Peter Luger’s Steak House

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My  blog is about history and food is not often a theme here, but it is today. Last night I was fortunate enough to eat dinner in one of the great American steak houses, Peter Luger’s on Broadway and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. I first ate in Lugers as a teenager and little has changed. A diner can easily imagine that he is back in 1887 WIlliamsburg because the tables, decor and dress of the waiters remains largely unchanged.

A bit of history before we go back to the food. The restaurant  is an institution. It was established in 1887 as “Carl Luger’s Café, Billiards and Bowling Alley” in the then-predominantly German neighborhood which would shortly thereafter be in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. Contrary to popular belief, German born Peter Luger was not the founder of the legendary steakhouse. It was, rather, his father Carl. According to food historian Betty Fussell in her book, Raising Steaks, German immigrant Carl Luger opened the spot. Son Peter (1866–1941) renamed the restaurant after himself when he inherited it upon his father’s death. for a half-century Peter Luger  was the owner and nephew Carl was the chef. Peter Luger style was confident about the quality of his meat and he could be abrasive.  if a customer complained about a steak, he would taste it and often refuse to replace it.  If Peter and Carl could come back they would be shocked how little their German place has changed.

In a city famous for its steakhouses, Peter Luger has long been considered the best. The restaurant is steeped  in history, and you feel it the moment you step through its front door. Upon entering you are met by a well-dressed, but raucous crowd drinking martinis at the formidable front-room bar. Squeeze in and get a place at the bar  while you wait for your table to be ready in one of the several rooms this place comprises. Lugers is old-school and unpretentious. This place more closely resembles a German beer hall than an upscale modern restaurant.  There are antique German beer steins on the walls and the tables seem like they were there in 1887 when Luger opened.

You have to wait for a table because it is always packed. Eventually you’ll be crammed into a seat at a long table, then greeted by a busy waiter. The waiters can be grumpy, so figure out what you want before they arrive. Order your steak not by cut, but for two, three, or four people, and you’re rewarded with juice-drooling bone-in slabs from the steer’s short loin, plucked from Luger’s own dry-aging box, cooked until crusted and cut into strips. You will be admonished if you order your steak anything other than rare, so  just let the staff take control. Sides you order separately, and if your group is large enough, you want many of them: Creamed spinach, onion rings, and German fried potatoes are a good place to start. Begin your meal with a wedge salad, the sizzling slab bacon, and a jumbo shrimp cocktail.

The restaurant was busted for bootlegging during Prohibition
During a borough-wide sweep in 1922, the restaurant was raided by enforcement agents who seized a “truckload of imported wines and liquors,” according to The New York Times. Luger told the agents that the vast amount of liquor was for his personal use. The police dubbed Brooklyn at the time as the “wettest” borough in the city.

After Peter died it seemed the place would die not long after Peter Luger  died in 1941.  Peter had been successful, but his years of  success, though, was also hard to duplicate: the son who succeeded him watched the business slide until he was forced to close it in 1950.

Part of the reason was the decline of industrial Brooklyn, as breweries and other nearby manufacturers shut their doors; Peter Luger became a lonely bright spot in a gritty industrial area. Also, the Hasidim who made up an increasing share of Williamsburg’s population did not eat the beef hindquarters from which the restaurant takes its steaks. Kosher laws permit them to eat only the forequarters. Even when Williamsburg was dangerous, from the sixties through the eighties, people beat a path to the restaurant because its steaks were really that good.

Lugers survived because it was bought at auction by one of the customers who decided that he would save the restaurant, even though he had no experience in the business. So, lets tell the Sol Forman story.

Sol Forman was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan around July 1, 1903. At least that’s what his mother later guessed. Nobody wrote it down.

Foreman’s parents were poor Jewish immigrants who struggled to make ends meet on the Lower East Side. His father, Louis, worked as a clothing presser in a sweatshop, and his mother, Rose, sold linens on the street. She was 50 when she gave birth to him, and until eight and a half months into her pregnancy worried she was developing a tumor.

