The Ghosts of the GOLDEN STEER
ELV note: The following story appears (albeit in highly truncated form) in the current issue of VEGAS magazine. Since they haven’t posted it yet on their website, we thought you might like to take a tour of this iconic eatery, as seen through the eyes of the owner, waiters and celebs who have populated it since 1958.
The Ghosts of the GOLDEN STEER
There are ghosts in the booths at the Golden Steer. Lots of them. Sit in any of them on a busy evening and they will work their charms on you.
Not at first, mind you, but soon enough. At first you won’t see them, or hear them (that will come later). Initially, all you will notice is a plaque or picture named after a very famous (and long dead) person. “Wow,” you’ll say to yourself, “this booth is named after Frank Sinatra.” Then you will look around and see another one with a picture of Marilyn Monroe above it, or John Wayne, or Joe DiMaggio, and you will start to wonder if these are more than mere decorations. “Oh yes, a waiter will tell you. “This is where they sat, and many of them had these booths named for them when they were still alive and coming here all the time.”
As the reality of this sinks in, you will no doubt be watching the company of old school, tuxedo’d waiters scurrying about no differently than they did a half century ago. It is only then that you will realize you are in one of the few places left in Vegas that can lay claim to being a living, thriving piece of its history. A restaurant every bit as illustrious as the casinos it has outlasted up and down the Strip.
Joe Kludjian opened the Golden Steer in 1958 and ran it until 2001. That makes it the third oldest restaurant in Las Vegas, behind El Sombrero (1950) and Bob Taylor’s Ranch House (1955). To give you an idea how long ago that was, the original address was 308 W. San Francisco Street (as Sahara Avenue was then called), and the signature “Longhorn Steak” (a large New York strip) would run you $5.75. “Our history is not just in our booths, it’s in the people,” says says Dr. Michael Signorelli – who bought the place from Kludjian on July, 1, 2001 and has made it his mission to preserve the iconic feel and flavor of the place.
“It’s waiters like Fabian Ong who’s been here for forty years, or Fernando Camacho, who has been here for thirty, or our general manager John E. Burke, who started busing tables in 1983 at age 18. Or our bartender Joe Stellini, who once dated Jill St. John when she was also seeing Sinatra(!). We’re part of the fabric and the history of this town like no other restaurant.”
Indeed, the Mob Museum may have just opened downtown, but the Steer is, in its own way, a mob museum of sorts. Not one filled with artifacts, but a living museum where things actually happened in a place virtually unchanged from a time when they occurred — when all sorts of activities (nefarious and otherwise) were taking place within its walls, by names that shine just as brightly to this day.
From the get-go, Sinatra, Dean Martin and their Rat Pack were regulars. Those were the days when Las Vegas was as segregated as any town in the west, and one of its members, Sammy Davis, Jr., would come by after his shows for a meal, because the hotels he performed in wouldn’t let him eat in their restaurants. “They all had their booths and they all came in all the time,” Signorelli continues. “Joe told me Sinatra once got drunk at the bar, and stumbled through the entire restaurant, serenading every table.” And it wasn’t just inebriated crooners who made the news.
If any one of them walked in today, they would not feel out of place. Elvis might be a bit taken aback by seeing Motley Crue in his booth (where they always insist upon sitting), but he’d feel right at home with the décor and the menu. When he was dropping by in the early 70s, there was a good chance John Wayne, Eddie Albert, or Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood would be hanging out.
These days, Bette Midler, Sammy Hagar or Holly Madison are more likely to be holding court in one of those tuck and roll corners (most with the original leather still in place), and no less a legend than Muhammad Ali dropped by for a celebratory 70th birthday dinner last month before being honored at the Keep Memory Alive gala. Even Oscar and Carolyn Goodman (owners of a competing steakhouse, no less), have their own table with their portrait above it.
Speaking of courts, such loveable rapscallions as O. J. Simpson and Tony Spilotro enjoyed their last restaurant meals here before the law (both legitimate and of-the-jungle) caught up with them.
