Beefsteak Banquets: The Early American Steakhouse Prototype

Beefsteak banquet might sound like the name of a cheap steakhouse chain popular in the '80s, but today's history lesson goes back a lot further than that. The very first beefsteak banquets took place in the mid-1800s to raise funds for New York politicians back in the days when Tammany Hall held sway. Tammany Hall blended political gains with charity events and contributions. These banquets dished up all-you-can-eat steaks slathered with butter and Worcestershire sauce with bread on the side, but one thing they were known for was a distinct lack of utensils.

A 1939 essay entitled "All You Can Hold For Five Bucks" and originally published in the New Yorker is said to be the ultimate authority on such banquets, though it was written at a time when these feasts were already on the wane. One possible reason for their disappearance was the demise of Tammany Hall itself (the Roosevelt presidency pretty much put an end to it). Another was the fact that women, once they were enfranchised in 1920, expected to take part in political gatherings, according to the New York Times. 

Beefsteak banquets soon evolved afterward as people started eating steaks with utensils instead. In fact, Bon Appetit credits the beefsteak banquet as being the predecessor to the modern steakhouse. (Although these, too, may now be on the way out).

Beefsteak banquets had a bit of a resurgence in the 2010s

In the state of New Jersey, it seems that beefsteak banquets never really went away. Rather than being opulent Victorian-style banquets, though, the New Jersey ones are more plebeian affairs that may involve little more than grilled tenderloins with a side of fries. They're often held by charitable organizations rather than political ones, with the benefits going to such worthy organizations as the Italian-American Police Society and the Saddle Brook Junior Wrestling program.

Back in the 2010s, though, a few enterprising young hipsters brought the beefsteak banquet back to Brooklyn as well. While for the most part, the Brooklyn Beefsteak organizers were dedicated to reviving old traditions down to the very last detail, they did allow women to attend these events. Still, a New York Times account of one such banquet held in 2011 reports that the crowd was mostly male. 

Copious amounts of meat were consumed, and buckets of beer were swilled. Quite a bit of the bread ended up sailing through the air as well, propelled by the high-spirited (and slightly intoxicated) crowd of carnivores. Ahh, good times. Sadly, the last Brooklyn Beefsteak event seems to have taken place in 2012, but Jersey beefsteaks are still alive and well just a bridge (or tunnel) away.