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American Steakhouses

Celestino Italian Steak House opened last February on a tony block of Beverly Boulevard, in a warm, modern room with only 15 tables. The ambience is decidedly feminine, with saffron-colored sconces, soft linens, an overflowing vase of lilies. Jack is confused, until he sees a guy feasting on a porterhouse with his tie flung over his shoulder. "That's how you eat a steak," Jack says.

Celestino is the latest from Celestino Drago, who did wonders for Sicilian cuisine at Drago in Santa Monica. Here he's taken over the space once occupied by his upscale trattoria L'Aroncino—proving that in this low-carb, high-protein age, steak is the new pasta. The ace up Drago's sleeve: bistecche piemontese, the flavorful beef from Italy's Piedmont region (it's raised in the American Midwest), with one-quarter the fat of American beef. At Celestino it's rubbed in sea salt and herbs, and, just as important, matched with some startlingly good Italian sides.

We begin by dipping raw fennel and asparagus into a fragrant bagna cauda of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies served in a hot copper pot. Ignoring Jack's jeers, I order a salad of baby spinach, tart pears, and pecorino. It's about time a steak house served greens this fresh.

Tonight's special is so over-the-top, I can't resist: filet mignon on a pillow of sautéed oyster mushrooms, topped with foie gras (ha!). It could use another element for texture, but the depth of flavor is outstanding. Plates of caponata, piquant cipollini onions, and puréed potatoes with black truffle add up to a meal in themselves. Jack sticks to creamed spinach—in this case sautéed greens splashed with cream, and even better than the real thing.

Jack had his doubts about Piedmont beef ("It's the fat that gives the flavor"), but the 20-ounce fiorentina porterhouse thoroughly convinces him. "Jeeeez," is all he can say. He even eats the leeks.

In the town that essentially invented red meat, it doesn't take flashy gimmicks to pack a steak place to the rafters. But flash can't hurt, and that's the theory behind Nine, an absurdly popular meat-and-greet zoo that arrived in April 2000. Conceived by chef Michael Kornick (of the revered MK) and Michael Morton (whose family knows a bit about Chicago beef joints), Nine is as far from an archetypal steak house as Coach Floyd's Bulls are from Phil Jackson's.

The cavernous space is pure Vegas glitz—silver-leafed ceilings, a champagne-and-caviar bar bathed in sci-fi colored light, columns plated with disco-ball mirrors. The hyped-up crowd loves it. Jack, his ears plugged to the techno, is less enthusiastic. He scans the cocktail list as we wait for a table.

"Can't a fella get a real drink anymore?" Jack gripes. "It's all 'saketinis' and chocolate vodka." He wades into the scrum at the bar and eventually scores a martini—Beefeater, of course. Thirty minutes later we're led to a quieter, glassed-in dining room in back, where HDTV's alternate nature montages with hockey highlights.

Besides the half-dozen steak options, Nine's menu is vintage nineties fusion—ahi tuna with mango compote, sashimi with crispy wontons. We let the waiter plot our starter course, and he returns with two rice-paper ice cream cones. "You may have seen these on the news," he says. "They're a Nine specialty!" One holds a scoop of lobster and avocado; the other, a luscious tuna tartare with hints of serrano pepper and lime. Even Jack is impressed, digging in for one last tangy bite.

At our server's suggestion I order the veal porterhouse, fatty and disappointingly flavorless, while Jack takes on a 24-ounce bone-in rib eye that positively sings. He's happy now, even if the fries are too skinny to have any taste.

By 11 the Friday swarm is out in full force, and dance beats are shaking the floor. "Nice steak," Jack says, "but I would've ordered it to go."

VISIONS OF SUSHI ROLLS DANCE THROUGH MY HEAD—nice, polite, bite-sized portions. The last thing I want is dinner at another steak house. But Jack is adamant. "We're not leaving town until I get a turtle pie at Gibsons."

So the next night we find ourselves at Jack's second-favorite place on earth (after Soldier Field). Gibsons Steakhouse opened in 1989, and it's hard to imagine that Chicago existed without it. Smack in the Rush Street nightlife zone, the place fills up with every element of Chicago society. "This is Michael Jordan's favorite table," our hostess says as she seats us by the window. (I bet she tells that to all the boys.)

We score two of the namesake drinks, and before I even get to the onions, I'm sold. Gibsons has the perfect mix of classic and modern, under-30's and over-60's, male and female, locals and out-of-towners. The bar is roadhouse raucous, the dining room clubby and intimate; you can go frat-boy or old-boy and fit in. All the steak-house signifiers are in place: the brass and mahogany, the TV's tuned to ESPN, the autographed photos. There's even a white-jacketed men's room attendant proffering Tums, Maalox, Scope, Bayer, and Drakkar Noir. What more does the Steak Man need?


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