The New Steakhouse Is In Its Prime

A new breed of restaurants is giving the traditional steakhouse a run for its money

"Most other steakhouses have a laminated menu that they haven't changed in 15 years," Danny Grant, chef and partner at Chicago's Maple & Ash, says.

You won't find that kind of static menu at Grant's restaurant or at many of the new steakhouses opening across the country. That larger-than-life porterhouse, obligatory baked potato and quintessential creamed spinach? You may not find those either—or the expense-account prices, for that matter.

At the new American steakhouse, the meat and potatoes are getting an upgrade, but that's not all: Sustainability, seasonality, innovation and honest-to-goodness fun are on the menu, too.

Take one of Grant's favorite cuts of meat at Maple & Ash: the spinalis, which is the meat surrounding the rib eye. "It's the most marbled and most tender cut of meat you're ever going to have," he says, even if you've never heard of it. Or check out New York City's Quality Eats, which serves short ribs like you've never seen them: Instead of braised pieces cut across the bone, the meat is sliced along the bone and seared for a Flintstone-looking dish that's as delicious as it is striking.

When opening Quality Eats, chef and partner Craig Koketsu wanted to serve hormone-free, antibiotic-free, smaller, more affordable and more interesting cuts of meat. The fact that these underrepresented cuts are also more sustainable is a bonus, and one that other steakhouses are meat-ing headfirst. Gray Kunz's Salt & Char, which opens at the end of June in Saratoga Springs, will serve local, grass-fed meat like American Wagyu—as opposed to Japanese—wild salmon and bread made from local grains.

Photo: Courtesy of Maple & Ash

Traditional sides are also getting a whole new look: Portland's Ox, known for its off-cuts and vegetarian mains, serves a side of cauliflower with tahini and another of heirloom hominy. Salt & Char will serve creamed parsley instead of spinach, and Quality Eats' riff turns the classic dish into hush puppies (see the recipe). The restaurant has just as hard a time holding onto those as it does its Chinese broccoli, which takes the place of traditional sautéed greens, and scalloped sunchokes, an earthier, nuttier take on potatoes gratin.

That's because the new steakhouse is about more than new cuts of meat. Say so long to stuffy ambiances and macho attitudes. These restaurants are all about having fun.

At Quality Eats, playful touches run throughout the restaurant and menu design. Doodles are carved into the large, wooden bar, and when customers finish a meal, their clean plates might read, Meat Was Here. With cocktails like the Cracker Jack Old Fashioned, made with Cracker Jack-infused rye, it's hard not to have a great time. And then there's the wine stack, in which a regular-sized bottle is divided into three parts that sit on top of each other. It allows diners to try three kinds of wine during one sitting.

As Koketsu puts it, "We really make it easy for people to enjoy."

Irreverent cocktails, like the Scotchy Scotch Scotch (Anchorman, anyone?), show up at Maple & Ash, too. The eye-catcher, though, is what Grant describes as a bubbly Super Soaker, which the wine captain uses to shoot Champagne into people's glasses, or even straight into their mouths.

"We're able to let our hair down a little bit and not take ourselves too seriously," Grant says. The underlying mission is to make diners feel at home, Grant explains. Koketsu has the same goal at Quality Eats, which he often describes as a neighborhood joint. Unsurprisingly, both restaurants see regulars multiple times a week.

"We want people to feel like they are coming to our house when they're coming to dinner," Grant says. The restaurant's visible wood-fired oven contributes to that homey vibe. But really, he had us at bubbly Super Soaker.

Find Maple & Ash here, or in our DINE app.

Find Quality Eats here, or in our DINE app.