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R&IEditorial Archives2000 — February 1 — Food

Steakhouse Sizzle
Quality steaks and chops are diners' top choice.

In 1985, when partners Dee Lincoln and Dale Wamstad opened Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Dallas, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition in that city’s steakhouse market. The Palm and Morton’s of Chicago had outposts and there were a few independents, but that was about it.

Today, competition is “unbelievable,” says Lincoln. “There are probably 15 steakhouses here in north Dallas, all the big chain names and some independents. And our business is better than ever. The economy is great, there’s a lot of entertaining going on and people are eating steak.”

This steakhouse explosion is playing out in every major metropolitan area. Washington, D.C., has five steakhouses within easy walking distance of each other in the downtown area. More are a short cab ride away. Chicago, long known as a meat-and-potatoes town, has at least a dozen steakhouses flanking the Magnificent Mile, otherwise known as North Michigan Avenue. Smith & Wollensky, Capital Grille and Sullivan’s have all opened in the last three years, competing with such venerable old stalwarts as the Chicago Chop House, The Palm, Ruth’s Chris, Gibson’s and Morton’s.

Flourishing under a strong economy and an insatiable appetite for meat, the steakhouse segment is the fastest growing part of the restaurant industry. Sales have increased 19.1% from 1993 to 1998, according to Technomic Inc., the Chicago-based foodservice consulting firm. In comparison, sales at Italian restaurants rose 14.2% in that period, while sales in the seafood segment increased by 6.4%.


Bone-in filets are one of the new cuts adding sizzle to the segment. They are going over big at Sam & Harry’s in Washington, D.C., and Abe & Louie’s in Boston.

“This is our signature dish,” says Chef Stephen Crocker of Abe & Louie’s, which is part of Boston-based Back Bay Restaurant Group Inc. “All you do is take the porterhouse and break out the filet to include the T-shaped bone. We generate the sirloin out of the other cut.” Because diners don’t usually associate a filet with a bone, the dish generates curiosity, Crocker says, but at the same time, it doesn’t scare off by being too different.

“Customers like new things, but not too foreign. And I think the perception is that anything on the bone is going to have more flavor and be more tender.” For many, filet mignon is the crown jewel of the steak world, although this very lean cut of meat lacks the robust flavor that comes with well-marbled cuts, such as the strip steak. “There’s a cachet with the filet,” says Bill Wernick, vice president of Sam & Harry’s. “Our [boneless] 14-ounce filet represents 25% to 26% of our sales.”

“And the filet is a great steak. But I’m quick to tell people, if it’s flavor you’re looking for, you need to enjoy the bone-in strip. And now we’ve found a way to [add flavor to the filet] by introducing this bone-in version. We’re very taken with its flavor and texture. And because our signature steak is the bone-in strip, this is a wonderful companion.” So far, the bone-in filet accounts for 4.5% of Sam & Harry’s total sales, while the signature strip accounts for 16%.

Unlike steakhouses that boast about their dry-aged prime beef, Sam & Harry’s wet-ages its meat for 21 to 27 days; dry-aged beef has been stored for a period of time in a controlled temperature, so it’s exposed to air, which concentrates the flavor while the muscle fibers break down. Wet-aged beef is aged in vacuum-sealed bags in its own juices. The wet method gives the same fiber breakdown, Wernick says, but the meat doesn’t develop the same flavor that comes from dry-aged beef. “I don’t want to attach any value judgment, but that distinctive flavor [of dry-aged] isn’t always to everyone’s liking,” he says.


Regardless of cut, restaurateurs recognize that Americans want their steaks big. Morton’s of Chicago, Sullivan’s Steakhouse, Capital Grille and others all sell a lot of 24-ounce porterhouses while Abe & Louie’s does a big business with its 32-ounce cut.

“We want the impression to be grand,” says Crocker. “From service, to table maintenance, to the size of portions, we want everything physically big. A better word would be ‘gigantic.’”

When it comes to big, however, the 2-year-old Tuscan Steak House in the trendy South Beach section of Miami comes close to leading the pack with its popular 50-ounce T-bone steak. And it sets itself apart from the steakhouse pack by serving that steak and just about everything else, including side dishes, family style.

