakhouses were game changers for the way Americans dined out, current establishments have a more classic, traditional feel (almost) hearkening to the days of London chophouses.

You can count on them to serve high-quality cuts of meat, signature sauces, and traditional American fare.

Bringing It All Together

And it’s the traditional sauce and the classic steakhouse salads that gave Big Charlie the idea for his restaurant-inspired dressing. So the next time you're enjoying a porterhouse or rib eye, don't forget to tip your hat to the American steakhouses that started it all.