- Peter Luger Steak House received a scathing zero-star review in The New YorkTimes last week.
- Pete Wells’ review of the iconic 132-year-old Brooklyn restaurant quickly went viral on Twitter.
- Wells hit out at everything from the french fries, which he called “mealy and bland,” to the service, which he compared to a day at the DMV.
- I visited Peter Luger two days after the review to see for myself, and ate one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Just before the lunch rush hit at noon on a Tuesday, The New York Times dropped a porterhouse-shaped bomb on the Big Apple’s culinary scene.
Pete Wells, The Times’ restaurant critic, had given zero stars to Peter Luger Steak House, a 132-year-old Brooklyn restaurant considered an institution in New York.
Wells’ review, published on October 29, was so scathing in its critique – comparing the service to one’s experience at the DMV, calling the fries “mealy and bland” – that it quickly went viral and incited debate among New Yorkers and tourists alike.
It seemed everyone was split. Even Eater’s top critics Ryan Sutton and Robert Sistema were in disagreement.
I decided to see for myself if Peter Luger was as bad as Wells said.
And I ended up eating one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.
The Peter Luger sign was the first thing I saw as I stepped off the J train on Thursday morning.
I headed to Peter Luger two days after Wells’ review, making the trip from Insider’s office in downtown Manhattan to the Brooklyn steakhouse.
As I walked toward the stairs to exit the Marcy Avenue station, I saw the reason for my trek, spelled out in big script letters: “Peter Luger Steak House.”
The sign looked like it came straight out of a different era as it peeked from behind a graffiti-covered tower.
After I descended the stairs, I decided to head straight for the sign.
I resisted the urge to double-check Google Maps and found myself right in front of Peter Luger’s designated parking lot.
That’s when I noticed a thin arrow at the bottom of the sign, pointing to the left. The restaurant, I could see, was just a block away.
I couldn’t help but feel excited as I walked up to the restaurant.
Although I’ve lived in New York for almost four years, this was my first time visiting Peter Luger.
It’s an iconic restaurant to natives and visitors alike, frequently named among the best steakhouses in the city. In his review, Wells wrote that he once found the establishment to be an “affirmation of life, or at least life as it is lived in New York City.”
“This sounds ridiculously grand,” Wells added in his review. “Years ago I thought it was true, though, and so did other people.”
So my expectations were high when I entered the restaurant, where I quickly asked for a spot at the bar.
When I first walked in around 12:30 p.m., the place was so packed with groups of tourists that the bar was barely visible (I took this photo right before I left just after 2 p.m.).
I made my way to an official-looking desk toward the back of the room, where a woman was standing behind glass and speaking on the phone.
A nearby server quickly picked up on my confused glance and asked if I needed help. When I told him I wanted to eat lunch at the bar, he immediately seated me at the corner. I didn’t identify myself as a reporter, wanting the same Peter Luger’s experience that any other customer would have, though the staff might have guessed based on how many photos I took.
Before I could even put my umbrella down, a menu was placed before my eyes.
The one-page menu, which has largely remained unchanged for decades, lays out the prices for Peter Luger’s famous porterhouse steak in the middle. The daily specials, appetizers, desserts, and sides can be found on the left and right.
I requested a drinks menu from the bartender in front of me, a stoic gentleman who would later tell me he had been at Peter Luger’s for 30 years. He handed one to me immediately.
In his review, Wells wrote that all the servers gave the “strong impression that these endless demands for food and drink are all that’s standing between them and a hard-earned nap.” But, right off the bat, I felt like I had my own personal bartender – even though the bar was fully packed.
Just a few minutes later, a server came up to me and asked if I was ready to order. I requested the burger – one of Wells’ biggest complaints – as well as three of the sides that he had absolutely decimated: the Caesar salad ($US13.95), the German potatoes ($US12.95), and the fries ($US18.90 together with the burger). Per my server’s suggestion, I also got a side of bacon ($US4.95).
First up was the Caesar salad, which Wells had claimed was “so drippy” and came with croutons “straight out of the bag.”
I have eaten many a Caesar salad in my time, and I liked the one at Peter Luger just fine. The romaine leaves were well-dressed, but the dressing wasn’t so heavy – or “drippy” – that they lost their crunch. I thought the grated parmesan cheese, which Wells had called “so white and rubbery,” tasted fresh.
In my experience, the croutons seemed a bit stale and the bread that was served alongside the salad with a plate of butter felt like an afterthought. I took one bite and, finding it hard to chew through, left the basket alone for the rest of the meal.
Next up were Luger’s Special German Fried Potatoes, which Wells said had once been one of his favourite dishes but were now “mushy, dingy, grey, and sometimes cold.”
At first glance, I was disappointed when the potatoes arrived at the bar. While Wells’ potatoes may have been “grey,” mine seemed so well-done that they were almost black.
I have no need for a pretty plate, especially when it comes to carbs. But, in my opinion, these German Fried Potatoes had spent far too much time in the kitchen. They were too burnt for my taste, to the point where I couldn’t really discern any flavour.
But the man sitting next to me, named Paul (more on him later), happily sampled some of the potatoes and found them to be pretty good. He liked that there was “a burn to it” and that they had “more of a crunch.”
Then it was time for the main attraction: Peter Luger’s iconic lunchtime burger.
My heart actually skipped a beat when the server placed this plate in front of me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a restaurant burger so thick. The patty looked as soft and plump as a pillow at a really good hotel, with the slice of American cheese acting as its bright-yellow cover.
It looked exactly like the burger that Wells said Peter Luger produced when it was at its best: “a midnight-dark crust giving way to an evenly rosy interior so full of juices it looked like it was ready to cry.”
The fries, a nice golden-yellow, were scattered across the plate, with a thick slice of bacon tucked underneath.
