My steakhouse skepticism runs deep. I love a good steak, but rarely want to endure the stuffiness of a traditional steakhouse that comes with it. In the past, there were only two reasons I'd visit a steakhouse: to take advantage of someone's generous expense account or if I was going on a date.
But when new steakhouses started to get buzz near my home in Chicago, I was hungry, and curious about what I was missing. A lot, apparently, I learned after eating at five of them.
1. The stuffy white tablecloth vibe is gone.
Okay, maybe it's not completely gone — it will probably never go out of style — but it's definitely not the only look in town. Some of the new steakhouses are airy with daring design and a club-like atmosphere that got even more rowdy later into the evening. Others have an out-of-the-way hipster vibe and are geared towards a neighborhood crowd just looking for a non-scene-y bite. And yet another crop is boldly re-envisioning what it means to be a modern steakhouse.
2. Eaters can be pickier than ever.
Steakhouses have always been willing to accommodate special order requests — from everything to steak cooked more on the well-done side to salad without the cheese — and that seems even more true these days. I actually sent back a cocktail that sounded good on the menu but didn't measure up to expectations.
3. Steak doesn't even have to be the main event.
Most of us don't decide to visit a steakhouse just for the sides, but these days it's more likely to happen. Even as restaurants are doubling down on hard-to-find cuts and in-house aging programs, they are also touting non-steak mains and so many tempting appetizers that you may be too full for the meat. Some recent favorites include a fluffy caviar and egg concoction, and savory short rib beignets.
4. You should always save room for dessert.
Dessert is something steakhouses have always taken seriously, and modern counterparts have stepped up their dessert game in an effort to impress the diner to stay for another drink. During my steakhouse adventures, I learned to look at the sweets menu first and work backwards from there. (My favorite is Maple & Ash's sundae service, which consists of a huge amount of ice cream and a slew of toppings carefully arranged on a tiered tray. You can always count calories tomorrow.)
5. They're still the best places to spot a celeb.
Some of the biggest (and priciest) steakhouses are known to attract A-listers looking to be seen (yes, even when you're not in LA). For example, at RPM Steak, Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant, President Barack Obama, and Justin Bieber have all been spotted wining and dining (not together, although that would have been amazing).
More importantly, the updated modern and airy dining rooms mean you won't need to crane your neck when it's time to snap a pic for photographic evidence. (Unsolicited tip: Be discreet, and don't follow the person around across the 11,000-square-foot space if you want to stay on the manager's good side. Just passing on the info from a friend.)
Have you been to a steakhouse lately? What have you learned? Did you see Justin Bieber there?