Pete Wells went to a steakhouse and brought his own knife.
The New York Times food critic eviscerated the venerable old Peter Luger this morning, publishing a damning zero-star review in the Gray Lady. The 132-year-old Brooklyn steakhouse had last been reviewed in the Times by Frank Bruni in 2007, garnering two stars. Wells, too, admitted to once being a fan of the gruff old place, wistfully recounting the times he’d visit in the ’90s, emptying out his food budget for the thrill of a steak dinner that “made me feel alive in a way that few other things did,” he wrote.
But of late, when he’s ponied up a stack of $20s he has felt much different. “After I’ve paid, there is the unshakable sense that I’ve been scammed.” That feeling begins with a takedown of the unfriendly service.
Diners who walk in the door eager to hand over literal piles of money aren’t greeted; they’re processed. A host with a clipboard looks for the name, or writes it down and quotes a waiting time. There is almost always a wait, with or without a reservation, and there is almost always a long line of supplicants against the wall. A kind word or reassuring smile from somebody on staff would help the time pass. The smile never comes. The Department of Motor Vehicles is a block party compared with the line at Peter Luger.
Luger has always been a brusque place, but Wells believes the food no longer makes up for the lack of congeniality.
I know there was a time the German fried potatoes were brown and crunchy, because I eagerly ate them each time I went. Now they are mushy, dingy, gray and sometimes cold. I look forward to them the way I look forward to finding a new, irregularly shaped mole.
Ouch, Pete. He continues.
Lunch one afternoon vividly demonstrated the kitchen’s inconsistency: I ordered a burger, medium-rare, at the bar. So had the two people sitting to my right, it turned out. One of them got what we’d all asked for, a midnight-dark crust giving way to an evenly rosy interior so full of juices it looked like it was ready to cry. The other one got a patty that was almost completely brown inside. I got a weird hybrid, a burger whose interior shaded from nearly perfect on one side to gray and hard on the other.
This is not the first time Wells has taken aim at a big target. In 2016, he downgraded Thomas Keller’s Per Se from four stars to two, writing that the mushroom broth was “as murky and appealing as bong water.” And in his most famous review he gave a real friendly New York welcome to Guy Fieri, slaughtering the spiky-haired chef’s Times Square restaurant. This time, he came for Luger’s, a place that has long held the sheen of being beloved.
Wells acknowledges that the restaurant had always had shortcomings, but they just seem so much more glaring now. The shrimp cocktail, he says, always tasted like cold latex and the corn syrup-laden steak sauce was never good, but what’s the point in tolerating that when there are so many great places to eat in the city? In some ways, the review reads less like Peter Luger has gone down the tubes and more like the restaurant world has upped its game—and Luger now pales in comparison.
To be sure, a number of steakhouses have amazing meat programs with well-sourced beef that’s cooked to perfection. And plenty of other non-steakhouse restaurants serve quality, dry-aged cuts—with the added bonus that the rest of the menu isn’t an afterthought in the way steakhouse sides can be. Wells is just pointing out something that has never been more true: In New York, you can’t rest on your laurels.