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Why does surf and turf mean?

Surf and turf is a culinary term that refers to a meal consisting of both seafood and steak. The “surf” part refers to seafood like lobster, shrimp, scallops or other fish. The “turf” refers to a cut of beef steak, often filet mignon. Surf and turf became popular in restaurants in the 1960s and 70s and combines the best of both worlds – the light flavors of seafood and the hearty taste of red meat.

Origin of the Term Surf and Turf

The exact origin of the term “surf and turf” is unclear, but it gained widespread popularity in the 1960s and 70s as upscale steakhouses began offering the dish on their menus. Some sources suggest it originated in restaurantreviews or advertisements during this time period. The Plaza Hotel in New York City claims to have invented the surf and turf dish, serving lobster with steak as early as the 1930s.

The pairing of seafood and steak makes sense, as it allows the diner to enjoy contrasting flavors and textures in one meal. Steak lovers get their hearty cut of beef, while seafood fans can savor tender lobster, shrimp or crab. The light brininess of the seafood balances nicely with the rich umami flavors of a good steak.

Popularity in Steakhouse Menus

As upscale steakhouses grew in popularity in the mid-20th century, many began offering surf and turf dishes to add variety to their menu. Places like The Palm, Morton’s Steakhouse and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse featured pairings like filet mignon with lobster tail. The dish was seen as upscale, indulgent and perfect for a celebratory steakhouse dinner. It allowed the restaurants to offer their high-quality steaks alongside luxury seafood.

The pairing of surf and turf also made economic sense for steakhouses. Since they already had high-quality beef on hand, offering it with lobster or other seafood allowed them to diversify their menus without investing in totally separate ingredients and cooking processes.

Pop Culture References

As surf and turf grew as a steakhouse staple in the 60s and 70s, it began to show up in pop culture as shorthand for an indulgent, lavish meal. The term was referenced in movies, TV shows, books and music as a symbol of fine dining and affluence. Some examples include:

  • The 1972 detective novel “The Outside Man” by Richard North Patterson, which referenced a surf and turf dinner as a sign of wealth and privilege.
  • A 1977 episode of “The Love Boat” featured a “Surf and Turf Buffet Extraordinaire.”
  • A scene in the 1985 movie “Prizzi’s Honor” where characters eat surf and turf during a lavish dinner.
  • On the TV show “The Sopranos,” the character Tony Soprano frequently demands surf and turf dinners.
  • The 1999 Beastie Boys lyric “Gotta have mySurf and Turf!” in the song “Super Disco Breakin'”

Through these cultural references, surf and turf solidified its image as an upper class meal and symbol of affluence and abundance.

Typical Ingredients in a Surf and Turf Dish

While there are many variations, a typical surf and turf dish includes the following ingredients:

Surf Options

  • Lobster tail – the most popular and classic surf choice. Lobster tail is tender, sweet and perfect alongside steak.
  • Shrimp – jumbo shrimp offer a tender bite to contrast the steak.
  • Scallops – seared or grilled scallops add a luxurious texture.
  • Crab legs – snow or king crab legs are decadent yet don’t overpower the steak.
  • Oysters – fresh raw oysters on the half shell make for an elegant combo.

Turf Options

  • Filet mignon – the classic cut of tender beef that pairs well with seafood.
  • Ribeye – a marbled, flavorful steak that can hold its own with bold seafood.
  • New York strip – another tender, juicy cut that works perfectly with surf options.
  • Tenderloin – lean yet tender, this cut soaks up any juices from the seafood.
  • Porterhouse – a large T-bone with both strip and tenderloin cuts.

How is Surf and Turf Cooked?

Each element of a surf and turf dish is often cooked separately to ensure both the steak and seafood are cooked perfectly.

Cooking the Steak

The steak is commonly cooked to the diner’s preference, whether that’s rare, medium-rare, medium, or well-done. It may be grilled, broiled, pan seared, or pan fried in butter or oil to get a good sear.

Cooking the Seafood

Seafood preparation varies based on what’s being served:

  • Lobster tails are typically boiled or steamed until the flesh is opaque.
  • Shrimp can be boiled, grilled, sautéed, or pan seared with garlic and butter.
  • Scallops are often pan seared to get a crispy exterior while leaving the inside tender and translucent.
  • Crab legs can be steamed or boiled like lobster. The meat is then often pulled from the shell at the table.
  • Oysters are usually served raw on the half shell, sometimes with a mignonette sauce.

The seafood preparation complements the doneness of the steak for harmony of textures and flavors.

Plating and Presentation

When plating surf and turf in a restaurant, the seafood and steak are often arranged side-by-side with the protein elements separated. The steak may be fanned out for an attractive presentation. Sauces and sides like clarified butter, chimichurri, béarnaise, roasted potatoes, or asparagus spears are artfully arranged. A garnish like parsley or microgreens adds freshness and color.

At home, the surf can simply be placed atop the turf for an easy but elegant presentation. Sprigs of herbs like dill, chives, thyme or rosemary make for rustic garnishes. Lemon wedges add brightness.

Popular Sauces and Condiments for Surf and Turf

Certain sauces and condiments can enhance the surf and turf experience. Here are some popular pairings:

Sauce/Condiment Description
Clarified Butter Brushed over the hot lobster and steak, melted butter adds richness.
Béarnaise A French sauce of egg yolks, butter and tarragon that adds decadence.
Chimichurri An Argentine green sauce with parsley, oregano, garlic and vinegar that perks up the meat.
Mignonette A peppery sauce for raw oysters made with vinegar, shallots, pepper and wine.
Horseradish The kick of horseradish contrasts the richness of steak and seafood.
Cocktail Sauce Tart and spicy, it’s a classic for seafood like shrimp and crab.

