The steak dinner is a great American tradition (it’s actually a great tradition in many countries, but we think it holds a special seat at the table here in the USA). But the truth is, steakhouses are incredibly varied. Just like any other type of cuisine, there are whole spectrum of steakhouses — from high-end places where the prices would make you blush, to “hole-in-the-wall” steak joints where you get what you pay for.

There are also, of course, high-end steakhouses that don’t get the job done, and aren’t worth the money at all. There are also places that don’t look or sound like anything special, but actually turn out a very good steak dinner on a consistent, regular basis.

If we really stop and think about this spectrum of steakhouses across the country, an obvious question comes to mind. What are the most important factors that differentiate a good steakhouses from a mediocre or bad one? Is it the service, the atmosphere, the prices? What about the sides, the cocktails?

The more we ask these questions, the more it becomes apparent that one factor stands above the rest: The actual quality of the beef being prepared and served.

Now obviously, the higher grades of beef are going to cost more from the supplier, and the menu price is therefore going to be higher. But steak is one of those areas where you get what you pay for. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of fantastic values in the steak world. USDA Choice, for example, is the middle grade of beef here in the USA — and although it’s not as good as USDA Prime, it can give you a phenomenal value when prepared by the right steakhouse chef.

We can also take about USDA Prime cuts, and high-end foreign imports like Wagyu from Japan. These are definitely going to cost you more — but for a real connoisseur of steak, the flavor and tenderness will stand out in memory. Even among the USDA grades, there are different suppliers of different qualities that may be favored by different steakhouses and patrons. Grass-fed beef from local suppliers, for example, can be an absolute knockout on the plate. Again, much of it comes down to the professionalism and skill with which the beef is prepared.

A steakhouse that fires on all cylinders

When you visit a steakhouse, quality beef obviously isn’t the only consideration. You do want great service. You want that comfortable atmosphere, those delicious sides and craft cocktails. And it’s obviously a plus if the prices and specials are good. But without that all-important element of quality beef, you won’t really have the steakhouse experience you’ve been craving. That’s why it’s important to find steakhouses that pride themselves on the beef they serve, and are happy to explain in detail about various cuts of beef on offer. You should know exactly what your getting when it comes to the steak, and the texture and flavor should exceed your expectations. When that happens, the rest of the experience will usually fall into place!