Photo by Anne Fishbein

TWO FRIENDS WERE BICKERING AT DINNER ONE NIGHT, WHILE THE rest of us were listening. The topic of debate? Which of the two new steak houses in Beverly Hills was better: Mastro's or Porterhouse Bistro. “Porterhouse is so much prettier — spare and filled with light. You can actually see the food on your plate,” said one.

“Yes, but the meat is better at Mastro's,” said the other.

“Porterhouse is much better, all around,” argued the first, with a certain haughtiness. “Mastro's is way too Las Vegas.”

“I have an idea,” I interjected. “Let's all four go to both places. Then we'll vote.”

This was rapidly agreed to. Fun. And steaks. Hey.

To Mastro's then — one in a small Scottsdale-based chain of steak houses that, a year ago, opened in the former Chasen's space on Cañon Drive. We arrived early on a summer evening. The sun was still an hour away from setting. Mastro's façade of thick, rippled, swimming-pool-blue glass seemed, well, expensive. And kind of crass. I'd heard that Bill Clinton had been in a few days prior, and had eaten like a trooper — or, rather, like a man of large appetite.

We were led upstairs to a well-appointed lounge: dark, low ceilings, rock work, heavy orange drapes. Blinking to adjust to the interior twilight, we walked the gauntlet of a long bar, customers turning from their cocktails to survey us. I instantly felt hung-over, though I haven't had a drop of alcohol in more than a decade. We could've been in Vegas in the mid-'60s, in someone's lavish rumpus room, or on the set of Playboy After Dark. All that was missing was the blue haze of cigarette smoke. When a customer over by the window moved a drape, light sliced into the room like a bolt of withering goodness. Mastro's is a paean to lounges, supper clubs, casinos and other booze-filled refuges where the sun don't shine.

Jennifer, our brilliant, gracious waitress, advised us to order medium rare if we normally liked rare, because rare was cold inside. We ordered standard steak-house salads: a juicy caesar, a lettuce wedge with blue cheese. Both were excellent.

“I prefer my caesars made with the hearts of romaine,” sniffed the Porterhouse fan.

Then came the meat, medium rare, as suggested. In the Mastro's corner of the ring, my friend had a bone-in Kansas City, which had a melting, almost satiny texture and big, aged flavor — everybody's favorite. In the Porterhouse corner, a boneless filet, cooked perfectly, very juicy, tender in a lovely, smooth way. The third, neutral member of our quartet had the porterhouse, with its dual steaks (sirloin on one side, filet on the other), both beautifully rare. I had the bone-in rib-eye, a glorious rich, big-flavored piece of meat oozing juice. I'm still obsessing over it despite the fact that it came out on the medium side of medium rare by anybody's standards.

We ordered sides: delicious gratin potatoes, peas and carrots, and stunning béarnaise and horseradish sauces. We were in steak heaven, drunk on meat, the euphoria prolonged by dessert, a self-explanatory dense Chocolate Sin Cake, and a paradigmatic key-lime pie. As we left, in the deepening twilight, the blue-glass façade suddenly looked gorgeous.

A WEEK LATER, WE REPAIRED TO Porterhouse: same surly group, same early-bird hour. Indeed, Porterhouse is as bright and wide-open as Mastro's is a dark den of guilty pleasure. Milky-yellow walls, windows open to Wilshire Boulevard, tasteful paintings on the walls. Our waitress was pretty and cheerful, but harassed — no busboys had come to work that day.

We started with similar salads: a hearts-of-romaine (caesar-like) salad with a too-thick, even pasty dressing, and the house salad of mixed greens with blue cheese. Then two porterhouses for two. One charred rare, one medium rare. These enormous, thick steaks came cut free of the bone (which was still on the plate). Beautiful-looking, but lacking the char and rivulet of juice, and the expensive-tasting, engineered deliquescence, of Mastro's meat, these porterhouses seemed tidier, more hygienic, less brash, even less meaty than Mastro's — the way halibut is less fishy than mackerel. We also had puffy French fries served in an edible French-fried basket, along with a measly portion of small asparagus spears, and tepid sautéed mushrooms.

We ate without discussing the meal. Really, Mastro's had been so rife with frank fun — the naughty rich lounge-lizard swankiness, the superlative service, the crusty, juice-oozing steaks — that Porterhouse seemed tame and uninteresting.

Dessert was a standard chocolate lava cake and a bowl of average lemon sorbet. Then a huge pink nest of complimentary cotton candy. Cute. A manager presented two fake 10-dollar bills — discount coupons, but not for this meal. And the waitress told us to keep the Porterhouse pens, plastic facsimiles of Montblancs.

We eyed the pens, the cotton candy, the fake money, then each other. “No comparison,” we agreed. Even the former Porterhouse fan added: “I just don't know what I was thinking.”

Mastro's, 246 N. Cañon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 888-8782. Open nightly for dinner 5 p.m.­mid. Entrées $19.95­$47.95. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.

Porterhouse Bistro, 8635 Wilshire Blvd.; (310) 659-1099. Open nightly for dinner 5­10 p.m. Porterhouse steaks $34.95 per person. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V.

LA Weekly