The Untold Truth Of Charlie Palmer Steak

In a sea of competitors, from casual dining spots like Outback Steakhouse to upscale locations like Peter Luger Steakhouse, you would think it would be hard for a beef-centric restaurant to set itself apart from the crowd. But with Charlie Palmer at the helm of Charlie Palmer Steak, that's hardly the case. A trailblazer in the restaurant industry for his emphasis on farm-to-table cuisine, long before establishments like Sweetgreen popped up across the U.S., Charlie Palmer had applied a similarly innovative touch to his steakhouse restaurants.

For example, the stylish steakhouse brand eschews the boy's club style of traditional New York City chophouses in favor of a more comfortable and modern aesthetic. And even though the restaurant's steaks are mouthwatering, there's also a bevy of other menu items — from seafood to creative side dishes — to satiate diners' appetites.

Here's everything you need to know about the renowned steakhouse brand and its award-winning chef and owner.

Charlie Palmer's childhood influenced his culinary style

Once upon a time, in a small dairy farming town in upstate New York called Smyrna, Charlie Palmer realized his love for farm-fresh food early on in life while working in his family's vegetable garden. Having an appreciation for agriculture instilled in him as a child strongly influenced him as a chef, Palmer told Grape Collective in a 2019 interview: "Understanding where something comes from, whether you're raising it or growing it. I think that's an advantage, at least I've always thought that way." Palmer knew he wanted to be a chef as young as 15 years old, so he started working in restaurants in high school as a dishwasher and eventually a prep cook. Palmer also enrolled in his high school's home economics class on a dare, which motivated him to pursue a career in the culinary arts, too.

Given his upbringing, it's no surprise that Palmer was one of the first advocates for farm-to-table dining. In 1988, Palmer decided to craft menus that spotlighted regionally sourced ingredients, a pioneering decision at the time since this was long before such practices were adopted by the broader restaurant industry. Palmer's ingenuity apparently paid off. His critically acclaimed New York restaurant Aureole earned 13 Michelin stars and two James Beard awards in its 30-year history. Palmer also oversees his own empire of hotels and restaurants called Charlie Palmer Group, including the brand's acclaimed steakhouse, all of which are dedicated to fresh ingredients.

The steakhouse started out in Las Vegas

Charlie Palmer has a well-known soft spot for New York City — he opened his first restaurant in the Big Apple and currently owns an apartment in Greenwich Village even though he technically now lives in Northern California's wine country. Steakhouses got their start in London at the end of the seventeenth century, but in the U.S., the American version of the chophouse tradition originated in New York City in the mid-1800s (via Travel Wire).

Since the American steakhouse is a quintessential aspect of New York's urban landscape, it might raise a few eyebrows that the chef decided to open his first steakhouse location in the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1999. The Las Vegas chophouse has since shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Palmer told FSR magazine in 2017 that he chose to partner with Las Vegas' Four Seasons Hotel in order to capitalize on the hotel foot traffic: Palmer "partners with a hotel for their guest experience. Someone who comes to stay in a hotel; food and beverage are a big part of their stay." Palmer's other steakhouse locations, with the exception of the Washington D.C. and New York spots, also market themselves in partnership with hotels.

Charlie Palmer is constantly reinventing his business model

You don't get as far as Charlie Palmer has in his roughly 40-year-old culinary career without possessing a flair for innovation. Starting with his signature progressive American cuisine, Palmer has been a trailblazer in the restaurant industry since he was made River Cafe's executive chef in 1983 (via The New York Times). In fact, in a 2013 interview with Crain's New York Business, Palmer said the key to his entrepreneurial success was his ability to be "always looking forward on how to improve on what we've done before and to never do something the same way twice." That talent has certainly come in handy during the pandemic.

After shutting down the brick-and-mortar operations of his Aureole restaurant location, Palmer rebranded it to Aureole at Home, a customized home-dining service that boasts high-end take-out and a specialty wine list and cocktails. While Palmer admitted to Zagat it wasn't a money-making machine, it was the right thing to do to keep staff members employed. Palmer also said his restaurant business has capitalized on outdoor dining mandates and to-go alcohol during Covid-19. 

