EDIBLE COMPLEX In a very 20th-century way, steak connotes adulthood. A turning point for me was a visit to one of those cook-it-yourself steak restaurants with my extended family when I was 12. I aspired to be a grown-up at the time, and so I determined to take steak-eating seriously. I chose a big hunk of meat and grilled it until the outside was totally charred and the inside was thoroughly gray. The whole thing seemed very manly.
Meanwhile, I watched my uncle Charlie take a different approach. He examined the raw steaks carefully and selected a filet mignon that seemed especially tender and juicy. He timed his cooking by his watch, flipping the steak at just the right moment and removing it when it was a fraction on the rare side of medium rare. When I was halfway through eating my Neanderthal dinner, feeling big and strong, he cut me a bite from the center of his filet and said, "Try this."
I hadn't asked him for a bite, and I didn't particularly want one, and I had no reason to think his steak was different from my own except that it was smaller and thus less powerful. I could see the bite of meat he offered me in cross-section. Most of it was a vivid pink, which was frightening for some reason I couldn't articulate. And then I put it in my mouth and realized that my attitude toward steak had been childish and unsophisticated, and likewise my ideas about adulthood itself. Real maturity, it turns out, is not about being big and tough but about being tender and true.
There are maybe a half dozen reputable steak houses in San Francisco, and I would have liked to order a filet mignon, medium rare, in each one of them, then compared them in detail and presented the results here, but financial considerations ruled that out. (Any dot-com millionaires who would like a thorough survey of the available steak options: e-mail me.) I picked Harris', on Van Ness, because it's not a chain and because I've never understood the name "Ruth's Chris Steak House."
You can tell Harris' is a traditional steak house by checking out the clientele: I have been in San Francisco for eight years, and this was the least hip crowd I have ever been a part of, including jury duty. It was kind of relaxing. The dining room has a high ceiling and padded banquettes and seems to have been designed to minimize ambient noise. This is not a space for young movers and shakers governed by the need to imagine they're at the center of a vibrant social world at every moment. It's a space for people who are losing their hearing.
The steak house is a relic, a vestige of an age of different ideas from our own about what constituted good eating. The steak house is the greatest generation's idea of luxury dining, a restaurant where quality consists of the time-tested, the tried-and-true, a nice cut of beef with a baked potato. When we want to describe something as unostentatious and essential and without fripperies or pointless ornamentation, we compare it to meat and potatoes.