Tuscan Steak House puts everything in the middle of the table, emulating the friendly, family-style dinners of Tuscany. “The 50-ounce steak is most popular on weekends, when we have groups of say six, or eight, who will share the steak, a couple of pastas and some side dishes,” says Executive Chef Dewey LoSasso. “We grill it whole after marinating it in olive oil, basil, rosemary, garlic and a little fresh lemon, and then we slice it off the bone. It’s fanned out on the plate, and [placed] in the middle of the table with some roasted garlic purée. Everything is based on sharing.”

On weeknights, when groups tend to be smaller, the 28-ounce T-bone is favored, he says. “What we’ve done is take elements of Tuscany and combine them with some of the flavors of Florida. We have a lot of earthy, rustic flavors—garlic, white beans, rosemary—that we use with quality, prime beef.”

Tuscan Steak House, which will open a unit in New York City within the next few months and is part of the New York-based China Grill Management Co., serves about 450 of the 28-ounce steaks a month and 300 50-ounce steaks.

While most steakhouses have their signature steak, Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, and Denver, boasts that all its steaks are signature steaks.

And because the restaurant does all its own cutting, diners don’t have to adjust their appetites to sizes listed on the menu. If a customer wants a 20-ounce ribeye instead of the 16-ounce suggested on the menu, it’s just a request away.

“The steaks aren’t cut until the ticket gets to the kitchen,” says co-founder Lincoln. “We don’t do portion control. If a person orders a 16-ounce steak, they’re not going to get 3 ounces of tail.”

Although steaks are the big draw, veal chops have muscled onto many steakhouse menus. These young kin of beefsteaks also can trade on size and tenderness.


Although bigger is usually judged better, the ‘less is more’ rule generally applies to how the steak is prepared. Steaks usually stand alone, or are served with something very simple.

Abe & Louie’s puts a tomato-based steak sauce, made with horseradish, peppers and lemon, in a gravy boat on the table for discretionary use. The restaurant will also serve aged Cheddar or blue cheese melted on top of the steak for an extra charge.

There’s always a certain demand for peppercorn steak, say Lincoln and others. Tuscan Steak House serves a 12-ounce strip steak topped with a Parmesan crust and a filet with Gorgonzola sauce. “But mostly, the beauty is in the simplicity of steakhouse cooking,” says LoSasso.

Although cooking a steak might seem very straightforward, Lincoln describes it as an art. “You’ve got these broilers cooking 600 to 900 steaks a night, you have to be able to use tongs to get the feel and consistency of a steak to know when it’s rare, medium or well done. If you use a fork, you’re going to be poking into the beef and letting the juices out.”

Most steakhouses cook under or over very high heat, usually in the infernally hot neighborhood of 1,800F, which immediately seals the steak with a crust, or char. “All the juices remain inside the steak,” Lincoln says. Abe & Louie’s uses a convection element to generate the high heat, which “gives us that good char on the surface, and brings out the sugars,” says Crocker.

Although filets, strip steaks and porterhouses are steaks of choice at such upscale restaurants as Del Frisco’s, casual-dining and less expensive steakhouses such as Outback and Lone Star do big business in the sirloin cut.

A 12-ounce sirloin is Outback’s special, and although the Lone Star menu recently listed an 18-ounce Cajun ribeye as its signature steak, three sirloin cuts are available—two 9-ounce cuts (one marinated in teriyaki sauce), and a 12-ounce portion.

“At Lone Star, it’s the sirloin that sells. It’s what people know. In Sullivan’s and Del Frisco’s, it’s the filet that everyone recognizes as a high-quality piece of meat,” says John White, chief financial officer of Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon, Inc., parent company of Del Frisco’s and Sullivan’s as well as the casual-dining Lone Star restaurants.

Most steakhouses fall into two major categories: upscale, like Del Frisco’s with a check averaging $60 or more; and casual dining, such as the Outback and Lone Star, with checks averaging $20. Upscale steakhouses use more prime beef and generally have an la carte menu, while casual-dining places generally include salad and a side dish with entrees and serve less expensive grades of beef (although Outback also offers several prime cuts, including a $24 New York strip, at select locations). A third category, whose growth has been flat in the last few years, is the buffet-style steakhouse, such as Sizzler and Ponderosa.

A new trend is developing, however, with the vertical integration of upscale and casual. In 1995, the Wichita, Kan.-based Lone Star launched a new steakhouse concept called Sullivan’s, geared to be more upscale than the casual-dining spot, but not as pricey as the Morton’s and Capital Grille group.

At almost the same time, Lone Star acquired Del Frisco’s, putting it squarely into the top-ticket niche of the steakhouse industry.