But first, before I tell you what I thought of the burger, let me give you a little more history.
Peter Luger’s burger patties are made with a combination of dry-aged steak and prime beef. They are ground fresh daily in-house, served with just a slice of American cheese and a slice of raw white onion.
David Berson, Peter Luger’s general manager and the great-grandson of its founders, told Insider in April that the burger started as a chopped steak dish on the menu “as far back as we can remember.”
“Roughly 25 years ago or so, they turned it into a hamburger, put a bun on it, and it’s been on the menu ever since,” he explained.
Insider producers Emily Christian and Herrine Ro loved Peter Luger’s burger when they tried it.
“The thing about this burger is that its buttery,” Christian said. “The meat itself, you just bite through it like butter. It’s so rich, I’ve never experienced a flavour like it in my life.”
“It’s everything that you love of a burger, just elevated,” added Ro. “But still keeping its simple roots.”
I plopped the bun on top of that plump patty and decided to find out for myself.
Before my first bite, I asked my new friend Paul what he thought of his burger. While Wells conceded that burgers at Peter Luger can be phenomenal, his main gripe was that their quality was inconsistent.
The critic brought up one experience in which he and two people who were sat next to him at the bar all ordered the same medium-rare burger. While one of the burgers had been cooked to perfection, he said the other two paled in comparison.
Paul, who told me he had been to Peter Luger multiple times for a steak dinner but was trying the lunch burger for the first time as well, finished his entire plate in 10 minutes. He had also ordered a medium-rare burger and said it was cooked just right.
I took a huge first bite of my burger, and was hit by an explosion of flavour.
The burger was so juicy that I had to wipe my fingers after every single bite. And the patty was just soft enough – truly like butter. I’m guilty of loving over-the-top burgers with a lot of sauce and toppings, and yet I completely forgot that the one in front of me didn’t even have lettuce or tomato on it until I was half-way done.
But I think what struck me most about Peter Luger’s burger was how homemade it tasted. It brought me back to the burgers my dad would make for our summer barbecues, the patty just as thick as the ones he made by hand in our kitchen.
I really didn’t expect to love Peter Luger’s burger, even before Pete Wells’ review, because I thought it would taste, well, too simple. What I realised, though, is that simple can still taste amazing – and make you feel even more at home.
As I talked with diners and bartenders, I realised that this was the allure of Peter Luger in the first place.
Peter Luger is one of those rare places in New York that seems to have just as many tourists as it does regulars.
Paul, who said he works in finance and has frequented many of New York’s top steakhouses for client dinners, told me that he found both Peter Luger and its food to be more “accessible.”
“It feels more authentic,” he said. “You kind of forget that you’re eating in a restaurant – but in a good way.”
And the regulars were clearly protective of the restaurant. One of the bartenders told me that many had been streaming in to show their support after Wells’ review was published. He said other regulars had been calling as well to say how much the place meant to them, including a couple who had been celebrating their wedding anniversary at Peter Luger for decades.
When I asked the bartender what he personally thought of Wells’ review, he replied: “I didn’t appreciate it, but to each their own.”
“One man’s opinion isn’t going to bring down 130 years of doing the right thing,” he added.
I cleaned up the burger, only leaving some of the bacon on my plate in the end.
The french fries ended up being one of my favourite parts of the meal. They were thick, crispy, and salty – just how I like them.
Personally, though, I thought the bacon was an unnecessary addition. It was too chewy for my taste and a bit dry. Paul convinced me to give it another try, suggesting I drizzle some of the signature steak sauce on top. The sauce was definitely a nice touch and made the bacon feel more like its own dish than an overwhelming side.
When it came time to pay, my server dropped off my receipt with three gold coins — a classic Peter Luger touch.
One of Wells’ main gripes with Peter Luger was its system for ordering at the bar. He noted that customers who order both drinks and food at the bar must order their drinks from a bartender and the food from a server. And customers must pay the bill with two separate checks and tips (one for food and another for drinks).
When I first read this in Wells’ review, it sounded like a needlessly complicated process. But the server came up to me to take my order, so I was never bothered that I couldn’t order from a bartender. When I took out my debit card (Peter Luger doesn’t accept credit cards), my server told me I’d need to go to the woman behind the glass to pay. But my bartender then jumped in, saying he could take care of both transactions for me – possibly an indication that Wells’ words have had some effect.
Throughout my lunch at Peter Luger, I found myself most confused by Wells’ words about the service.
Wells wrote in his review that “nearly every waiter and host seems overdue for a month’s vacation” at Peter Luger, writing that the service was so bad that a day at the DMV was preferable.
But during my time at Peter Luger, I observed a happy crowd at the bar. One bartender even humored the two very drunk guys at the other end who loudly proclaimed they were hiring a private jet to watch “Fiddler on the Roof” that night in Miami.
My fellow diners agreed, and seemed unfazed by Wells’ critique.
“Every time I’ve been here, it’s been fantastic,” Steven Bates, a regular, told Insider. “I would give it six stars if I could.”
Haruka, a woman visiting from Japan, said the service was “so good,” as was her spinach and mashed potatoes.
At the end of his review, Wells pondered “who really needs to go to Peter Luger.”
And in my two hours at the steakhouse, I found the answer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a finance guy, a Japanese tourist, or a California girl like me.
Peter Luger is still truly a place for anyone who loves a really good burger.
- Read more:
- Peter Luger’s manager says its steaks are still ‘the best you can eat’ after scathing zero-star review from The New York Times
- We searched for the best burger in New York City
- I ate at Benihana for the first time, and my disappointing experience made it clear how far Asian-American cuisine has come
- We committed one of the cardinal sins of cooking by microwaving 3 steaks, and one of them was actually edible
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