14 Signs You're Eating At A Quality Steakhouse

A great steakhouse can make for an amazing night out on the town for you and your partner, family, or friends. Finding a dud instead might end up costing a lot of wasted money. By learning how to spot the signs of a top-tier steakhouse, you can start to get a better appreciation for which establishments in your area go the extra mile to provide top-quality meat and avoid having a lackluster experience.

The more you learn about the steak itself, as well as what to look for in service, decor, and other small details that can give away the quality of a steakhouse (and the likely quality of the food), the more you're likely to pick a winner and enjoy an incredible meal. There are intricacies to meat grading, constructing wine lists, offering exquisite service, and practicing aging techniques. A highly-ranked steakhouse is sure to meet the challenge, but a middling or low-quality steakhouse will not. Armed with this knowledge, you will probably never again be disappointed by a steak dinner and may even pick up a couple of tips to help you navigate a steakhouse menu better than before.

The menu includes plenty of details

Steakhouses that pay top dollar to get quality cuts of meat will want to advertise everything about the raw ingredients obtained. Details, like the origins of the particular steak cut, if and how it has been aged, how long it has been aged, as well as its grade, should be included next to or under the dish on the menu. If not, at the very least, your waiter should be able to readily explain these steak qualities when asked. 

Now, some steaks may sound like they come from a premium butcher and farm, but looks can be deceiving, as a lot of companies know how to dress up a steak's description to make it sound more appealing. It's actually quite easy to pull out your phone and check the butcher, farm, or area a steak comes from to review the reputation of the place. The best steakhouses will usually partner with independent, top-shelf butchers in order to source meat from well-treated and well-raised steers, and in these restaurants, you can generally expect the best cuts of meat.

If you're worried about navigating a detailed menu, fear not, as not only will the service staff likely be able to explain everything easily and help you out, but you can also learn how to order at a steakhouse like you're a meat expert with just a couple of tips. 

The words USDA Prime and Choice are everywhere

Not all steaks are created equal. The USDA Prime and Choice programs exist to grade beef cuts, especially middle steaks like the New York strip, filet, and ribeye. Approximately 2% to 5% of all beef qualifies as USDA Prime, meaning it has a good amount of marbling and is derived from young steers with a good diet. USDA Choice is similar but with somewhat less marbling, making it a little less tender than Prime meat.

Prime is generally considered a higher rank than Choice, though USDA Choice meat can also be delicious if cooked well (and slightly more affordable to boot). Be very careful before sitting down to order, however, as there is a strange loophole within USDA grading rules. Restaurants can use the words Prime and Choice when describing cuts of meat, but if the official USDA shield is missing from the menu, that means the USDA has not graded these cuts, and the establishment is most likely trying to fool you into thinking it has.

Getting meat graded is a voluntary process, meaning that a meat supplier who goes through it is relatively confident that it is selling quality cuts. The restaurants using these cuts are also very clearly interested in providing the best available meat for customers, which almost guarantees you a good steakhouse experience.

Unfortunately, price does matter

Good quality beef is expensive to obtain, so if the prices seem quite economical, chances are you aren't getting a top steak cut. That doesn't necessarily mean that the more expensive the restaurant, the better the meat is — some places just overcharge — but if your local steakhouse has prices that make it a feasible option for anything more than a once-in-a-while treat, you may be getting lesser pieces of meat. 

For example, the average USDA Prime piece of meat costs anywhere between $20 and $40 per pound, depending on the exact cut, and that's just the raw steak itself. Adding in the costs of the restaurant, including kitchen staff, service, rent, utilities, etc., into the eventual price that's going to pop up on your menu, and you can imagine how much higher that number will go. However, this only applies to Prime cuts. You can still get a decent, albeit ungraded, ribeye steak for between $10 and $15 a pound, meaning that the same thing at a steakhouse can be at least $40 to $45 or above.

If you don't want to spend that much, you can order a slightly more economical cut of meat, like the New York strip steak.

The service is flawless from start to finish

Eating at a good steakhouse isn't just about the food but the whole experience. Generally, the staff at a great steakhouse, from the host or hostess that seats you at your table to the servers and possibly the sommelier, will be very knowledgeable about the menu, seek to accommodate you and your party to a reasonable degree, and provide friendly, professional service from start to finish. There will usually also be a smart dress code for the staff.

Servers will be careful about even the little things, such as how they pour the wine and on which side they serve you food. Of course, at least in the U.S., this also means that you should probably be ready to tip well for the above-and-beyond service that a great steakhouse provides. If you see your servers responding promptly to any requests for attention and helping guide you through difficult options on the menu, as well as delivering service with a smile, chances are that you've walked into a good location. 

