What makes a four-star steakhouse — or a zero-star steakhouse, for that matter? The landscape is crowded with restaurants specializing in cuts of beef. If a Smith & Wollensky closes in Back Bay, a Ruth’s Chris will soon appear in Somerville’s Assembly Row to right the balance. The experiences are often interchangeable. This, in fact, is the joy of the steakhouse: the high-quality meat, the creamed spinach and mashed potatoes, the cabernet, the attentive service. It is a formula, a ritual. How can a steakhouse stand out when standing out is beside the point?
We can look to Abe & Louie's for one answer. It isn't the best steakhouse in town, but it might be the best steakhouse that feels like town.
For more than a decade, the late restaurateur Charlie Sarkis, punctilious and pugnacious, ran this Back Bay mainstay, selling it in 2011 to Tavistock Restaurant Collection. Lined in dark wood, brass railings gleaming, tables covered in crisp white cloths, this was a place celebrities might visit, a spot to seal the deal or celebrate the occasion. It was somewhere an ambitious young person might dream of eating once he or she finally arrived.
How has it fared since? Today it is less top-of-mind, less aspirational, but no less vital. Show up on a Wednesday and it is packed, with a wait for a table despite two floors of seating. The bar scene is boisterous, its denizens familiar. They are drinking big glasses of Tavistock Reserve wine and generous vodka martinis with skewers of fat olives, whatever didn’t fit in the glass chilling separately over ice. Chopped salads, shrimp cocktail, and steak tartare arrive on carts in the dining room. Servers in beige blazers give the rundown on the food, their explanations more folksy than fancy. It’s a good place to work, they’ll tell you, not like the place they worked before. When a job opened up, they leaped.
Steakhouses are steakhouses, with that precise blend of comfort and luxury to be found in Dallas or DC. I’d take a serious steak snob to dinner at Grill 23. But I’d take an out-of-towner to Abe & Louie’s for the aged prime New York sirloin and the sense of place.
This is the steak to order: 16 ounces, as thick as my thumb is long, a deep char all around yielding immediately to a juicy bright pink that goes darker just at the very center. It’s a perfect medium-rare. It’s perfectly seasoned, too. That it comes garnished with one wilted frond of watercress seems just right, a commentary on how much you don’t need anything green on your plate tonight.
The beef at Abe & Louie’s is mostly corn-fed, from the Midwest. There are no fancy ranch names trotted out on the menu, although there’s a grass-fed cut here, an Australian wagyu there. If the steaks don’t come with provenance, they also don’t bear prices that make you dizzy. Most cuts are in the $50s or lower — far from an inexpensive meal, to be sure, but one that tracks reasonably with other menus in town.
Not all of the steaks feel worth it. An 8-ounce grass-fed filet mignon doesn’t seem any more flavorful than its corn-fed cousin. And a beautiful bone-in aged prime rib eye arrives one night edging its way toward dryness. But a prime rib special is utterly satisfying, a thick slab of rosy meat served with piquant horseradish sauce. The one quibble is with the accompanying marrow bone, cut across the width rather than the length; there’s hardly any marrow to extricate.
There is an unfortunate trend toward overcooking here. All of the juices have been cooked out of a double-cut, bone-in pork chop. And a center-cut swordfish steak is grilled so hard it’s barely edible. The only thing you could do to redeem it is flake it and mix it with mayo for a sandwich.
Almost as many lobsters leave the kitchen as steaks. Abe & Louie’s is one of the rare places still serving lobster Savannah, which comes in a white ceramic trough, tender chunks of meat swimming in a sherry-cream sauce heavy on bell peppers. Locke-Ober was known for the dish until it shuttered in 2012, gone now like so many of the city’s storied restaurants. Abe & Louie’s never really seemed of that ilk, but it is becoming a Boston classic by attrition.
Here are some wonderful things to eat at Abe & Louie’s: The bread, which used to be white rolls but now comes from Iggy’s; the seeded rye is phenomenal. The onion soup, a classic rendition, topped in a thick coat of bubbling browned cheese. Fat spears of tender asparagus drizzled in hollandaise sauce. An appetizer that is just slices of tomatoes with blue cheese and red onions — kind of great even out of season for its sheer simplicity. (There’s another appetizer that is basically just slices of bacon.)
The steak tartare is nearly wonderful, but in need of a little more acid to punch it up. I think someone forgot to put cheese in the creamy macaroni. You can skip the underdressed chopped salad and iceberg wedge. Dessert — crème brulee, cheesecake, butterscotch bread pudding — is unmemorable but there for you if you need it.
The meal you’ll have at Abe & Louie’s will be great if you order right. The experience is what makes the place special: trading quips with the excellent servers, drinking a martini at the bar, taking in the paintings and the fireplace and listening to laughter swell in the room, first over here, then over there, like an orchestra performing a symphony of joy. The white cloth napkins have buttonholes sewn into the corners. This thoughtful touch sums up Abe & Louie’s blend of formality and informality: It’s expected guests will wear nice shirts. It’s also expected they’ll make a mess.
I recently brought a friend to dinner here for the first time. We drank martinis at the second-floor bar, lucked into an unlikely table, and ate a mixed bag of a meal. I don’t know what Charlie Sarkis would have thought of it, but we had a grand time. At the end of the night, my friend looked around the room and smiled. “I’d come back,” he said.
So would I.
ABE & LOUIE’S ★★½
793 Boylston St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-536-6300, www.abeandlouies.com
All major credit cards accepted. First floor is wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $7-$22. Entrees $32-$70. Sides $10-$27. Desserts $7-$13.
Hours Dinner Sun 3-11 p.m., Mon-Thu 4-11 p.m., Fri-Sat 4 p.m.-midnight. Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Brunch Sat-Sun 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Noise level Conversation easy.
What to order Onion soup au gratin, New York sirloin, prime rib, lobster Savannah, asparagus with hollandaise.
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