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At Peter Luger, a Whole Cheeseburger Is an Acceptable Lunchtime Appetizer

The main course, obviously, is the iconic Brooklyn restaurant’s porterhouse for two

This post originally appeared in Bill Addison’s newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic,” a twice-monthly dispatch from Bill’s travels across the country. Browse the archives and subscribe now.

If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while (and thank you if you have), you might recall that back in February, I made a pronouncement saying I was at last settling my peripatetic self in Brooklyn. It’s … not happening. I’ll forgo any explanations and only say that it’s not New York — it’s me.

The rare luxury of this job is that I can live anywhere in the country so long as there’s access to an airport with coast-to-coast direct flights. I’m going to be hitting the road again hard in the fall and will know where I’ll make my home by year’s end, but I’ll let you know when a lease is signed.

In the meantime, I remain mostly (and happily) in NYC until Labor Day weekend, chowing through the city as hard as I can. I’m staying in a sublet a block away from the Four & Twenty Blackbirds outpost in the Brooklyn Library and have taken up the dangerous habit of eating pie for breakfast. It’s summer. There’s blueberry crumble. I can’t hold back.

This is also the time of year when, after thinking intensely about the most rousing new restaurants in America for the last couple of months, I turn my attention back to considering the places that are essential to the fiber of the country’s dining culture. What does the word “essential” even mean in this context? Wrestling with this question is one of the most satisfying parts of my job. Are we talking about the institutions — open a decade, 20 years, a century — that have helped form the pool of a city’s culinary ecosystem? Or the hot hot game-changers creating new trends and disseminating undersung cuisines? The gems putting forth steadily exceptional food that reflects the roots of their communities? Those restaurants specifically advancing notions of design and hospitality?

It’s all of the above.

So I went this week to an old-liner that is the very definition of an institution: Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn, the chophouse, established in 1887 (and, intriguingly, expanding to Tokyo) whose gravity centers around dry-aged porterhouses cut for two or more. The restaurant famously ages the meat in-house. I love the way its funky bouquet hovers in the air almost visibly — a bovine haze. It sets off faint danger alarms and primeval hankerings in the brain.

A friend and I went at lunchtime, with the same menu as at dinner but with some daytime specials. These include an incredible burger, which should never be substituted for a steak but is in every way a welcome bonus. The customers (a thorough mix of locals and visitors) seem to understand this. We ordered shrimp cocktail, a salad of sliced tomatoes and onions, a steak with creamed spinach and German fried potatoes (aka hash browns) and a porterhouse for two. “Do you want the burger as an appetizer?” the server asked. Yes indeed.

I am not a burger purist. Some aficionados would argue that that patty should be eaten plain on the bun. I get it, but I want cheese and some of the restaurant’s gnawingly thick bacon jutting out on top. The quality and flavor of the chopped meat (a blend of chuck with scraps of the precious dry-aged short loin) still blast right through.

The salad’s tomato slices were mealy, a real bummer at the height of August. Wedge salad from here on out.

Ah, but the steak. It is a monolith to carnivorism. Our server, in a practiced ritual, presented the platter slightly propped up so that the porterhouse’s sputtering juices (boosted with clarified butter) ran to the lower rim. He ladled some over the meat, served us pieces of fillet and New York strip (or strip loin) from either side of the T-bone, and finished by spooning the creamed spinach and potatoes onto our plate. That meat had such a specific, timeless wallop — the classic blue cheese note from dry-aging plus a dozen other fleeting tastes. The spinach was a perfect foil, mulchy in its density and with its own mineral counterbalance. The potatoes were there simply to comfort.

We couldn’t face dessert; I spent that stomach allotment devouring every molecule of the burger. We watched the table next to us split a sundae, with hot fudge sauce inching down the sides of its parfait glass.

Is Peter Luger essential? Absolutely. As essential to this moment in American dining as, say, Renee Erickson’s Bateau in Seattle? The staff there butchers whole cows, dry-ages its own steaks, and, on a chalkboard, details the nightly choice of cuts — the popular ones as well as the lesser-knowns worthy in their own right. These two restaurants are entirely different, but they’re both paradigms of the genre.

Which one is more important to the dining culture right this moment? I’ll be mulling it over.

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