“We looked at places like Ruth’s Chris, where their check had gone from $33 to somewhere over $50, and we knew what our Lone Stars were doing [$18 to $20 average check], and we thought that what was left over was a niche in the mid-price range. So that’s how Sullivan’s came about,” Lone Star’s White says.

“When we announced that we were going into that midpoint price niche, [Del Frisco’s co-founder] Dale Wamstad called us and said, ‘I’ve got the best prime steakhouse in the country, but I can’t grow it like you could, so how about getting together.’ That put us in the upscale market.” Wamstad has since left the Del Frisco’s operation.

Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon Inc. now operates more than 300 Lone Star Steakhouses, 14 Sullivan’s and three Del Frisco’s. Two additional Del Frisco’s will open in the first quarter of 2000, in New York City and Las Vegas.

Similarly, Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse Inc., with almost 600 units, in September announced its agreement in principle to jointly develop Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bars. Under arrangement, Outback will buy the three existing Fleming’s. Three more units, now under development, are scheduled to be acquired in 2001.

Such deals give the huge, casual-dining chains entry into the high-ticket market, and provide Del Frisco’s and Fleming’s with tremendous resources they otherwise would not have.

“The magnitude on the volume gives us such an advantage,” says Dee Lincoln. “Now we’re able to secure the finest wines, the finest products. We have resources that we never had before. Those resources are going to let us take Del Frisco’s to another level.”

  • Prime Rib with Grilled Mushroom Salad

Steakhouse Sides Share the Spotlight

Steak is the undisputed star in steak-houses, often served on plain white plates and adorned with little more than a tuft of parsley. But a la carte items are a big part of the experience and like the meaty main dishes, sides also are simple but abundant.

Creamed spinach, broccoli with hollandaise sauce, hash browns an sauteed mushrooms long have stood as steakhouse standards, perfect albeit somewhat predictable accompaniments. Today, as new steakhouses seem to open almost as frequently as Starbucks, operators are differentiating themselves, jazzing up menus with some unexpected sides.

Angelo and Maxie’s Steakhouse in New York City offers fried zucchini that Reed Goldstein, kitchen manager, describes as “a pain in the neck to make because we do it all from scratch, even the bread crumbs, and it’s time consuming.” But, he says, its popularity makes it worthwhile.

When Nine opens in Chicago in late February or early March, its menu will have some offbeat side dishes, according to consulting partner Michael Kornick. In addition to expected baked potatoes, there will be a very rich and cheesy macaroni dish, plus sweet potato fries accompanied by a basil dipping sauce.

At SideBerns, in Tampa, Fla., cippolini onions are a staple while Cowboy, in Newport Beach, Calif., is trying out roasted beets.

“Any restaurant will tell you that the menu mix is critical,” says Bill Wernick, vice president of Sam & Harry’s in Washington, D.C. “The mashed potatoes, the creamed spinach, all of that has to be part of the mix.” Wernick also points out that side dishes on an la carte menu keep profit margins up. Steak dinners don’t yield high margins—sometimes as much as 50% of a $25 to $30 steak will be the cost of the meat. Wernick estimates his overall costs at 39%, “and that’s because of the introduction of side dishes.” Side dishes at Sam & Harry’s are $4.95.

“We’re known for our mashed potatoes, made with an incredible amount of butter and cream, kosher salt and white pepper,” Wernick says. “Also, our creamed spinach with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Our sides are pretty simple.”

Pasta dishes figure heavily into the mix at Tuscan Steak House in Miami. One of the favorites, according to Executive Chef Dewey LoSasso, is gnocchi with Gorgonzola cream sauce. He also puts a spin on mashed potatoes, combining them with smoked onions. “That’s our most popular side dish,” he says, “but we also do a lot of fresh spinach sautéed in olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper, very simple, and sautéed broccoli and slivered garlic.”

Smith & Wollensky Steak (Friedman/Fairfax, $27.50) is a steak lover’s dream, a beefy treatise on steak and all the glorious side dishes that serve it so well. The pictures are splendid, the recipes authentic and the cooking tips and ingredient information thorough and informative. Don’t be fooled, though. Even this book and all the detailed information revealed within its pages do not guarantee that just anyone can capture the steakhouse magic that Alan Stillman, proprietor of the six-unit chain and now author as well, has pumped into the Smith & Wollensky brand. But it’s a great start and although the book is geared to home cooks, there’s much for restaurant pros to pick up as well.


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