From an early age, Sol supported his elderly, sick parents and continued to turn over his paycheck to them until he was in his mid-30’s. His first job was turning on and off streetlights in his neighborhood, one by one each morning and evening. He dropped out of high school to work full-time.

At 17, he formed a partnership with his brother and sister to start a metalware business called Forman Family, which made trays, pitchers, coffeepots and other stamped-metal giftware. The business was right across the street from Lugers.  He enjoyed and excelled at sales and frequently entertained customers  at Peter Luger. Many days, this meant eating two steaks. When trade shows were in town, it could mean three.

in 1950 Mr. Forman, whose first steak at the restaurant 25 years earlier cost $1.75, decided he wanted to buy the place. His wife, Marsha, objected, arguing that the family’s only proven culinary talent was eating,but he won her over, and was the only person to show up when the restaurant was auctioned off. He bought it for the price of the real estate.

His first improvement was to buy a scale. Practices had become so haphazard under the Luger family that deliveries were not even being weighed. Mr. Forman eschewed advertising and paid no rent since he owned the building. This allowed him to apply 65 percent of after-tax receipts to paying for high-quality ingredients.

The steakhouse didn’t even have a menu until 1950 “The whole menu, and the whole idea of a generic steakhouse menu, was my father’s and my mother’s,” Rubenstein, daughter of Sol Forman, says. “Previously you could have tomatoes and onions, steak and French fries and that was it. My parents added the shrimp cocktail, creamed spinach, salad, hash browns, pies, desserts.”

He delegated the job of picking the best beef to his wife, who died in 1998 after 61 years of marriage. She spent two years learning how to inspect meat from a retired meat inspector named Joe Dowd. Until she was 80, she put on a white coat and fur hat and went to the meat district twice a week to make her choices and stamp them ”Peter Luger.”

The meat is dry-aged in a proprietary manner within the restaurant’s temperature-controlled basement, a room that The New York Times described as “A 2,000-square-foot industrial walk-in cooler… larger than many city domiciles, and is equally congested, packed from floor to ceiling at any given time with 30,000 pounds of raw, aging meat. Its smells are earthy and specific, a mineral combination of hazelnuts and sea salt, and the fatty pink short loins resting on the clean steel racks like the promise of abundance give the impression of a gluttony so bountiful and imminent that one can feel its reverberations coming through the floor, a full flight up, in the front of the house.”

Who chooses the meat? Women do. Despite its masculine aura, and the preponderance of male waiters, Peter Luger is the product of some fierce girl power: It is the only steakhouse in New York City owned and run by women. Forman’s wife, Marsha, was charged with choosing and buying the meat from the moment he bought it. Today, Forman’s daughters, Marilyn Spiera and Amy Rubenstein, run the business with Marilyn’s daughter and Sol’s granddaughter, Jody Storch.

Here is a link to the sacred vault of Peter Luger’s: its meat locker.

It is the high quality meat that makes the place, although they serve fish. You won’t get a better steak anywhere. Before you rush out two things. It is ridiculously popular and you need to book a table months in advance. In also ain’t cheap. A steak dinner with sides and wine can easily run $200 per person, but it is worth every penny of it if you are a steak lover.

Also, you need to bring cash. Peter Luger’s has its own cards, but accepts no others. Why? Peter Luger is happily stuck in the past Open Table? What’s that? At Peter Luger, there is an actual reservation book with hand-written entries. The accounting is also done by hand in a bound ledger. There is even a manual cash register, and if you’re pulling out the credit card to pay, put it back. Peter Luger doesn’t accept plastic (except for its own house card). Explains co-owner Storch, “We’ve really resisted technology because we just felt it was not appropriate, from the point of view of the customers, to see the guys running to terminals. There’s something nostalgic about getting a handwritten check and keeping the systems the way they have always been run.”

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