One might expect to find a Godfather-era mob boss or other power broker holding court from a corner banquette at Steak 38 as a waiter prepares a Caesar salad tableside. Or members of the Rat Pack stopping by the dimly lit lounge for a Rob Roy or vodka gimlet.
Everything about Steak 38 in Cherry Hill feels like a throwback—from its speakeasy-like atmosphere to its enormous cuts of meat served with rich sauces to tableside deboning of fish and carving of meat. The old-fashioned appeal here is a direct result of Steak 38’s two current owners—Joe DiAmore and Ben Blumberg—who between them have close to 100 years experience in the restaurant business.
DiAmore opened the original Steak 38 in Cherry Hill in 1993, and later opened a second one in Brigantine. Both are closed. But he and Blumberg, who had restaurants of his own, teamed to open this new Steak 38 last year. Don’t expect surprises. “To be a good restaurant, you have to be consistent,” says DiAmore, 69. “I always tell people, ‘If you ordered something 10 or 12 years ago and you didn’t like it, don’t order it again, because it’s going to be the same.’”
Besides brightening up the interior with new beige carpeting and lighter wood paneling, the only major change has been the addition of some of Blumberg’s seafood dishes, like Barnacle Ben crab cakes.
Previously, Steak 38’s seafood repertoire was largely limited to the raw-bar menu, which still turns out some good first-course options, particularly during happy hour, when half-priced appetizers and reduced drinks are available in the bar area. On a recent Friday happy hour, it was standing room only around the pianoless piano-shaped bar, where patrons shouted across the way to newfound friends. Clams on the half-shell, 50 cents each, were large, juicy and tender (as were the raw oysters we tried another night).
Clams casino was loaded with chunks of clam and topped with a crunchy bacon crust. Deviled crab balls were crisp outside and creamy inside. Our favorite was scallops wrapped in bacon, their sweetness perfectly balanced by the salty-smoky wrap.
On an earlier visit, we tried the scungilli salad, a pile of tender conch bathed in garlic, lemon and oregano, and the tableside Caesar. I can appreciate the skill involved in tableside service, but our waiter’s drawn-out theatrics became so engaging that a man at the next table asked to taste our salad. And the waiter obliged! Nevertheless, the salad, with its anchovy-laden, lemony dressing, was delicious.
Seafood did not measure up. Shrimp and scallops in the pasta del mare medley were overcooked; baked tilapia Oscar, while properly flaky, got lost in watery Hollandaise.
Of course, the real reason to go to Steak 38 is the steaks, many of which are offered in two sizes and are outstanding. DiAmore says the restaurant dry ages its meat. The filet is lean and buttery soft—almost debauched when served with the optional blue-cheese topping run under the broiler. Equally indulgent is steak Diane, medallions of filet sautéed in clarified butter and coated in a mushroom-shallot-brandy cream sauce. The New York strip steak has a bit more marbling, which gains a nice smoky char from the restaurant’s open flame. Best was the highly marbled ribeye, loaded with flavor. I ordered a side of Bernaise, a creamy, tarragon-laden sauce that brought me back to my forays into French cooking in my college days.
Desserts are traditional as well. Bread pudding is a dense, tasty wedge soaked in egg, vanilla and cream and slow cooked overnight. The crème brûlée’s topping needed more crackle. The go-to dessert is bananas Foster, prepared tableside. In this case, the big show is worth stopping conversation for. When the sautéed rum-soaked bananas burst into flame, the wow factor perfectly caps the evening.