Any restaurant that has survived more than a century has a lot of tales to tell, and at the circa 1887 Peter Luger, history seeps from the walls, beer steins and antique wooden tabletops. Originally opened in Williamsburg as a restaurant/pool hall/bowling alley, its namesake likely had no idea that 126 years later his business would not only thrive, but become the rubric for steakhouses all over the nation. Little has changed in the historic restaurant since Sol Forman took it over in 1950, transforming it into New York City’s palace of porterhouse. Today, Peter Luger is not only New York City’s only steakhouse with a Michelin star, it is also a 30-year champion of the number one slot for steakhouses in the Zagat Survey. Even though it has been around almost as long as the Brooklyn Bridge and is one of the city’s most beloved carnivore landmarks, there may be a thing or two diners did not know about the restaurant. Read on to get to the meaty dish on some surprising secrets.
Peter Luger was not the founder of the restaurant
Contrary to popular belief, Peter Luger was not the founder of the legendary steakhouse. It was, rather, his father Carl. According to food historian Betty Fussell in her book, Raising Steaks, German immigrant Carl Luger opened the spot as Carl Luger’s Café Billiards and Bowling Alley in 1887. Son Peter renamed the restaurant after himself when he inherited it upon his father’s death. The New York Times described Peter Luger as a man with an “inimitable” style. “If a customer complained about a steak, he would taste it and often refuse to replace it.”
When Peter Luger died of a heart attack in 1941, at a Long Island Railroad station just before his 75th birthday, son Frederick Luger took over the business. Apparently Fred didn’t inherit the restaurant bug. Business dwindled and he was forced to sell the property at auction in 1950.
The restaurant was busted for bootlegging during Prohibition
During a borough-wide sweep in 1922, the restaurant was raided by enforcement agents who seized a “truckload of imported wines and liquors,” according to The New York Times. Luger told the agents that the vast amount of liquor was for his personal use. The police dubbed Brooklyn at the time as the “wettest” borough in the city.
The patriarch of the current ownership bought it at auction and was the only bidder
An auction was held to sell the Williamsburg restaurant and the property surrounding it after Peter Luger’s son Frederick apparently drove the business into the ground. A nostalgic, loyal customer by the name of Sol Forman, who owned the metal-stamping factory across the street, showed up as the only bidder on June 20, 1950. For a modest sum, Forman walked away with the restaurant equipment, the Luger name and five buildings.
At the time, Forman had been a regular customer at Peter Luger for 25 years, and he often ate a steak a day, sometimes two, at the restaurant. (His obituary in The New York Times states that his first steak there cost $1.75. A far cry from the $47 a steak for one costs today). Aside from enjoying the steaks, Forman had no experience in the restaurant business.
Peter Luger Steakhouse is now run by women
Despite its masculine vibe, and the preponderance of male waiters, Peter Luger is the product of some fierce girl power: It is the only steakhouse in New York City owned and run by women. Forman’s wife, Marsha, was charged with choosing and buying the meat from the moment he bought it. Today, Forman’s daughters, Marilyn Spiera and Amy Rubenstein, run the business with Marilyn’s daughter and Sol’s granddaughter, Jody Storch.
The steakhouse didn’t even have a menu until 1950
“The whole menu, and the whole idea of a generic steakhouse menu, was my father’s and my mother’s,” Rubenstein, daughter of Sol Forman, says. “Previously you could have tomatoes and onions, steak and French fries and that was it. My parents added the shrimp cocktail, creamed spinach, salad, hash browns, pies, desserts.”
Fish was introduced to the menu in the 1980s, but it is still to be ordered sheepishly
Rubenstein says that when she and her sister Marilyn would dine at the restaurant with their husbands and husbands’ friends, they would notice that the wives would not eat at all. That’s when the sisters decided to introduce a “fresh fish in season” to the menu for the red meat-averse. When Bryan Miller reviewed the restaurant for The New York Times in 1993, he said ordering the fish was like “asking for a tennis racket at a golf course.” Years later, Frank Bruni in his 2007 review said that when he wondered out loud whether to order the fish, the waiter responded huffily, “Do you go to Hawaii to ski?”
Peter Luger is happily stuck in the past
Open Table? What’s that? At Peter Luger, there is an actual reservation book with hand-written entries. The accounting is also done by hand in a bound ledger. There is even a manual cash register, and if you’re pulling out the credit card to pay, put it back. Peter Luger doesn’t accept plastic (except for its own house card). Explains co-owner Storch, “We’ve really resisted technology because we just felt it was not appropriate, from the point of view of the customers, to see the guys running to terminals. There’s something nostalgic about getting a handwritten check and keeping the systems the way they have always been run.”
The famous bacon appetizer was originally a secret
According to Storch, the thick-cut bacon was originally served exclusively for employee meals. “It was a big slab and they used to hock off a piece and throw it on the broiler. The Wall Street guys would come for lunch and they would see the waiters eating lunch in the dining room, and it became the ‘in’ thing to ask for,” she says. “If you knew to ask for the bacon, that was how we knew you were a regular.” It wasn’t until the 90s that the bacon became a menu item.
The art of beef selection is a family talent; and the aging process is perhaps the steakhouse’s most guarded secret
When Sol Forman took over Peter Luger, he charged wife Marsha with picking the beef. She spent two years learning how to evaluate meat from a retired USDA meat inspector. Forman was known for striding into the meat markets, twice a week, in her white coat and fur hat. Today, Storch is charged with personally choosing the meat. She says she looks for conformation in the shape of the carcass; good color and an even flecking of marble; sturdy bones; and precise texture. The approved beef gets the Forman family stamp that reads: F4F.
The meat is dry-aged in a proprietary manner within the restaurant’s temperature-controlled basement, a room that The New York Timesdescribed as “A 2,000-square-foot industrial walk-in cooler… larger than many city domiciles, and is equally congested, packed from floor to ceiling at any given time with 30,000 pounds of raw, aging meat. Its smells are earthy and specific, a mineral combination of hazelnuts and sea salt, and the fatty pink short loins resting on the clean steel racks like the promise of abundance give the impression of a gluttony so bountiful and imminent that one can feel its reverberations coming through the floor, a full flight up, in the front of the house.”
The Peter Luger formula is likely the most copied steakhouse model in the country
Not only did the Forman family’s steakhouse menu model catch on, several former employees of the institution went on to open their own copycat steakhouses. MarkJoseph in South Street Seaport; Ben & Jack’s, which has two in the city and a branch in Arizona; and Wolfgang’s, whose seven branches stretch as far as Hawaii, all follow the same model, down to the whipped cream “schlag” served on the desserts. There is only one true original, however, on Brooklyn’s Broadway in Williamsburg; and only one bonafide offshoot, in Great Neck, Long Island, which Sol Forman opened in 1961.
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