The Upper End of the Beefsteak Tradition

The range of beefsteak dinners took in different social classes. At the higher end, it was the upwardly mobile middle class or the intelligentsia such as journalists and writers. Their dinners could assume a more elaborate aspect.

I mentioned earlier an 1878 haute menu of a New York Beefsteak Society preserved in the records of the Museum of the City of New York. The place where the dinner was given is not stated but it must have been a posh hotel or restaurant, or perhaps someone’s estate. Given the lack of venue information, it is tempting to think the menu was a draft for an event never held. As it bears a specific date, May 11, 1878, we think a real event likely occurred.

I mentioned also the Washington, D.C. elite journalists’ club, the Gridiron Society. This group was only loosely connected to the beefsteak social tradition inaugurated by the English clubs of the 1700s but its very name and gridiron symbol attest to a common origin.

That the Gridiron Society knew this cannot be doubted since it met fellow societies on occasion including a New York beefsteak society. In an 1890s Gridiron Club memoir, Henry Litchfield West, a Washington Post editor, recounted the bare bones meal of the latter and that “plain, plebeian beer” was served. Despite the surprise visited on West by the New York club’s routines, he seems to have enjoyed the session including the “amber” ale. He lauded it as “refreshing” and as if “brewed by Gambrinus”.

But the very fact this meeting occurred shows the Gridiron Society knew there was a kinship.

Below you see a menu for a dinner of the Chicago Piano and Organ Association a few years ahead of WW I. (It appears courtesy Maybe Chicago at the time with its striving nature felt steak and ale were too simple again, so it mounted a luxury dinner featuring caviar and fine wines. Indeed beer does not appear, but on the menu cover the meal is still billed as a beefsteak event.

The manufacture of musical instruments was a major industry in North America then, and the leading piano merchants were local gentry. Also, perhaps the classical tradition which provided much of the presumed repertoire for the instruments was felt inconsistent with beef and beer unadorned. Anyway the Association wasn’t content with plain fare. In this respect, the London Club tradition of which the last English Beefsteak Club was an integral part by the 1800s bore more relation to the Chicago dinner than the faux setting of a Lower East Side New York ale house.

Yet another event, in Bisbee, Arizona in 1903, hewed to the original menu of the New York beefsteaks pretty much, but was attended by the prosperous middle class vs. the pressmen, conductors, and fraternal organizations who often filled the ranks in New York.

It was held on the rooftop of a home and this account in a Bisbee newspaper is telling in a number of ways. Women attended, indeed the dinner was explained as a boon for them as less preparation and cleaning were involved than for standard entertaining. There were music and singing as well, drifting over the silent flats nearby which the writer considered a bizarre effect.

He got the essential ethos of the beefsteak though, as we see in the passage following. The idea was not so much to romanticize the lifestyle of an earlier time, but to exhibit a Bohemian spirit. This feature harks back to the first English beefsteak club (c. 1709) and was preserved in distant America while the English clubs evolved to gentrification.

The Bisbee writer noted:

It doesn’t sound dignified, nor is it. Who would think of preserving dignity at a beefsteak dinner? It would be like weeping at a circus. Dignity and a beefsteak dinner would be a sad combination. Conservatism cannot exist on a roof top with champagne boxes in front of it and the entire atmosphere permeated with bohemianism. If you are not spry you are likely to go hungry. The beefsteak is piping hot when you get it and you must exercise a bit of ingenuity in eating.

At bottom, a beefsteak was a let-your-hair-down event with a simple menu, which Joseph Mitchell’s 1939 essay stresses. But anyone could attend it and establishment or upwardly-mobile types found ways to enhance the basic menu, sometimes.  The beefsteak was never simply an ethos of iron stove steak, flowing mugs and set-awhile ambience.

And so beefsteaks could also feature champagne, fine claret, caviar, rare vegetables, and other delicacies.


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