Smith & Wollensky isn’t quite the dean of New York steakhouses, but at thirty years old, it predates most this city’s beef emporiums. There are now S&W’s in nine cities. In New York alone, the same restaurant group also owns Post House and Quality Meats, in addition to the flagship at 49th & 3rd.
I believe I paid my first visit to S&W around fifteen years ago. My only recollection is the after-dinner cigars we enjoyed at the bar, an experience that couldn’t be reproduced today. A few weeks ago, a friend visiting from out of town was in a steakhouse mood. We chose S&W, as it was near his hotel.
S&W offers the same generic menu, at the same generic prices, that you find at most New York steakhouses. We both ordered the filet mignon, which came in a huge double portion. It was charred, nicely aged, and prepared to the correct temperature. The server was no doubt aware that it came with an ample helping of vegetables, but he didn’t mention that as we ordered an entirely unnecessary side order of creamed spinach.
The décor is unremarkable. When I wandered around looking for the restroom, it struck me that the upkeep was a bit sloppy, with various carts and trays left lying around in a hallway.
Smith & Wollensky has enjoyed four full New York Times reviews—a remarkable achievement for a formula restaurant. In December 1977, shortly after it opened, Mimi Sheraton rated it “Fair.” The format has apparently changed over time, as Sheraton described Smith & Wollensky as an “Italian steakhouse,” and there certainly is no vestige of that today. For the record, there never was anyone named Smith or Wollensky; the founder, Alan Stillman, chose those two names at random out of a Manhattan telephone directory.
In 1986, Bryan Miller upgraded the restaurant to “Satisfactory,” and then again in 1990 to one star. In its most recent review, in 1997, Ruth Reichl called it “A Steakhouse to End All Arguments,” awarding two stars. It was a peculiar headline, given her admission that she preferred Peter Luger (to which she had awarded three stars). To her, the difference was that at Smith & Wollensky you could order a fish entrée, and not feel like it had been an afterthought.
In the last several years, there has been a glut of new steakhouses. Many of them mindlessly follow the traditional format, but a few have actually improved on it, such as BLT Prime, Porter House, and S&W’s sister establishment, Quality Meats. I suspect even Ruth Reichl would agree that, these days, a traditional steakhouse needs a little something extra to win two stars. These newer restaurants have it; Smith & Wollensky does not.
Smith & Wollensky (797 Third Avenue at 49th Street, East Midtown)