It’s all About the Beef, Plus 1
A food history topic of no little interest and complexity is the euphonious “surf and turf”. Like many corners of cuisine or gastronomy, it is rich in socio-cultural detail. A book could easily be written on the subject, in fact.
Any dish that merits this learned assessment (from Wikipedia) justifies in-depth consideration:
Surf and turf was often considered to symbolize the middle-class “Continental cuisine” of the 1960s and 1970s, with (frozen) lobster and steak as ersatz status foodstuffs for the middle class.
The name has been reappropriated by more recent chefs such as Thomas Keller.
I’ll consider two issues. When does “surf and turf” first appear in print? And does the term denote not just the dish but a genre of restaurant?
First Appearance of the Dish
10 years ago well-credentialed, New York-based food blogger Barry Popik, who is also an amateur etymologist, wrote an entry on the origin-year issue. His account is still valid today. He cites two Los Angeles-area sources from 1961, as follows:
13 August 1961, Los Angeles (CA) Times, pg. N7:
The “Turf and Surf” is an interesting combination: lobster tail and small beef tenderloin.
17 December 1961, Los Angeles (CA) Times, calendar section, pg. 18 ad:
Surf & Turf
Australian Lobster Tail & Choice Top Sirloin Steak
(Happy Hollow on Silver Lake Blvd.—ed.)
“Turf and Surf” is an alternate usage that occasionally appears in the early years of the dish. In the second reference of 1961, Surf and Turf is the term used. The sources for the two descriptions were evidently different as the cuts of beef are not the same.
Early versions of surf and turf across the country are as described above, a lobster tail married with a piece of beef. The beef could be various cuts including tenderloin, filet, sirloin, and prime rib. The spiny or rock lobster tail was, by numerous accounts, e.g., Calvin W. Schwabe’s in 1979, regularly sourced from South Africa after WW II. Food historian Jan Whittaker’s useful account of surf and turf offers good detail in particular on the frozen lobster tail history.
An early advertisement for lobster tails that were probably South African-origin appeared in 1951 in a box ad in Sarataga, NY, see here. The ad mentions other dishes including “steak rolls” which is usually rolled flank or another type of thin steak. Unlike for the other dishes the steak rolls is shown adjacent the lobster tails separated by a widely-spaced dash. We believe this was not a combined dish, however, but two separate dishes.
Brazil sometimes supplied the toothsome morsel, or Australia as above in 1961 or in this Rochester, NY ad (1966). This store ad in Syracuse, NY from 1942 advertised rock lobster tails and identified the source as Cuban.
Many news ads in different parts of the United States can be cited for surf and turf after 1961 as the dish went national early, but there is no sense to multiply them here as Barry Popik has identified the earliest to appear; at least by our research this appears so.
The surf and turf dish may therefore originate on the West Coast, perhaps in the Happy Hollow restaurant, Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles, but this is unclear.
Food and drink phenomena, as I discussed earlier in the context of “wine and cheese”, often appear early on both coasts. Then, as now, a “bi-coastal culture” existed in various manifestations from food to drink to television, and politics. This is due to the large numbers of arts and “chattering” classes in these sections, and the frequent travel and other interchanges between them.
It would be satisfying to know that Silver Lake Blvd. runs along or near to the Pacific Ocean, but it does not. Still, the name suggests it lies by a body of water, and it does: Silver Lake Reservoir. The lake is to the northwest of central Los Angeles and at least today the area is a hipster and restaurant hub.
Could surf and turf been given a semi-ironic name in Silver Lake, CA due to the propinquity of such “surf”? This seems possible.
Examples of Restaurants, or Menus, Called Surf and Turf
Early on the term surf and turf also meant a restaurant, or menu, that mainly featured steak and seafood. This 1967 article from the Press in Binghampton, NY in south-central New York is illustrative. It described a restaurant in West Endicott, NY called Surf ‘n Turf and its menu. The image above is drawn from the story. In 1973, a restaurant called Turf and Surf Steak and Seafood House, in Niagara Falls, ON, similarly advertised steak and seafood offerings. The Ontario restaurant pitched to an American audience given the proximity to the border.
Surf and turf as a dish was surely offered on each menu but could not have been the only item sold; there would have been a selection of steaks and seafood or other fish.
