BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
If you ever despair of working 70 hours a week in some law firm’s spare box, and yearn for the good old days when attorneys billed 1200 hours a year and drank their lunches, Frank’s Steakhouse will cheer you immensely. Billed as Boston’s oldest steakhouse, but located north of Porter Square in Cambridge, Frank’s seems to have kept its menu fairly constant since its 1938 founding.
The various revolutions in restaurant cuisine that have occurred since the ’40s seem far away here. Seating consists mostly of old wood booths and the smoking section consumes at least two thirds of the restaurant. Diners are mostly droopy older people who mumble constantly about appliances, and the waitresses have thick Boston accents. The wall that separates the smoking from the non-smoking section features glass frosted with images of dancing couples. The only concession to the modern era (aside from Keno machines) is a photo signed by Van Halen. Like every single restaurant in the Boston area, Frank’s has a Best of Boston award from Boston Magazine displayed (in this case, Best Neighborhood Restaurant for 2002).
It is unclear if the flavor of Frank’s food has gradually faded since the ’50s, or if it never tasted like much to begin with. A 14 ounce strip steak sells for a mere $14.95, accompanied by the traditional baked potato and salad of wilted iceberg lettuce, or perhaps some unseasoned peas if you yearn for a spherical adventure. The bread is served on a breadboard in grand steakhouse tradition, but is, well, stale.
For steak at near supermarket prices, it came at a close-enough medium when ordered medium rare, although the waitress’s request to cut into it to make sure it wasn’t underdone seemed a touch odd. The steak tasted exactly like nothing – whatever beefiness it might have had was overwhelmed by the carbon flavor of the too-charred exterior. A $9.95 pork chop with stuffing was equally charred and much tougher, featuring a “mushroom gravy” of dubious origins that tasted mostly like cornstarch stored in a saltshaker.
Part of the problem with Frank’s steaks is that steaks in general have declined in fat content (and thus flavor) since the ’40s – our ‘prime beef’ would have been considered impossibly lean back then, and evil titans of agribusiness have focused on producing cheaper, leaner meat and billing it as healthful. A place of limited supply lines can’t stick to tradition as neatly as Frank’s does and still produce an edible product – the black peppercorn crusts and the blue cheese/truffle butter toppings have emerged for a reason.
The non-meat-based offerings are actually pretty good. Mozzarella sticks ($5.95) are shaped like ovals to reduce surface area, maximizing the requisite stringy, gooey goodness within. The French onion soup ($5.95) comes in a crock and delivers the Joy of Cooking standard pretty faithfully – onions and croutons are plentiful, and the Swiss cheese crust on top is as browned and substantial as anyone could ask for.
Frank’s inspires an odd mixture of comfort and sadness. The surreal small town atmosphere is unlike anything else you’ll find in Cambridge and very much evokes Twin Peaks. All the customers seem to know each other, which inspires vague feelings of warmth. But while the beef may be good enough for Van Halen, it flies the flag of tradition more out of a sullen dissatisfaction with the outside world than a real celebration of the meat that once was.
In any case, Cambridge proper seems to have passed Frank’s by. To add insult to injury, a Google search on Frank’s reveals that the phrase “frank’s steakhouse petite filet mignon cambridge ma” is in the header of a site that bills itself as a Guide to Anal Sex. As memorials to Old Boston go, that is not exactly the Freedom Trail.
Frank’s Steak House2310 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge (617) 661-0666