The Thrill of a Great Steakhouse Isn’t the Food. It’s the Theater.

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In the steakhouse, employees hone the art of performance. There are crisp white linens, the overattentive server, the small comb-size steel blade that said server periodically drags over the tablecloth to decrumb the crumbs that may or may not exist. The presence of the crumbs is not important: It is the act of the decrumbing, the blade’s being scraped over the table, a routine that anyone with sanity would never perform within the theater of their own home, that matters. I find the decrumbing embarrassing, proof of my slovenly nature — there are always so many crumbs to scrape off my side of the table — but many steakhouse patrons revel in it. I see them pulling themselves back from the table, watching the servers decrumb their tablecloths as if they were gods.

Steakhouses are places where nonfancy people go to do something fancy — to turn birthdays, anniversaries, job promotions and graduations into regal celebrations. In this theater of “the occasion,” you feel that people planned what they are wearing. In many steakhouses, an honest-to-God photographer walks over to you. “Would you like your picture taken?” the photographer asks. Of course we’d like our picture taken. It’s an occasion!

The most dramatic steakhouse performance is the act of sending back the steak. To be clear, I have never in my life sent a steak, or any meal, back. May I die first. But I do love watching people send their steaks back. In the steakhouse, only you, the patron, know the ideal wellness or rareness of the steak you have ordered. Too rare or too well, either way, servers whisk steaks back to the kitchen upon request with absolute understanding, a grave affirmational nod. It is an expected part of each evening. Oftentimes, steaks return looking exactly as they did when they were first delivered. There is a likely apocryphal story about how Michelangelo, upon getting criticism about David’s nose being too big, climbed a ladder and pretended to chisel it. No actual change was made, but once everyone saw the supposedly new nose, they all reportedly said, “Ah, there — so much better.” It is the same inside the steakhouse. The change in the steak is immaterial to the idea of the steak being altered.

It is important to note that, as it is with wonderful but deeply flawed people, the bad things you hear about steakhouses are also true. They traffic in a food item that contributes to carbon emissions, and that was once a joyful living being. The portions are wasteful and excessive. The food is not even pretty; sometimes, in fact, it’s quite ugly. The meat is often plated inelegantly, as when it’s placed atop an unshapely mound of mashed potatoes in which the blood of the dead animal you’re eating forms a little pond.

Still, I love what it feels like to be a patron in these places. The pleasure of the steakhouse lies in a fantasy of plenty, of an excess that does not exist in other parts of my life. Inside the steakhouse, I wear rhinestone suits and backless dresses. I order a cut of steak named after a dead king. I watch the servers take steak in and out of the swinging kitchen doors like assassins. I get my picture taken. The picture is printed while I eat and placed in an orange paper frame that is delivered with the check. Like a roller-coaster snapshot, it offers a pleasant thrill. I am smiling, fully enjoying playing the part of whoever, just for that evening, I want to be.

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