The country's effort to move away from a dependence on foreign oil and embrace green initiatives appears to be behind a change in one of New York's purest traditions, the menu of the classic steakhouse.
The production of ethanol, which is made from corn, is one major reason classic cuts of prime beef are becoming more and more expensive, an analyst at the cattle market analysis firm Cattle-Fax, Tod Kalous, said.
"It's getting worse," the owner of Ben Benson's Steakhouse, Ben Benson, said. "The problems the ranchers are having are making it more difficult because feed is getting more expensive."
Brooklyn's Peter Luger Steakhouse now serves a rib eye. On some nights at Ben Benson's in Midtown, diners can order buffalo steak. The Old Homestead of the meatpacking district serves one of the city's best Kobe burgers.
The new menu items at some city steakhouses are a result of an increase in the price of top-notch beef and a decrease in its availability.
Corn is the primary feed for cattle that produce USDA-grade prime beef. Corn is also the main ingredient for what many believe is the fuel of the future, ethanol. The production of ethanol has not only increased the demand for corn, it has made harvests more profitable for farmers, who receive the fruits of government subsidies when it is sold to ethanol producers.
Even with the price of prime beef so high, and with Mr. Kalous predicting continued high prices, most steakhouses have yet to pass on the brunt of the drought to the customer.
"The knee-jerk response is to raise prices," Mr. Benson said. "We've tried to vary our meats."
An owner of Peter Luger Steakhouse, Marilyn Spiera, said that along with adding a rib eye to the menu — a move that was first reported on the Web log Grub Street — the restaurant has stopped take-out orders and cut back on late evening reservations.
"We didn't want to change our standards, so what we did was cut down on hours," she said.
Mrs. Spiera said prime steaks have become easier to find in the last two weeks.
Several prime meat purveyors, chefs, and owners of steakhouses interviewed for this article said they believed from their experience with the beef market that the percentage of USDA prime graded meat slaughtered this year dropped to about .5% from about 2% last year.
According to Mr. Kalous that is not the case. The percentage dropped to 2.3% from 2.5% last year, he said.
The reason that the market appears so dry could be an explosion of new steakhouses opened recently, a longtime purveyor of prime meats, John Jobbagy of J.T. Jobbagy Inc., said
Another seller of high-end cuts, Suzanne Strassburger, the fifth-generation owner of Strassburger Meats, said she believes that it is becoming more difficult to find prime beef because the cattle industry is catering to the masses.
"The market is run by the warehouse stores," she said. "Most people outside of New York want lean meat."
For the landmark steakhouses in the city, which have strong relationships with beef purveyors, it won't be difficult to ride out the storm. But smaller restaurant's interested in having prime beef on the menu are having a harder time finding it.
A chef at the Upper East Side Café D'Alsace, Philipe Roussel, said it's extremely difficult to find prime meats, even for a special.
Mr. Roussel will not serve prime beef at his new restaurant, Charolais. Rather, he will dish up steaks from the restaurant's namesake, Charolaise, a breed of cattle from France known for producing great meat.
Other smaller steakhouses are putting lesser cuts of prime beef, such as a hangar steak, on their menus, the director of sales for a prime beef purveyor, Buckhead Beef Northeast, Robert Mark, said.
For some steakhouse owners, the recent spike in prime beef prices is merely a speed bump.
"In the summer time there is always a demand for more meat," an owner of the Old Homestead, Greg Sherry, said.