Also in 1973 in New Paltz, NY a restaurant called Surf and Turf Steak and Seafood House advertised a menu, evidently again of various steak and seafood items.
In 2018 a Brooklyn, NY restaurant called Surf and Turf operated a dining hall and catering service, with a menu type suggested by the name, see its website here.
Jen Miller in her 2011 book on the foods of the Jersey shore used the term surf and turf on the same page to describe both the dish, a variant involving crab cake, and a type of menu.
In general, in my personal experience dining in various parts of the northeast since the 1970s “surf and turf” means a type of cuisine, not just a dish of that name.
Examples of Restaurants or Dishes Similarly Named
There were alternate names, without quite the snappy sound of Surf and Turf, for the type of restaurant that offered a steak and seafood menu, and/or for the dish itself.
The Rib ‘n Reef is a luxury steakhouse in Montreal that has operated continuously since 1960. The extracts above are from its 1963 menu (source: the McCord Museum’s archive of historic Montreal restaurant menus).
The menu has two main rubrics, “From The Charcoal Pit” and “From the Sea”, with numerous selections under each. None of the dishes combines steak and seafood, although on today’s Rib ‘n Reef menu you can find surf and turf, by that name, indeed in three variations. Of course prices have changed!
“Beef and Reef” is a variant term that titled a restaurant in Cazenovia, NY in 1979. It was also the name of a dish of broiled lobster and steak in Huntington Station, NY in 1972.
Hy’s Steakhouse in Toronto currently offers its “Steak and Lobster”, a filet mignon and Atlantic lobster tail combination; however in its case it eschews the term Surf & Turf or a similar metaphorical term.
The “Steak and Seafood” Menu and its American Character
These restaurants placed, and still do, an strong focus on steak and seafood. Other dishes might be offered, say, chicken, lamb, or ham. But in the main the “steak and seafood” menu offered a choice of beef or seafood with each category given equal prominence on the menu.
It appears this menu emerged in the 1940s-1950s as a peculiarly American innovation, one that spread to Canada early. Hy’s Steakhouse mentioned above began in the 1950s in western Canada, for example (see its website mentioned). We think American inspiration was inevitable.
In countries other than these two, a beef house might offer a fish dish or two (main course). See for example the menu of Simpson’s-on-the-Strand in London in 1963. This is not a “steak and seafood” (or other fish) menu in the North American conception.
The concept did arrive in Britain finally, from American inspiration in my view, and whether steak and seafood or just steak as such. See for example the historical discussion on the website of the Guinea Grill, part of the well-known Guinea Pub in Mayfair, London.
As early as 1952 the Guinea’s tenant, described simply as Alastair, had the idea to offer the kind of steak American visitors wanted. It was thin on the ground in Britain then, or probably anytime before the steak chains finally took root. The Angus Steakhouse is one, and its early-1960s origins have been described as American-inspired.
It is bootless to argue that the American steakhouse is ultimately British to begin with – the chophouse, beefsteak clubs, and similar. This is unquestioned, and the culture transplanted here with early British arrivals. But that is a long time ago. The Stateside steak restaurant evolved in its own way, including often with seafood or fish as a prominent feature, with an effect finally that rebounded in the old country, like a boomerang.
The case of India Pale Ale, now a craft sensation in international beer circles, is similar. “I.P.A” is of English origin, a beer type sent to India in the later 1700s whose high hopping rate was meant to preserve the beer on the journey. The style was given a twist by modern American craft brewers and their interpretation rebounded and has been adopted in the U.K. (which still makes the original type too but often under a different name, Best Bitter, say).
The 1950s American Steak and Seafood House
In New York in 1950, the Red Coach Grill offered an early but classically recognizable steak and seafood menu.
Each rubric has the same prominence with numerous choices under each. Lobster and swordfish, say, are offered in the seafood section. No dish combines meat and seafood. 10 years later similar restaurants exist (and still do), but are now offering the mixed form of dish.
It may be noted from its menu that Red Coach Grill was a chain, comprising in 1950 eight establishments on the East Coast down to Miami.
Here is another example, from 1958, also in New York State and near Binghampton again: the Vestal Steak House menu. This menu featured broiled lobster tails, probably imported from South Africa or another exporting country later associated with the surf and turf dish, but surf and turf does not appear on the Vestal menu. It is too early, as for the Red Coach and 1963 version of the Rib ‘n Reef, and O’Henry mentioned below.