The steakhouse has an extensive list of wines

Few things pair better with a steak than a great red wine. That's why many steakhouses will include a long list of carefully selected red wines, many of which will likely be on the pricier side. You can expect a variety of incredible vintages from all over the world, especially some of the best wine-producing regions like California, France, and Argentina. An upscale steakhouse will almost always have a sommelier on staff who can assist you with your selection based on both your preferences and even the kind of steak you end up ordering. 

For example, leaner cuts of meat tend to pair best with a Malbec, while the Cabernet Sauvignon is the undisputed champion of wines to pair with a great ribeye steak. That's because the tannins and acid in red wine help emphasize the indulgent flavor of the ribeye. However, be sure to ask for a recommendation that's not too decadent or rich, as it can overwhelm the flavor of the meat itself.

Your waiter knows everything about the steaks

Servers at great steakhouses are generally well-versed in the cuts of meat they serve and can go into great detail about the difference between each cut, including what you can expect in terms of flavor and tenderness from each one. Servers at decent, but not exceptional, steakhouses may have a cursory understanding of what is being served but may not know much about the particulars of the aging process or sourcing.

In upscale steakhouses, servers are also frequently updated on any changes in the menu and the cuts the establishment showcases, so they should be able to easily answer you if you have any questions about a dish you're planning to order. An informed server can even help you decide which will work best for your palate (and current hunger level). They will also be able to specifically describe the degrees of doneness the restaurant uses so you know what to expect if you order a medium or a medium rare, and can cover how the restaurant's dry aging process works.

In-house aging

Many steakhouses talk about how meat is aged, but the truly exceptional ones accomplish dry-aging in-house. This is because when the restaurant itself is in charge of the aging process, it exercises a lot more control over the eventual flavor and tenderness of the meat. 

Though dry aging might just sound like a fancy term added onto steakhouse menus, it's important to understand the process to know why it makes a great deal of difference to the meat. To dry age meat, the restaurant will hang a primal cut in a humid and perfectly temperature-controlled room. The ideal temperature for dry aging rests between 32 and 36 degrees Fahrenheit, while the ideal humidity sits at 85%. 

The length of the dry aging process has a great effect on the meat, and it can last anywhere from two weeks to approximately four months. Two weeks is enough to tenderize the meat, but the flavor isn't affected until at least three weeks into the process. The longer the steak is dry aged, the bolder in flavor and more tender in texture it will become. Dry-aged cuts are generally more expensive, as storing the meat for that long in ideal conditions costs the restaurant. The resulting taste is more than worth it. 

The steak is properly trimmed

While marbling and lines of fat within a cut of meat impart a lot of flavor to a steak, the strips of fat you see on the side of some raw cuts of meat are an entirely different matter. Fat will shrink much faster than the meat while it is being cooked. This puts pressure on the meat, which can shrink it and push out the juices that make a great ribeye or New York strip so tender and flavorful.

To recognize if a steak has been properly trimmed at a steakhouse, it helps to become familiar with the process. Generally, while preparing a steak for cooking, the chef will slice down any strip of fat running alongside it to no more than one-eighth or, at most, one-fourth of an inch. Then, they will cut into the strip every inch or so, being careful not to nick the meat to create breaks in the line of fat so that it won't impact the meat when it shrinks. If your steak at the restaurant arrives with a giant strip of fat, or the strip of fat has cuts going all the way into the meat, it means it wasn't prepared well.

Steaks that have not been well-trimmed generally don't look too aesthetically pleasing either, so this tip should be easy to follow when judging steak quality. 

A variety of cut and types of beef are available

While the most sought-after cuts of steak are generally the ribeye and the filet mignon, an especially good steakhouse will showcase a variety of cuts. An establishment that takes pride in its meat will offer top-quality choices like a T-bone, porterhouse, and a New York strip steak. Other options can include a tomahawk steak, also known as a cowboy ribeye.

There are also varieties of beef that some steakhouses will offer beyond specific cuts. These include flavorful and pricy options like a Black Angus steak, a meat that is popular for its juiciness and tender texture. A quality steak, as well as the prestigious Japanese Wagyu. One of the most well-regarded and expensive varieties is, of course, Kobe beef, a subset of Wagyu considered among the best of the best. Kobe beef must be sourced from the Hyogo region of Japan, and everything from how the steer is raised to how the meat is eventually cut from the steer follows very strict rules to get the Kobe certification. While Wagyu steers can now be bred in the U.S. and even mixed with other breeds, Kobe beef remains a top-shelf choice because of the strict standards it maintains. 

