Striploin with a side of sexism: why steakhouses need to lose their men’s club vibe
- Steakhouses can be expensive and intimidating places, and often feel like exclusive men’s clubs
- As casual steak-frites restaurants become more popular, those old-school establishments need to take note
As a kid, I used to think steakhouses were the most intimidating of places. The typical old-school grill room is a dimly lit cavern, guarded by a snooty-looking maitre’ d who, with one glance and a dismissive wave, could banish you. Even though I was let in, I never felt relaxed.
Back then, those oak-panelled dens of meat, martinis and manly men were considered the height of fancy dining. As a pimply preteen, I knew nothing about steak appreciation. The few times my uncle took us to these places, I insisted my beef be very well done. I’m not eating a slab of red meat that’s still bloody!
To be honest, I would have been happier with hamburger and fries because I couldn’t tell the difference between T-bone, rib-eye, filet mignon or sirloin. And prime rib is another word for steak that’s not been cut into slices, right?
Not only were steakhouses daunting because they were the most expensive restaurants, but they were always filled with executive types and old guys who ordered entire bottles of wine. As a young lightweight, the idea of consuming a bottle seemed preposterous, especially since I could barely stomach a few sips out of my glass.
Even today, steakhouses project an aura of discriminating swank and exclusivity. But they are slowly changing. For one, the days of a strict dress code are over. Smart-casual is now generally acceptable attire. Who wants to wear a jacket and tie during a Hong Kong summer?
Even so, I’m not ballsy enough to try entering the Grand Hyatt Steakhouse in flip flops and shorts. Maybe La Vache, though. Casual steak-frites restaurants have certainly helped to take the starch out of white-tablecloth rib-eye dinners.
To many Chinese, steaks were synonymous with Western dining. In the 1940s and ’50s, steakhouses were prohibitively expensive and out of reach for the average Hongkonger. In the ’60s, clever chefs adapted the steakhouse experience using cheaper beef which they tenderised with baking soda and presented on a sizzling plate covered in a heavy sauce to hide the bland taste. Voilà, steak was democratised in Hong Kong.
That doesn’t mean some of us are any more comfortable at a classic high-end grill. Frankly, some steakhouses need to change with the times. From portion size to the gentlemen’s club vibe they cultivate, many are still pervasively male-oriented, as if they’re still living in the Mad Men age of chauvinism.
Beyond sexism, other steakhouse conventions and unwritten rules can make the experience intimidating. Some are reasonable and understandable; others are just archaic.
One etiquette rule I constantly violate is using my hands to eat the meat left on a bone. If table manners insist this is caveman behaviour, then I’m proudly Jurassic. I slurp fish bones clean, I finger-lick my fried chicken, and I gnaw on tomahawk bones because the crispy edges are darn tasty. That’s how we Hongkongers roll.
Handling your gristle is another measure of civility. Experts say you shouldn’t spit into the napkin or on the table. Instead, discreetly take the unchewables with your fingers and place them on the edge of your plate – or like me, you put it on the small bread plate.
Putting steak sauce on your New York strip is one sure way to insult the chef. You might slather A1 on your beef at home, but don’t do it at a restaurant serving top-quality meat. However, that’s now less of a crime after four years of a US president putting ketchup on his tremendously well-done steaks.
Some steakhouses are now accommodating the varying tastes of their diners by offering an array of condiments, from chimichurri, black pepper-garlic, Béarnaise or blue cheese sauce, to several types of mustard.
Happily, there’s one aspect of dining at a steakhouse that I’ve changed as I’ve grown up: I no longer order well-done steaks.