The seafood is actually better than the steak

The notion that the steak at a steakhouse is actually inferior to other entrée options might leave you scratching your head, but it's the truth. However, this isn't some kind of culinary mishap. In fact, this was the chef's intention behind Charlie Palmer Steak from the very beginning. According to Open Table, the chef-slash-business owner wanted to create a steakhouse where seafood dishes, salads, and starters weren't merely afterthoughts but instead just as carefully crafted and tasty as its slabs of beef. Palmer's philosophy has apparently paid off. Even as other big-name steakhouses have struggled to stay relevant, Charlie Palmer Steak has had no issue attracting customers and has even managed to expand, with four locations in major cities (via New York Business Journal).

Mashed recommends their spate of seafood offerings, such as the steakhouse's Yellowfin Tuna Tartare, Citrus Marinated Wild Baja Prawns, Stuffed Maine Lobster, and Halibut. But if you can't resist the idea of cutting into a hunk of beef, be sure to garnish it with one of the restaurant's sauces since the steak may be underwhelming in terms of flavor without it.

Charlie Palmer has mentored numerous chefs

An established player in the restaurant industry, it should come as no surprise that young chefs have flocked to Charlie Palmer's restaurants to study under the award-winning restaurateur's tutelage. The owners of barbecue hot spot Ruthie's All-Day –- which opened last year near Washington D.C. -– Chef Matt Hill and his business partner Todd Salvadore first met when they worked together at Charlie Palmer Steak's D.C. location (via Eater). Palmer also mentored Bryan Voltaggio and Michael Mina, who both went on to launch their own restaurant groups, according to Tasting Table.

Nurturing the next generation of chefs and restaurant trailblazers is a crucial aspect of Palmer's entrepreneurial ethos. The chef told Crain's New York Business that one of the most rewarding aspects of running the Charlie Palmer Group is seeing his interns work their way through the ranks to eventually achieve coveted jobs as chefs and business owners. "It means we're doing our jobs right if they are successful," said Palmer, who apparently views the entrepreneurial spirit of former employees less as competition and more as extensions of his own success. A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Palmer also encourages young chefs with internship opportunities through his alma mater.

Palmer's son is getting into the family business

Young chefs aren't the only ones Charlie Palmer has influenced throughout his career. The award-winning chef and restaurateur has passed the chef's hat to his youngest son Reed, who recently graduated from Cornell (via Tasting Table). As Palmer worked to reopen the D.C. location of Charlie Palmer Steak and his New York rooftop bar called St. Cloud after shutting down during the height of the pandemic, Reed has pitched in to help with both reopenings. Palmer's love for sharing cooking with his family had a strong influence on Reed as a child. "Some of my best memories are in the kitchen next to my dad," Reed told The Press Democrat in 2015. "I like just learning from him and spending as much time with him as I can."

Family and food have always been inextricably linked for Palmer, whose cookbook "Charlie Palmer's American Fare: Everyday Recipes from My Kitchens to Yours" includes a chapter dedicated to family-favorite recipes. Included is a recipe called Reed's Bruschetta, an appetizer inspired by his son's dislike of raw tomatoes.

The steakhouse's flagship location is at New York City's Bryant Park

What used to be the long-running, Michelin-starred restaurant Aureole near Bryant Park in New York City has now been converted into the flagship location for Charlie Palmer's chain of steakhouses (via The New York Times). The transition wasn't without its obstacles. Palmer told the New York Post he had planned on opening last August, but the heavy costs associated with the pandemic slowed the restaurateur's progress. The steakhouse eventually opened in April, and the dining room even received a makeover: a sleek, contemporary design that leans toward neutral colors and sharp accents. The relaunched restaurant also boasts an expanded menu. Along with classic chophouse fare and side dishes, the new menu features more seafood and pasta dishes since "this is what a lot of people are looking for," Palmer told Tasting Table. Diners can also expect decadent desserts and an extensive wine selection. Before the big move, the steakhouse was located elsewhere in Manhattan's Midtown, and Aureole is planning to move to the Upper East Side.

The restaurant concept deviates from traditional steakhouses

The American steakhouse tends to bring to mind an image that recalls the hit TV show "Mad Men," with high-powered businessmen in suits hashing out deals over humongous slabs of meat. Historically, steakhouses have been male-dominated venues that didn't start to open up to women until around the 1920s when women got the right to vote (via The New York Times). But even if women were technically allowed in chophouses that didn't mean women necessarily felt welcomed. 

