Odd Pair: Expensive Steakhouse, Affordable Wine

From the Pacific Dining Car in Los Angeles to the Chop House in Chicago to Peter Luger's in New York, the super-sized (and over-priced) American steakhouse is a sine qua non of the North American culinary tradition and experience (don't forget Moishes in Montreal). What full-blooded American doesn't love dining at a steakhouse and thrusting a knife into a piece of dry-aged meat and washing it down with a glass of red wine? I know I do. The problem is that I can't afford to.

American steakhouses are expensive. And the wine-list mark-up at American steakhouses tends to be higher than at most fine-dining establishments in our country (more on this below). But that doesn't mean you can't find great value in your wine selection and keep the bill under control, as I did last night when I enjoyed a 16-oz. boneless rib-eye (above) with family at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse on Westheimer.

The domestic wine list at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse is -- without a doubt -- one of the best in the country. Its beefy American "Cabernet Sauvignon and Blends" selection alone merits genuflection: some 18 pages of muscular red wines, including verticals, complete vineyard-designated allocations, and large-format bottlings from some of our country's top dick-wagging estates. A 750ml Shafer Vineyards "Hillside Select" Stags leap District 1990 for $600? Not exactly my speed, but Pappas has got it.

But dig a little deeper and you will find a number of gems tucked away on this incredible list, like the 2008 Bourgueil Clos Sénéchal by Loire Valley producer Domaine Catherine et Pierre Breton. Chemical-free farming? Check. Native (as opposed to commercial) yeast? Check. Low sulfur? Check. Bright acidity and low alcohol? Check and check (around 12 percent, fantastic!).

Made from 100 percent Cabernet Franc, the wine showed the wonderful, classic vegetal character of the grape variety, and it worked more like a food than a beverage pairing with the charred crust of my perfectly cooked black-and-blue steak. And it weighed in at a moderate price of $67. (We also drank Bobby Stuckey's Scarpetta 2009 Pinot Grigio from Friuli for $40.)

When people lament that restaurant wine markups are too high, I remind them that the price doesn't just reflect the wholesale cost of the wine. It also reflects the cost of the wine director's expertise in selecting the wine; the cost of properly shipping the wine to the venue (temperature-controlled shipping is more expensive in Texas than in most states of the union because of unrelenting seasonal high temperatures); the cost of storing the wine properly (again, Texas wine professionals face extreme challenges in storage); and the cost of wine service that rises to the occasion of the wine. And while steakhouses tend to use a generally higher mark-up, the prices can be justified, in my view, by the fact that a world-class operation like Pappas Bros. offers a remarkably wide range of wine, vintages, and formats. The sheer cost of storing so much fine wine and offering high-rolling guests so much opportunity for chest beating warrants a higher mark-up (at least, in accordance with industry standards widely adopted by the wine professional community).

Just as soon as our server finished telling our party about the specials, we were greeted by one of the many sommeliers who work the floor at Pappas Bros. And when I asked that he gently chill our Bourgeuil (Cabernet Franc is traditionally served chilled during the summer in France), the young, bright, and talented Jack Mason didn't skip a beat in his seamless wine service. When we wanted to order a red by the glass after finishing the Bourgeuil, he asked me what I had in mind. When I answered, "value," he swiftly delivered an excellent Crozes-Hermitage Papillon by Gilles Robin 2009 for $12 a glass.

Moral of the story? When faced with such an expansive list, never hesitate to browse the wine list on line (Pappas's last update was in June of this year) and never be afraid to share your price ceiling and comfort level with your sommelier. That's what she/he is there for.

Oh, and the baked potato wasn't half bad either...

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