Home What's at Steak? The Origins & Evolution of the American Steakhouse

The Origins & Evolution of the American Steakhouse

In this first installment of “What’s at Steak” we dig into the origins of the steakhouse and talk with Alec Bruggentheis about the things specific to the steakhouse that butters his bread; Smith & Wollensky.

The “chophouse” started in London in the 1690’s when restaurants served individual portions of meat, known as “chops.”   In the 19th century, they finally found their way across the pond.  In 1837 America’s first steakhouse, Delmonico’s opened and was the first of its kind “restaurant” taken from the French word, which meant a food establishment that served something a little fancier than the gritty taverns common in Europe and its colonies.

The oldest continuously operating steakhouse in the United States is the Old Homestead Steakhouse in New York City, established in 1868. As time went on, these establishments developed into social affairs and that trend continues to this day with the American steakhouse being a staple for business meetings and celebratory meals.  And even in the face of lower meat consumption in recent years due to price increases and health concerns, steak is still a very big deal in America.

The first Smith & Wollensky steakhouse occupies a stand-alone building in New York City and showcases the trademark Smith & Wollensky green and white colors; colors they inherited from Manny Wolf’s, the previous steakhouse that had been serving steak at this location since 1897. Smith & Wollensky was founded in 1977 when Alan Stillman and Ben Benson purchased the steakhouse. The only thing they changed at the time was the sign so it would read “founded in 1977” and the name using the exact same letters.

Alec Bruggentheis, National Beverage Director for Smith & Wollensky explains a little bit about how Smith & Wollensky separates itself from the pack.

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    When the original S&W opened in New York in 1977, founder Alan Stillman wanted to have a real focus on wine. The wines of California were just barely getting recognized as being considered world class and Mr. Stillman partnered with early Napa pioneers like Robert Mondavi at a time when European wines dominated every page of a wine list.

    Over the years, that tradition has been carried on and is now in my hands and we continue to have a wine program that represents the best of California.  Classic regions of the old world will always have a presence, but like Mr. Stillman, I am a risk taker. I am always up for exploring up and coming wine regions.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    How else do you distinguish your steakhouse from the crowd?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    We maintain what made us popular over 40 years ago and it still sets us apart today. As steakhouses are succeeding, so is Smith & Wollensky. I do wish our customers would appreciate wine service more. I really wish the tradition and ceremony of wine would be given more of a spotlight in steakhouses. With all of the training in the staff and the care that goes into making a list, it needs to be a big deal.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    Why you think is the reason steakhouses are as important today as they were a hundred years ago?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    A steakhouse is a place where one can relax or celebrate in a comfortable setting with a comfortable cuisine that doesn’t offer too many surprises.  Steakhouses are so popular because they are indulgent while being safe.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    What new steak offerings do you have? Any other new menu offerings?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    A relatively new offering that we have is our Swinging Tomahawk Ribeye.  It is a 44oz dry-aged Waygu beef ribeye.  It is served hanging over a cutting board by a bracket attached to the cutting board. When it is brought to the table, we use a blowtorch to carmelize the outside with tallow. The excess melted fat runs down the steak and into a dish of roasted potatoes. The steak is then carved tableside.

    The dish is intended for 2 but it is common for a larger table to share this item so they can have the table side experience. Beef Bacon is another item we have carried for a while, but we often change the preparation.  Currently we offer a thick slab of cured beef bacon with macadamia butter (think the best chunky peanut butter you have ever had) diced apples and candied jalepeno peppers. It is a hearty and delicious appetizer.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    Do you offer different glass pour sizes?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    We do not. 6oz is our standard and only pour at all of our locations.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    Do you have a Coravin program?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    We do. Each S&W offers at least 4 wines via Coravin. Some are at each location. Others are on a store by store basis. These tend to be rare or older vintage wines.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    How many wine selections do you have?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    Each S&W has at least 300 selections. In Chicago we have a little over 500.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    How many from CA vs. Europe?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    When the first S&W first opened it was solely American wine. Now that we offer wines from around the world, our split is about 70% American and 30% international with the international offerings being dominated by France, Italy and South America.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    How big is your cellar? Do you have any awards?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    Most of our locations rely on a series of Eurocave wine storage units to hold their wine. This allows for easy access for service while serving as a visual reminder to our guests that we have a lot of wine for them to choose from.  In Chicago, we have a cellar that has around 4000 at any given time.

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    The Mark Wine Group

    What’s your best seller?

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    Alec Bruggenthies

    California Cabernet Sauvignon

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    The Mark Wine Group

    And we have plenty of those to stock the cellar.

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