What do you call “comfort foods” that are so richly and deliciously “comforting”, you ought be going through a tragedy of epic proportions to deserve even a mouthful of it? You call them “steakhouse sides” – a quintessentially American array of vegetable add-ons that come with a mammoth steak, and somehow steal the whole show, becoming the conversation piece at dinner, evolving into signature recipes and keeping the restaurants credited with their origin in constant news.
Interestingly, when steakhouses first started showing up in America, there was hardly even a potato in sight. Modern steakhouses as we know them were born from two humble predecessors from the mid 1800s: the “beefsteak banquets” and the “chophouses”. Beefsteak banquets were big, public dinners paid for by politicians where beef tenderloin on white bread was the only item on the menu. Chophouses were dark, dingy eateries that served mutton chops, lamb kidneys and sizzling strips of bacon to hungry merchants and office clerks in New York. As one newspaper reporter put it, “Those who didn’t care for steaks could have chops, those who didn’t care for chops can have steaks.”
Vegetables to go with all that meat was a rather silly idea at the time, as the people who ate at a beefsteak banquet or a chophouse were all men. Such fripperies were only introduced when steakhouses opened in New York with a more genteel attitude towards the dining experience in deference to a new breed of clientele who demanded tablecloths and cleanliness: women.
Matching good, expensive cuts of meat with an assortment of veggies may seem like rather an obvious way to do things today, but that was not the case with steakhouse chefs. Hardpressed for ideas, they borrowed comfort foods associated with growing up in rural America and paired them up with the meat, confident in the assumption that they’re sideshows anyway to the main event of the meal: juicy cuts of beef cooked to specification on a charcoal grill.
Over time, as steakhouses became the fashion, an ordinary serving of potato, corn or broccoli seemed to be lowering the bar. The side dishes needed to be more showy to merit the high prices people were willing to pay to eat at Peter Luger or the Old Homestead Steakhouse. So spinach got creamed, mushrooms got truffled, potatoes were cooked in goose fat, and so on.
The most popular sides at John Howie Steak in Bellevue, Washington, include Beecher’s Flagship Reserve Cheddar Mac & Cheese, as well as Maine Lobster Mashed Potatoes:
Here are 6 more famous steakhouse side dishes from around the country:
GET THE HOME CHEF VERSION OF THESE RECIPES: Abe & Louie’s Creamed Corn; Butcher & Singer’s Stuffed Hash Browns; Benjamin Steakhouse’s Creamless Creamed Spinach; Bazaar Meat’s Delmonico Potatoes; French Onion Soup Au Gratin; Corn Crème Brûlée
Another reason behind the evolution of steakhouse sides was the rising cost of meat. Even though punters were willing to pay upwards of $60 for a 22 oz. dry-aged ribeye, filling them up with decadently-rich side dishes to reduce the portion of meat made a lot of economic sense. And with steakhouse chefs finding a new recourse to express their culinary creativity, it was perhaps inevitable that side dishes would turn into a sinfully sybaritic indulgence that is almost a whole cuisine in itself.
After all, who goes to a steakhouse to count calories, anyway?