Photo by Anne Fishbein
Have you seen the shrimp cocktail at Sterling, the new steak house around the corner from the ArcLight? Freaking amazing, I’m telling you — a school of banana-size creatures at $3.50 a pop, fitted onto an urn of cocktail sauce with a sort of tension mount you may associate more with Porsche hubcaps than crustaceans, flanked with tiny saucers of tartar sauce and horseradish and wreathed in a volume of billowing dry-ice smoke previously associated with Stevie Nicks videos and David Copperfield shows. The shrimp isn’t just put in front of you, it materializes onto the table from thin air. You don’t know whether to eat it or wait for the drum solo.
Welcome to the new breed of steak house, all about youth and sex and cocktails and meat, Green Day blasting on the sound system instead of Sinatra, and the distinctly erotic sight of willowy actresses sinking their sharp, white teeth into hunks of bleeding steer. The new steak houses all have Johnny Walker Blue behind the bar, lettuce wedges frosted with blue cheese, and a certain concentration of youngish men who hang autographed photographs of Robert Evans right next to their bedroom mirrors. Many of the places are designed by Dodd Mitchell, whose Zen-dungeon aesthetic is to Los Angeles restaurants what Masaccio’s theories of perspective were to the Renaissance. (Dodd Mitchell somehow didn’t get the Sterling job, though — Chris Reed designed its cavernous space.) Of course, there are sauces on the side — buttery béarnaise, horseradish diluted with cream, peppercorn glaze — but not one customer in ten actually applies them to their meat. The bartenders, many of whom are inclined to variations on the martini that could turn William Powell into a teetotaler, are given greater creative license than the chefs. (The Sterling’s greatest glory, on the other hand, is an absolutely classic Manhattan made with Woodford Reserve bourbon and a double shake of bitters.)
Los Angeles has never had much of a meat-and-potatoes reputation — meat-and-sprouts, maybe — but there have always been at least a few manly redoubts of red meat, cigars and oaky red wines so concentrated that they stained your teeth. Expatriate New Yorkers have always provided most of the market for certain goods and services here, including newsstands, Saks Fifth Avenue, the opera. And the Palm, scion of the famous Manhattan steak house, is practically a New York theme restaurant, with a squadron of flat-footed Italian waiters, a clientele of what used to be known as suits, and a living Trivial Pursuit gallery of caricatures on the walls.
The nearly simultaneous arrival of Boa, Jar, Mastro’s and Doug Arango announced Hollywood’s latest red-meat revival a few years ago, expensive steak houses both masculine enough to woo action stars and devotees of Cigar Aficionado, yet elegant enough to please their long-suffering plus-ones. (It’s not just Los Angeles — last year’s biggest success in New York City was BLT Steak, a stunning new steak house from French chef Laurent Tourondel.)
Still, I submit that the current wave of chic steak houses began three years ago with the Lincoln Steakhouse in Santa Monica, owned by the people who run Paladar, Nacional and other nightclub-slash-restaurants, and it wasn’t the charred Angus-beef porterhouses that did it. What Lincoln has that other steak houses did not were young women, in packs and in pairs, on dates, on business dinners, and dining alone. And these weren’t young women nibbling salads or sipping white wine, but women ordering big steaks and eating them, Pilates-toned bellies filling with meat. Maybe it was the license granted by Atkins, maybe it was the music, maybe it was the bartenders’ enthusiasm for cocktails that didn’t happen to be vodka martinis, but Lincoln caught a whole new groove.
Truffled cheese fries? That’s at the Dakota, a chocolate-toned lounge in the Hollywood Roosevelt where the bone-in rib-eyes and caesar salads prepared tableside basically serve as foreplay before a night at the adjoining Tropicana club around the pool. Bacon strips instead of mixed nuts at the bar? That’s the Lodge, a rustic steak house shoehorned into a former Tiny Naylor’s. Chapter 8 brings Hollywood steak house style to distant Calabasas. The Boa has spread to Santa Monica — Dodd Mitchell is currently making Frank Gehry look like a slacker.
And Sterling may be the ultimate Hollywood steak house, a discreetly marked restaurant grand enough for premiere parties but sleek enough for a night out with the girls, a palace of $34 fillets that may actually be worth the expense — the prime, dry-aged rib eye practically explodes into mouthfuls of juice and smoke. When you pull up to the valet station, the guy in the vest asks you whether you are “regular” or VIP. When you walk into the restaurant, the hostess, who is nearly beautiful enough to land a weekend gig at Koi, yawns before she looks up to assess your Q rating and your footwear. If you are wearing last season’s Prada, you will be ushered to the single worst table in the house, smack up against the busboys’ station, even if the restaurant is empty. She is saving the good table — all the good tables, actually — for Gwyneth Paltrow, although Ms. Paltrow is probably sucking down macrobiotic twig tea on Melrose at M Café instead. But you don’t care. Because after dinner, the entrance to the Cabana Club, the most fashionable place in town to dance away a belly full of meat, is on the other side of the dining room. If you get past the guy with the clipboard, let me know how it is.
Sterling, 1429 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood; (323) 463-0008 or sterlingsteakhouse.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 6 p.m. to midnight. AE, MC, V. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only, $80-$110.