That's why Charlie Palmer sought to build a new kind of steakhouse where women could feel comfortable, too. "I didn't want the restaurant to be this men's club, he-man, bang on the table kind of place," Palmer told Eater. This ambition is reflected in the steakhouse design, which favors a neutral color palette and bright lighting over traditional fixtures of men's club, such as dark wood and dim lighting. Palmer also set out to empower diners with choices beyond steak, especially since modern Americans have started to consume less and less red meat. Plus, the menu at Charlie Palmer Steak makes it easier for diners to mix and match dishes, according to the company website, which ensures everyone is satisfied by the time the check arrives.

The iconic restaurant was once at the center of 'Steakgate'

It turns out not all women are necessarily fans of the steakhouse chain. In an interview with Grub Street, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, then-wife of the late chef, author, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, called a recent steak she had eaten in Las Vegas "an abomination." This remark caused quite the frenzy as reporters put on their Sherlock Holmes caps to try and deduce which restaurant was responsible. John Curtas, a columnist at Eating Las Vegas, posited a guess: Carnevino, a well-known steakhouse in Sin City. True to form, Bourdain fired back on Twitter, calling him a litany of colorful names, from "dipsh**" and "f***-nuts" to "idiotic" and "lazy." Busia-Bourdain spoke up, too, but was comparatively kinder as she explained that she avoided naming names to spare the steakhouse any undue embarrassment (via Eater).

Eventually, Charlie Palmer wrote an email to Eater in which he admitted his restaurant was behind the maligned steak and also offered his apologies to Busia-Bourdain. Ever the classy guy, Palmer said he decided to come forward "before any more of my hardworking colleagues at other restaurants are implicated." Palmer also said it was unfortunate he had to hear about the incident afterward, making it impossible to figure out what exactly happened behind the scenes to render the steak inedible. Bourdain addressed the chef over Twitter: "Charlie Palmer, you are a gracious man and a great chef. As we all know, sometimes sh** happens."

You can cook the restaurant's renowned steaks at home

For those lucky enough to live in the vicinity of one of the steakhouse's locations in New York, Reno, Napa, or Washington, D.C., you can taste the brand's wide-ranging, flavorful menu for yourself. But if you live elsewhere, you might be wondering how you can experience Charlie Palmer Steak, too. If you have some talent in the kitchen, you could take a stab at making steak in the comfort of your own home, following a few tips the James Beard Award-winning chef gave to Esquire

It doesn't sound like you need to be a Michelin-starred chef to whip up a juicy hunk of steak, either; Palmer's instructions are clear and easy-to-follow. So why not give it a try? If you're interested in the chef's recipes beyond steak, you're also in luck. Palmer is the author of several cookbooks that focus on a wide variety of topics, from the chef's signature "progressive American" cuisine and comfort foods to recipes specifically from his Aureole restaurant and outdoor, campfire recipes.

Charlie Palmer Steak is also a premier spot for wine and spirits

Given that the chef and entrepreneur resides in Northern California's wine country, it should come as no surprise that Charlie Palmer's restaurants, including his steakhouses, feature an extensive selection of wines — the Napa location of Charlie Palmer Steak boasts a wine list with 400 options. While the list includes wine staples like Cabernet, Champagne and Burgundy, it also spotlights wines for those feeling more adventurous, like Arneis and Grüner Veltliner, according to Wine Spectator.

In addition to wine, Charlie Palmer Steak offers craft cocktails that are bound to impress even the most discerning of tastebuds. The steakhouse wowed brunch-goers with its rolling Bloody Mary and mimosa cart that caters unlimited cocktails straight to diners' tables, ensuring no one sees the bottom of their glass. According to Thrillist, the cart includes several options that put a new spin on old cocktail classics, such as the Pomegranate + Currant mimosa and the so-called Super-Juice Bloody Mary, which mixes carrot and ginger together with pickled carrots and cornichons.

The steakhouse has a secret menu

As if there wasn't enough already to like about Charlie Palmer Steak, the chain of luxury chophouses also has another feature to entice diners: a secret menu. And not only is it delicious, at $58 per person, it's also a bargain considering all that's included. So, how do you take advantage of the secret menu? 

Apparently, all you have to do is ask your server for the "cut of the week." Don't be fooled by the name — the secret menu isn't just a single item but a whole three-course dinner, including a salad, entrée, side dishes, and dessert. The menu is seasonal and rotates on a weekly basis, and it's also only available to people who dine in-person at one of the steakhouse's restaurant locations. In the past, the secret menu has spotlighted a Thai salad to start, a petit ribeye, sides of cauliflower fried rice and sweet corn, and sorbet for dessert. The secret menu also includes unlimited wine pairings. You definitely can't go wrong here.