Chew on this: beef consumption has been dropping steadily nationwide, down 14 percent since 1984, yet the Chicago steak business is booming. One fast-growing national steak-house chain, Ruth’s Chris, opened here last year to take on the locals the way the Palm did in the 80s. Chicago-based Morton’s has 23 restaurants across the country and is about to open two more. Ted Kasemir and Roger Greenfield were so successful with their two-year-old Saloon that they recently converted their Kinzie Street Bistro into a chophouse as well. And our Italian and seafood restaurants are selling more steak than ever.

As Marc Schulman of the legendary Eli’s the Place for Steak says, “Big steaks are back.”

“People are saying to hell with cholesterol,” says Hugo Ralli of Gibson’s. “Steak is something people understand when they’re going out for a treat,” observes Mike Archer, head of the Morton group. Billy Siegel, proprietor of That Steak Joynt, explains that “it’s partly a return to basic American food, partly the fact that steak is still a luxury item.”

“You can’t buy a steak anywhere near as good as ours in the stores,” says Henry Norton of the jam-packed Chicago Chop House. “And you can’t get your home stove or charcoal grill hot enough to cook it right.” These steak mavens buy top prime beef from local packers such as Allen Brothers and Stock Yards Packing, which bring in the best of Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa corn-fed cattle. The meat is butchered and aged according to the individual specifications of each restaurant. Aging–which is key, adding flavor and tenderizing the meat–is typically three weeks, up to four in the case of Siegel. The restaurants cook with intense-heat broilers that approach 1,000 degrees, retaining all the meat’s juices and flavors.

The menus of the city’s best houses resemble each other: sirloin, tenderloin, and rib eye, along with porterhouse or T-bone, two similar cuts that include sections of sirloin, the most flavorful part, and tenderloin, as you would guess, the tenderest. There’s usually also a scattering of lamb, veal, and pork chops–with homage always to lobster, chicken, and “meaty” fish such as swordfish. Their prices vary within a few dollars, but your final bill depends on what you get with your meal. Chopped liver, relishes, salad, and potatoes are included at Eli’s; giardinara, soup or salad, vegetables, and potatoes at Siegel’s; salad or slaw at the Saloon. At Morton’s and most others you pay extra for everything except bread and water.

A great steak should be tender but not mushy, cooked exactly as ordered–I like mine bloody, never more done than medium rare–and should have a slight tang or tartness to go along with the basic beefiness.

What makes for a great experience, given the narrow range of differences in the product, is style: the service, hospitality, and general look and feel of the place. I revisited a host of steakeries in the recent months, ordering the best porterhouse or T-bone my moderately cholesteroled (195) body could ingest, and found grand eating at old and newer places alike. In alphabetical order, these were the best of the best:

Billy Siegel’s That Steak Joynt (1610 N. Wells, 943-5091) is the last of the Victorian-bordello-style houses, with flocked walls, oil paintings, and nude statuary. Siegel is the most aggressive promoter on this list, offering periodic price rollbacks and some incredible wine buys by both the glass and the bottle. His 24-ounce T-bone from Allen Brothers (butchered at Siegel’s) is $27.50. He also has superb prime rib and barbecued ribs better than any other white-owned restaurant in town. Steaks can be charcoal grilled if you prefer.

The Chicago Chop House (60 W. Ontario, 787-7100) is a two-story spot with a wildly popular bar and live music downstairs, where you can eat if you like the din–and a wonderful photomural of old Chicago scenes upstairs, where it’s roomier and less frenetic. Henry Norton also butchers his own meat–a ton every day, brought in from as many as five suppliers. Here we had a lush, 24-ounce T-bone for $28.95 and perhaps the best batch of buttery, perfectly done Alaskan king crab legs I’ve had in my life. There’s also a terrific clams casino appetizer.

Eli’s the Place for Steak (215 E. Chicago, 642-1393) is also the place for magnificent liver and a nationally distributed cheesecake that has surpassed the restaurant in fame. The spirit of the late Eli Schulman still hovers over this place, one of the oldest and most intimate steakeries, now overseen by son Marc and his mother Esther. A 20-ounce T-bone from Stock Yards here, $29.95 with full dinner, had the tastiest tenderloin section of my expedition. The liver, done to a juicy turn with onions, green peppers, and mushrooms, will make a believer out of any non-liver-eater.

Gibson’s (1028 N. Rush, 266-8999), a large, sprawling, art-deco spot with lots of rich dark wood and a club feel, became an overnight sensation when it opened about three years ago, attracting pols and local celebs among its throngs. The bar is one of the street’s liveliest, the service terrific, while the meat, from both Allen and Stock Yards, remains king. The 24-ounce porterhouse at $27.50 had the biggest tenderloin section of the tour. What also knocked us out was a special appetizer of stone crab legs with mustard mayo; it took us right back to the original Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant in Florida.

Morton’s (1050 N. State, 266-4820) tops a lot of “best” lists and has skipped nary a beat since Arnie Morton sold to his corporate cohorts three or four years ago. Big and rich looking, with art-deco touches and an open preparation area, the menu is a cart, wheeled to your table, full of raw steaks, chops, chicken, lobster, and vegetables. The feel is sumptuous and–excuse me–masculine. A dynamite, perfectly done 24-ounce porterhouse was $29.95. Allen Brothers and Stock Yards are the providers, here and at every other Morton’s. More than a kind word must be said for the appetizer of scallops wrapped in bacon with spicy chutney.

Close behind are two places where the steaks were a notch or two below perfect but that could be contenders:

The Palm (181 E. Lake Shore Drive, 944-0135) is a New York import that once was known for its waiters’ obnoxious attitudes. The service is wonderful these days and the look a delight, with high-walled, dark wood booths providing much privacy and the celebrity caricatures everywhere on the walls a lot of fun.

The Saloon (200 E. Chestnut, 280-5454) has a comfortable atmosphere and carts its menu over to you the way Morton’s does. It has classy service and the most extensive menu of any of these steak houses, offering all sorts of seafood and barbecue and sprightly seasonings.

All you have to know about Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse (431 N. Dearborn, 321-2725) is that it’s the largest upscale steak-house chain in the country, has the darkly wooded look of other steak houses, and drenches its steaks in butter. This makes a far-from-great steak taste better.

And what you should know about Gene & Georgetti’s (500 N. Franklin, 527-3718) is that they treat their friends very well, giving them some of the best beef in town. But if they don’t know you and it’s crowded–as it often is–you can get shunted to a bad location and receive minimal service and maybe even an inferior steak. These days I only go there with someone known to the management.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.