Why are steakhouse steaks so good?
My immediate response was: Because they simply are. Then I found a passage in "Steak Lover's Cookbook" by my old Tribune colleague, William Rice, that put the answer more eloquently.
"To fully appreciate steak, it is as essential to dine in a great steak restaurant as it is to sip the classified growths of Bordeaux to understand the possibilities of red wine or to smoke the genuine Cuban product before claiming cigar connoisseurship,'' Rice wrote. "Not only are the steak exceptional, due to the use of aged prime beef and expert preparation over heat far higher than that available to the home cook, the steak house – with its larger-than-life portions and customers – offers a distinctly American dining experience."
Now, with you coming from Sonoma wine country you might challenge Rice's Bordeaux sentiment but I think you'd agree that the whole experience of dining at a steakhouse makes that steakhouse steak so special. It's the steak, yes, but also the martinis, the baked potatoes, the shrimp cocktails, the red leather booths, the very vibe of the place that appeals and makes a steak dinner so memorable.
Can you replicate the steakhouse steak at home? Rice was confident in his book that you could come up with a steak "just as enjoyable," noting the most important thing is to know when to stop cooking the meat. That's where the experience of a trained restaurant chef, many of whom are assigned only to grilling steak, comes in handy. These men and women can tell with a glance or a quick touch if the steak is ready or not.
Aged prime beef like those found in a steakhouse can be hard to find in the market because so much of it goes to restaurants or uber-deluxe butchers. If you can get it, you will pay for the experience.
I think grilling the meat over real wood charcoal offers the home cook the best chance to shine steak-wise, but there are those partial to gas grills and the stovetop grill pan. Experiment to find what works and tastes best to you.