Popular Side Dishes for Surf and Turf

The right side dishes can round out the meal for delicious surf and turf pairings. Here are some popular accompaniments:

Side Dish Pairing Notes
Roasted or Mashed Potatoes Classic steakhouse sides that soak up surf and turf juices.
Asparagus Elegant green veg that balances the decadence.
Creamed Spinach Rich and indulgent like the steak and seafood.
Sauteed Mushrooms Earthy mushrooms complement the surf and turf.
Steakhouse Wedge Salad Crisp lettuce, tomato and bacon are a fresh contrast.
Garlic Bread Perfect for dipping in butter and juices.

Where to Enjoy the Best Surf and Turf

You can enjoy incredible surf and turf dishes at upscale steakhouses and seafood restaurants across the country. Here are some top spots to indulge:

  • Portland City Grill (Portland, Oregon) – Offers a filet mignon and lobster tail duo along with stunning city views.
  • Ocean Prime (Multiple Locations) – Elegant contemporary steakhouse chain serving succulent seafood and steaks.
  • The Palm (Multiple Locations) – The legendary restaurant that put surf and turf on the map back in the 60s.
  • SW Steakhouse (Las Vegas) – Located in Wynn Las Vegas, pairing prime steaks with decadent lobster and crab.
  • The Capital Grille (Multiple Locations) – Refined steakhouse offering dry-aged Porterhouses with buttery lobster tails.
  • Mastro’s Ocean Club (Multiple Locations) – Upscale chain focused on amazing fresh seafood and world-class steaks.

You can also find excellent surf and turf at higher-end seafood restaurants that also boast excellent steaks or at chophouses that also source top seafood. Many restaurants now put their own unique spin on the classic pairing as well.

Is Surf and Turf Healthy?

While surf and turf makes for an indulgent, protein-packed meal, it isn’t necessarily the most healthy option. Here are some health considerations if you’re watching your diet:

  • Both steak and seafood like lobster and shrimp can be high in cholesterol and saturated fat, especially if served with butter.
  • Steakhouse preparation methods like heavy seasoning, oils or high-fat sauces can make the meal less healthy overall.
  • Large restaurant portions of surf and turf mean you’re likely getting excess calories, fat, sodium and cholesterol in one sitting.
  • Healthier cooking methods at home include broiling, grilling or baking the steak and seafood, using heart-healthy fats like olive oil instead of butter, and controlling portion sizes.
  • Going easy on high-fat sauces or substituting sides like steamed veggies instead of creamed spinach reduces the meal’s overall calories.

Overall, surf and turf should be enjoyed as an occasional indulgence if you’re watching your health. Focus on good cuts of lean steak, low-fat seafood like scallops or shrimp, and lighter cooking methods to make the iconic pairing a little healthier.

Surf and Turf Recipe Ideas

Recreating surf and turf at home lets you control the ingredients, portions and preparation to make a healthier version. Here are some recipe ideas:

Grilled Filet Mignon with Lemon Garlic Shrimp

Perfectly cook filet mignon steaks on the grill alongside shrimp skewers seasoned with lemon, garlic and herbs. Serve with grilled asparagus.

Seared Scallops with Steak and Chimichurri

Pan sear scallops to crispy perfection and serve atop grilled steak seasoned with zesty chimichurri sauce for an Argentinian-inspired pairing.

Crab Legs with Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon

Boil or steam snow crab legs and pair with filet mignon wrapped in crispy bacon for surf and turf with a twist.

Seared Tuna with Peppercorn Steak

Cook peppercorn crusted steak alongside seared ahi tuna steaks for a change from the usual red meat and seafood pairings.

Lobster Tails with Steak Kebabs

Alternate tender steak pieces and veggies on skewers and grill alongside boiled lobster tails for a satisfying surf and turf meal.

How to Make Surf and Turf Special

For an extra special surf and turf celebration at home, create the perfect ambiance with these tips:

  • Set the table with your finest dishes, linens and candles for an elegant backdrop.
  • Select a variety of seafood like lobster, scallops and crab for a deluxe mixed grill.
  • Cook outdoors on the grill or barbecue for a relaxed summertime vibe.
  • Pick a special bottle of wine to pair with the meal.
  • Finish the meal with a decadent dessert like creme brûlée, mud pie or molten chocolate lava cake.
  • Make a toast and share memories over this special meal.

With good company, delicious food and the right ambiance, a home-cooked surf and turf dinner can be truly extraordinary.

The Best Thing About Surf and Turf

At its heart, the appeal of surf and turf comes down to the combination of unique flavors, textures and experiences in one dish. The pairing offers:

  • A contrast of delicate, briny seafood with rich, hearty steak.
  • The chance to taste the land and the sea in each bite.
  • A meal that indulges surf lovers and turf lovers alike.
  • The ability to enjoy both proteins cooked to perfect doneness.
  • An elegant presentation of beautifully cooked surf and turf elements.

Together they create a meal that’s celebratory, unique and completely indulgent. The blend of decadence and fresh flavors unites the best of both culinary worlds for an unforgettable dining experience. For steak and seafood connoisseurs, a perfectly executed surf and turf dish is tough to beat.


From its origins in upscale steakhouses to its status today as a classic fine dining meal, surf and turf has maintained its reputation as an indulgent pairing of richly satisfying land and sea offerings. With both red meat and seafood cooked to tender deliciousness, the combination offers undeniable sensory pleasures. Completely customizable to diners’ tastes, expertly executed by skilled chefs, and bathed in butter, sauces or seasoning, the duo managed to infiltrate pop culture as shorthand for luxury excess. But ultimately, when done right, surf and turf’s appeal lies in the unbeatable blending of unique textures, flavors and aromas – celebrating the best gifts of the land and sea all in one swoop of the fork.