This menu of O. Henry, a restaurant which operated in Greenwich Village, NY, is undated but apparently from the late 1950s: note the telephone exchange format. (“CH” means Chelsea: these went out by the early 1960s). The menu offers among the seafood selections “imported rock lobster tail”, but no surf and turf.
This menu of 1940 from Shevlin’s New Chop House in Cincinnati, via New York Public Library’s menu archive, is instructive to show the roots of the 1950s and later steak and seafood restaurant. The name evokes the 19th-century, or older, English chop house. After 1945 the chop house name was viewed as old-fashioned and is less commonly encountered.
Still, the Shevlin menu, although cluttered by more dishes than the later steak and seafood house offered, has its main elements: lobsters, shrimp, and other seafood on one side, steaks and chops on the other. Pre-WW II menus tend to offer many more items than in the post-war era, so the slimming down of menus in general may have assisted the emergence of the classic steak and seafood menu.
Of the countless restaurants that existed in the U.S.A. or Canada with such menus, did not one before 1961 combine steak and seafood as a surf and turf, or turf and surf? This seems likely but no example is documented to date. If such a dish did exist, perhaps it was a “customer” special, bearing his name ad hoc, or another (or no) name.
A dish we can document in 1967 akin to surf and turf was called the Coach. This suggests perhaps that surf and turf existed under a different name(s) before 1961. Still, we are not aware that such a dish has been documented.
Steak and Seafood/Fish Together are not new
To be sure, dishes have always existed combining meat and seafood, famously in Asian cooking. The West features as well, e.g. the Spanish paella, or Catalan Mar i Muntanya. Carpetbag steak is beefsteak of some kind with a pouch to hold oysters or other shellfish. A form exists from Britain to North America to Australia.
A menu in 1900 offered “sirloin and oysters”. Steak and oyster pie, and various foods with anchovy, are old hat in Britain and elsewhere in the West.
But once again: the American steakhouse menu of the 1950s with its binary of steak and seafood was uniquely American. In part this was due to the Maine lobster whose size and excellence permitted featuring it as a main course item. As an example, see this 1954 New York Post restaurant review, where a basic steak menu was supplemented, especially on Friday, by a main course lobster plate noted for its size and quality.
Lobster tails of other countries are usually smaller, often not as tasty, and not as suitable for a main dish. Clearly, with the expansion of middle class eating they were resorted to for cost and availability reasons, but their comparative inferiority to the Maine lobster meant ultimately a combination with beef to kick it up a notch.
Non-Culinary Usages of the Term Surf and Turf
Since the 1940s the term surf and turf has also been applied to various types of clothing, sportswear usually, especially for use in boating or on beachside. See this example for women, from 1941. The term has also been applied to air-blown mattresses, and other paraphernalia associated with seaside living.
This is not unusual as the words surf and turf are respectively old usages for the sea and land. Their rhyming quality must have meant for an early coinage outside a food context.
In coastal Del Mar, CA surf and turf became a catchphrase in the form of “where the turf meets the surf”. This phrase and the term “surf and turf” were used to promote the racetrack and resort facilities built by entertainer Bing Crosby and partners in 1936 to attract Hollywood luminaries and other names.
Crosbly crooned the once-famous tune Where the Turf Meets the Surf (Crosby/Monaco/Burke), a signature song of his Turf Club in Del Mar. You can hear him sing it here.
Where the turf meets the surf
Down at old Del Mar
Take a plane
Take a train
Take a car.
There is a smile on every face
And a winner in each race
Where the turf meets the surf
At Del Mar.
In 1947 there was a Turf and Surf Hotel in Del Mar. In 1952 there was at least one Turf and Surf restaurant in town, perhaps in that hotel, per this California news squib.
The term surf and turf also had and may still retain a general sporting connotation extending to sports fishing and some land sports. The term appeared in this context, for example, in late-1960s advertisements relating to a “Sportacular” exhibition.
Did the ubiquity of the term surf and turf on the California coast and around Los Angeles in the 1940s and ’50s give rise finally to the dish of the same name? We think it probable, until further evidence may suggest an alternate origin.
Note re images: The sources of the images above are identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.