GREAT STEAKS

 

Exploring the stuck-in-time world
of South Jersey steakhouses

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Surf and turf from the Library restaurant

Photography by Neal Santos

As a child, I had tastes that could be kindly referred to as well-developed but were probably more accurately described as precocious, even annoying. If nothing else, my young palate precluded parents and grandparents from ordering off the more affordable (but wildly less enticing) children’s menu. Looking back, I’m not sure whether it’s a good or bad thing to have a kid whose tastes run more toward petite filets and profiteroles than hot dogs and Hi-C. Fortunately, I was gifted with a pair of grandparents who were plenty happy to indulge my grownup tastes. Because it was the ’80s in Philadelphia—which was decidedly more monotonous than it is today—that meant lots of steak.

My preferred steak dinner spot was just over the river in Pennsauken, New Jersey, at a place that registered in my young mind as something like a proto–Medieval Times, minus the live-action jousting but complete with deep-red-leather and dark-wood King Arthur– inspired décor (crests and round tables included); steaks sized to feed a royal court; and a salad bar that went on forever, with very little in it having to do with salad in the raw-vegetables sense of the word.

The Pub was an institution in my mind even before I realized that it was an institution for everyone who grew up in Philadelphia at a certain time. It was a place that I filed away in my memory after moving away from the city. That is, until its name came up some 20 years later, while I was sipping seaside tropical drinks on a beach in the Dominican Republic with my mother. She fondly recalled dates at Pub Tiki, a Trader Vic’s–inspired offshoot of The Pub on the 1700 block of Walnut Street, which was the go-to place for Polynesian cocktails, pu pu platters and undergrad canoodling.

Returning stateside, I made it my mission to get to the bottom of this fascinating mini-chain that once had locations on Sansom, Chestnut and Walnut Streets and at the intersection of Hunting Park and Allegheny Avenue. But, most importantly, I wanted to make a return visit to its last standing outpost (the one that lived in my memory), The Pub in Pennsauken.

Walking into The Pub two decades later was kind of amazing. Amazing in that nothing had changed. The dining room is massive, with vaulted ceilings and a wall of flaming, charcoal-fired hearths manned by men in chef’s coats and towering toques. The tables are huge and round. Your server greets you with a sweating pitcher of water and a whole loaf of bread stuck, Sword-in-the-Stone-style, with a plastic-handled serrated knife. And that endless salad bar? Two identical stations are stocked with anchovy-packed Caesars, three-bean salad, cottage cheese, melon wedges, and zucchini bread with whipped butter.

My first Pub experience as a full-fledged grown-up is, admittedly, kind of a blur, due to the fact that the cocktails are more than generous. Your icy martini glass arrives at your table filled to the brim with a mini cocktail shaker, chilled and ready once you’ve drained the first. But The Pub’s signature one-and-a-half pours are really only the beginning of its excesses.

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The Library’s salad bar

It’s worth mentioning that this stuck-in-time steakhouse isn’t alone. There are a handful of others in South Jersey, all with their own fascinating allure, stiff drinks and time-machine prime ribs.

A quick drive southwest of The Pub into Voorhees Township lies Library 2. From the road it looks like an outsized wooden shed off Route 73, but once you walk inside, well, it’s something else entirely. Library 2 is easily the darkest restaurant that I’ve ever set foot in, with A-frame ceilings lined top to bottom with shelves upon shelves of dusty volumes, with titles ranging from The Garfield Honor by Frank Yerby (“The best-selling novel about a ruthless Yankee who clawed his way to luxury and power—and three tempestuous beauties who fought for the spoils”) to much drier works such as an early edition of The Legal Environment of Business. But it’s safe to assume that no one at the Library is there to read.

Once you’re seated, your attention is directed to the one shining light in the dining room—a bright window where you walk up to order your entrée. An overhead chalkboard acts as your menu, advertising the day’s beef prices with options ranging from filet to sirloin, prime rib and end cut. A no-nonsense chef slices your steak in front of you and asks whether or not you’re in the market for a baked potato or a side of béarnaise, and then it’s on to the salad bar.

The dramatic lighting and close quarters at the Library make the salad bar experience that much more intense. Without a tape measure, I’d venture to say that it’s a solid 30 feet of choose-your-own-salad adventure with all the usual suspects along with baby corn, diced ham, hearts of palm, tricolored pasta salad, monster wedges of slice-it-yourself Swiss on a thick wooden cutting board, and a sea of dressing options. Service at the Library is quick. Quick enough that often you barely have a chance to fully explore the salad bar offerings before your main arrives. And once your main arrives, you don’t really have a chance to give the salad bar a second thought.

The steaks are something else. If you’ve ever seen the “Old ’96er” scene in The Great Outdoors with John Candy, then you might have some idea about the steaks at the Library. The thing about them is that while their size is daunting, the steaks are genius, cooked to temperature, wonderfully beefy and moist and with just the right amount of smoke from the grill.

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Above: Steak, potatoes and fried onions from Steak 38. Below: the Library’s dining room.

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I’d love to speak about desserts at the Library but somehow I’ve never made it past the steak and salad bar.

In the world of South Jersey steakhouses, Steak 38 is both the classiest and the most unassuming. From Route 38, Steak 38 looks like a dubious motel restaurant nestled into the bottom floor of an even-more-dubious- looking motel, but manager Ben Blumberg makes no bones about the caliber of service at his place: “It’s white tablecloth. We do tableside Caesar salads and bananas Foster, we have a Steak 38 that we park at the table. It’s a Chateaubriand sliced down for two people.”

If you come in at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon the place is already packed, dimly lit and playing a soft soundtrack of standards like Frank Sinatra’s “Night and Day” and Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore.” The small staff of career waiters are on point, serving wine and tossing tableside Caesars, dropping off cups of heart-attack-rich sherried cream of crab soup and plates of icy shrimp cocktail.

After a meal of prime rib (a daintier portion than you get at the Library) and a perfect rendition of steak Diane, the meal ends with our waiter, Pete, asking if we’d like bananas Foster for dessert. It’s a quick and obvious sell, especially since we’d seen him expertly flambé at least four other orders during the course of our meal.

As Pete spoons brown sugar into chunks of cold butter in a wellworn sauté pan I ask him how many times he’s made the dessert.

“Thousands,” he replies. “I dream about bananas and Caesar salads.” When asked about his clientele, Blumberg makes no bones about who the regulars are at Steak 38. “We have a bunch of regulars who have been coming here since the beginning of time. But obviously, we draw a little bit of an older crowd. We do get some young people. It’s just appealing to people—this is the way we used to dine. Unlike the chains. The chains are great, they have the brass, they have the bars, and that’s wonderful, but for a change of pace, you come to a spot like this and it’s a little more old style. That’s the kind of clientele we get. They like to have a couple of drinks before and dine.”

Back at The Pub, I sit down with owner Lee Pagiavlas. While his family has taken over the storied Jersey steakhouse relatively recently, he’s made a point of changing as little as possible. Aside from installing a few flat-screens in the dining room (huge but barely even visible given the scale of the room), things are nearly identical to the way they were in the 1960s. “We keep everything the same,” says Pagiavlas. “The salad bar on both sides, the menu. That’s our whole gimmick; when you come here, everyone always says ‘I feel like I’m at my prom in the ’70s.’ ”

The Pub 7600 Kaighns Ave., Pennsauken, NJ
856.665.6440 | thepubnj.com
The Library 2 306 Rte. 73, Voorhees, NJ
856.424.0198 | librarytwo.com
Steak 38 515 Rte. 38 E., Cherry Hill, NJ
856.662.3838 | steak38cafe.com

 

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