Ong, who has been a waiter here since 1972, remembers Spilotro and his Hole in the Wall Gang coming in all the time in the early 80s. “Their Gold Rush Jewelry (read: fencing) store was right next door, and they had their own private entrance (and room) in the back,” he says. “I waited on Tony and his brother Michael, in the back room in June, 1986; just two days before I read their bodies were found buried in an Indiana cornfield.” Not to be outdone in the famous felons department, Simpson took his last meal as a free man at the Steer, the night he decided armed robbery was the best way to settle a property dispute.
The Golden Steer is more than a restaurant. It is an institution as famous as any business or structure we have left. Las Vegas is famous for plowing under its history, but this one endures because it is so elemental to everything that makes Vegas what it is and has always been.
Take a meal and a martini there sometime. Slide into that original leather, where Dean Martin’s sharkskin suit once sat, and close your eyes. Think of the Duke’s bravado, Dean’s baritone, or Marilyn’s high-pitched giggle. Remember days gone by of mobsters, sex symbols, and skinny ties, all making their way past the big golden steer statue to the front door. Take another sip of Beefeaters and look around. Not at the people, but at the space, the furniture and the floor. Block out whatever noise is actually around and concentrate on what it’s like to be dining in the shoes of Louis Prima, Nat “King” Cole, Sammy and Frank. If you listen closely, you will hear from those walls the cacophony of voices of those ghosts, as the faint strains of Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea wafts among the tinkling of highball glasses and whiffs of cigarette smoke.
GOLDEN STEER STEAK HOUSE
308 W. Sahara Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89102
Joe DiMaggio Doubles Down
No less a big hitter than Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio wined and dined his (by then) ex-wife Marilyn Monroe in their very own booth in the early 60s. Their 274 day marriage had ended in 1955, but they dined together, more than once, as he sought a reconciliation with her (or to save her from herself, depending on which biography you read), while she consorted with everyone from Mafia hoods to (then President) John F. Kennedy. They used to canoodle right next to Elvis’ favorite table, it seems, but when the Yankee Clipper found out she had been to the restaurant with another guy, he demanded a new table, across the restaurant in what is now the front room. The suitor with whom Marilyn made him jealous is lost to history, but we like to think she was supping with Ole Blue Eyes, of whom she once said: “He was good, but he was no DiMaggio.” Ouch. Regardless, Joe got further revenge by now having two booths named after him.
My Favorite Meal at the Steer
The décor isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed at the Golden Steer since the 1950s. Elvis and Frank wouldn’t bat an eye at the menu either (although the prices might give them pause). This is an old school steakhouse in the best sense of the word, and beef and spuds are still the things to get…just like they were 50 years ago. Signorelli tells us his business has increased 300% since 2001, and he’s done it by appealing the children and grandchildren of the Steer’s original client base with both his kitschy-cool vibe and quality vittles. Begin with the tableside-made Caesar — like over 90% of the customers according to G.M. John E. Burke — and then dive into prime steaks and prime rib that compete with any in town, for about 20% less than you’d pay at a steakhouse at one of the better hotel/casinos. I always get the New York strip ($42), but there’s no denying the juicy beefiness of 18 ounces of prime rib end cut ($37), or the humongous 20 ounce rib eye ($43). The huge baked potato ($8) is also a must, as is the toasted ravioli ($10) — for those seeking a bite of this idiosyncratic St. Louis specialty. For dessert, insist upon either the cherries jubilee or bananas Foster. The wine list is reasonably priced, but it always seems appropriate to be sucking down classic cocktails with this cuisine, just like Dino did.
Henry Daft estimates he’s made at least a half dozen cherries jubilee or bananas Foster a night, for almost twenty-two years. When asked, he recites the recipes as easily as if he were telling you his address: “Sugar, white for the cherries, brown for the bananas, melted in butter, then some orange and lemon zest along with orange juice. Then, in go the pitted cherries or bananas and you rapidly reduce the mixture down over a high flame…adding a little sugar if you want it to reduce faster.” Once the mixture attains the right viscosity, he sprinkles cinnamon powder into the bananas and flames them with a healthy dose of 151 rum before finishing the dish with either Bols Banana or Cherry liqueur, and pouring it over vanilla ice cream. Since the Steer is the only restaurant in town that has a grandfathered-in open flame permit, these tasty pyrotechnics flare up constantly on a busy night. Barely concealing a smile of professional satisfaction, Daft adds: “Once one table sees it done, everyone wants one.”