The meat is allowed to shine

Almost every meat eater who has dined out knows the traditional sides and sauces at a steakhouse. Side dishes like baked potatoes, asparagus, and toppings such as bearnaise and peppercorn sauces can greatly enhance the flavor of a properly cooked steak and complement it. However, the focus of a great dinner at a steakhouse should always be the meat itself. You should also be able to request — and in fact, most upscale steakhouses will do this without even asking — that any sauce is served on the side so you can control how much you use.

If the meat at a steakhouse is served with a variety of other foods on the plate or a whole lot of unnecessary toppings, especially overly rich toppings that can obscure the flavor of the meat itself, chances are that the chef is not confident in the food they are serving.

The lighting and music creates a beautiful ambiance

Increasingly ear-splitting music seems to be all the rage at restaurants these days. However, if the steakhouse you're entering sounds more like a club, you might want to reconsider your options. 

Dining at a steakhouse is not just about the food; it's a whole experience. There is a reason why most well-known steakhouses have a combination of classy, elegant, but not stuffy furniture, low, intimate lighting, and soothing music or background noise at an appropriate volume. That reason is so customers can focus entirely on the meat and not be distracted by the sounds and sights surrounding them. After all, a lot of research shows that sound can affect how we taste food.

If a steakhouse's music or decor is too loud or trying way too hard to be trendy, your chances of getting a great dining experience start to plummet. Lighting should also not be too bright, as the appearance of a steak when first served is a beautiful part of the experience; serving a steak under fluorescent, hospital-like lighting just doesn't make a good first impression.

The emphasis is on the steaks

As a general rule of thumb, any steakhouse that has just one or two pages on its menu, mostly focused on its steak offerings, has a better chance of being a great place to eat. Steakhouses may have a couple of other options on the menu, including a few staple pescatarian or vegetarian options for people in the group who don't eat meat and some appetizers and salads. However, a steakhouse that's truly focused on delivering some incredible cuts of meat to its customers usually doesn't have two to three more pages of other dishes on its menu.

The point of such an establishment should be to highlight various cuts of meat, with the majority of its main courses devoted to steaks. For example, the menu at Peter Luger's Brooklyn location, widely considered one of the best steakhouses in the U.S., consists of a few appetizers, some desserts, and a very prominent box on the menu presenting the available steak options. There are only three alternative options for main courses: lamb chops, filet of sole, and a grilled Atlantic salmon. 

Degrees of doneness are clearly described

When most people order their meat medium rare, they have a pretty clear idea of what they want the meat to look, taste, and feel like. That is because degrees of doneness should generally be standardized in upscale establishments, and any exceptions or slight differences, depending on the way a specific cut is cooked, for example, should clearly be described by the server while they're taking your order. 

To check if the steakhouse you're dining at has a good grasp of the different degrees, it's a good idea to know exactly what they should be in the first place. According to Certified Angus Beef, rare steaks should be cooked at 125 degrees Fahrenheit and have a cool red center. Medium rare indicates a warm red center and meat cooked at 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Medium meat tends to have a more pinkish hue in the center and is cooked at 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Medium well and well-done, on the other hand, have a slightly pink center and no pink in the center, respectively. Medium well steaks are cooked at 150 degrees Fahrenheit, while well-done meat is cooked at 160 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bear in mind that many steakhouses strongly suggest you don't order anything well done, and some places will flat out refuse to serve meat at a temperature above medium, as they feel strong heat ruins the flavor and texture of steak.

You find a crowd

This last point is perhaps the most important, as an empty steakhouse during dinner time likely means that the establishment you're eating at is not up to snuff. A top-quality steakhouse should feel full but not crowded. You should walk in to a fair amount of people populating the restaurant and enjoying their food at the tables, assuming you go during regular lunch and dinner hours, without feeling like people are sitting on top of one another. The latter point goes to the steakhouse's ambiance and decor, as eating at these establishments should feel like a luxurious experience, not like sitting at a cafeteria with strangers crowding next to you. 

Even in huge cities with multiple upscale steakhouse options, the best are always crowded, especially on weekend nights. You generally have to make reservations in advance for most steakhouses worth their salt, so if you stop by a great steakhouse around 8 p.m. but find the atmosphere oddly quiet, perhaps it's a good idea to keep looking for another one.