Last Wednesday night found me doing something I’ve never done before: paying more than $50 for a single meal. Dates don’t count. Preparation for parties doesn’t count. Paying for a friend’s birthday dinner doesn’t count—and, even then, I’ve never paid than $40.
Even more surprising, I’d chosen to splurge at a steakhouse. I don’t eat beef more than four or five times a month, and often it’s less than that. When I do carve up cow, I cook it myself. A family friend once told my stepdad that steakhouses are wastes of time. Steak, he argued, is one food that anybody can cook faster, better, and more cheaply at home than you ever could in a restaurant. “When I go out to eat,” he said, “I want to eat something that I couldn’t make better myself.” Those words have always stuck with me. Besides, I’ve never been an over-the-moon steak fan, instead preferring my beef as burgers, barbecue, or fajitas.
But Chicago had spent three days working its magic on me. It does things to people. I figured that a city that owes a good deal of its wealth to the stockyards is a city that might just know what a good steak tastes like. So, on a chilly Wednesday evening, as a World Series game was being rained out in St. Louis, I sat with a vodka martini in my hand, observing the woodsy, amber glow of the Chicago Chop House.
That martini was perfectly prepared, with both the small splash of Campari and lemon twist that I requested. A patina of shaved ice reflected light on its surface. I sat in the smoking section because the wait for a single nonsmoking table was going to be over an hour, and was pleasantly surprised to find that no one was smoking. The hostesses were all Indian, well-mannered, and gorgeous. The place was crowded but the noise level was mild and pleasant; conversation bubbled instead of boiled over. Best of all, the house television was off for most of the meal. A customer tried to turn it off to catch the Detroit/St. Louis game, but it was a rainout and the offending device was quickly flicked off.
Joe, my waiter, knew his meat. He knew his customers, too—he had a fan club seated just behind me. He convinced me to try the baked cherrystone clams casino, even though I only know what a cherrystone clam is because of a Joseph Mitchell article, and I had no idea what “casino” implied. For the record, this appetizer involved six juicy clams lightly baked in a creamy, bready sauce that was spicy, and a little tangy. Joe knew that I’d want Tabasco sauce without my requesting it. The house salad that came between the appetizer and the main course was fresh, deeply green, and doused in a rich, homemade blue cheese dressing.
Since I ordered a New York strip, I decided to drink a Manhattan to go with it. I guess I had forgotten what 24 ounces of medium rare, boneless, juicy steak looks like. The presentation was terrific and simple but, in the end, it’s just a big hunk of meat. Buttered, with slightly salty juice running out of every cut, ever so slightly charred and blackened on the surface, rubbed in salt and pepper, tender and dark red on the inside, thoroughly lacking in gristle… okay, it’s a particularly delicious hunk of meat. But, still, people regularly pay 45 bucks for this?
Well, I did. I dipped each cut in its own juice. I savored each morsel. I sipped my Manhattan—again, perfectly made—and tried the baked potato and chives. I took my time. Even so, I surprised myself—not really; I’d spent eight hours walking around Lincoln Park and getting lost on the “Museum Campus,” and hadn’t eaten much breakfast or lunch—by eating it all. Slowly, to be sure (Joe didn’t rush me), but I did it. I even tried the turtle cheesecake and an Armagnac. I inhaled the aroma of the brandy, reveled in its golden brown hue and, sipping slowly, toasted myself.
I deserved a toast, having turned 30 on October 15th. I don’t feel any different than I did on the 14th, or six months previously. Though I’ve been asked regularly how it feels (or, more to the point: “How does it feel to be an old man?”), I get the feeling that most of the people asking are doing so because they think they should, not because they actually think it’s any different. I certainly haven’t reached any conclusions. Except, perhaps, one—it’s okay to indulge yourself, to enjoy corporeal pleasures, to spend $100 on a good meal every once in a while.