GREEN FROM RED: Independents like Stephen Starr's Barclay Prime in Philadelphia (above) and Red in Cleveland (below) are well-positioned to profit from American's enduring love affair with red meat.
AFFORDABLE LUXURY: Fleming's promises fine food at moderate prices.
SEXY: Strip House's David Rockwelldesigned interiors play off the name.
Charlie Palmer Steak
STARRING ATTRACTION: The low-carb craze may be over, but guests still eschew bread baskets in favor of protein.
PARTY TIME: A festive atmosphere prevails at BOA (both above), which provides a "unique escape" and classic steakhouse fare. Below, a champagne and caviar bar dresses up the interior at N9NE.
FUN FOOD: Kobe beef sliders are a hit at Barclay Prime.
It's Friday night, and couples, business associates, groups of single women and families pack the inviting and lively dining room at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Boston. You can barely hear the upbeat, top 40s music above the laughter and boisterous conversations buzzing around the casually elegant restaurant, accented with alabaster chandeliers and light wood tones with rich cherry trim.
Known for its generously thick steaks as well as a vast array of fresh seafood, salads and other dishes, Fleming's attracts diners looking for a stylish, contemporary experience. With dinner checks averaging $45, Fleming's also prides itself on offering fine food for a less than many of its competitors.
"We make it a much more approachable way to eat at a high-end steakhouse. There's no stuffiness or elitism here," says Michael Dearing, operating partner at Fleming's in Boston.
This is a far cry from the stereotypical steakhouse experience: dingy, cigar smoke-filled rooms laden with dark wood tones, stodgy dark leather booths, deep red carpeting and Frank Sinatra crooning in the background.
Welcome to the new American steakhouse, complete with a creative menu and eclectic interior design. Innovative, hip and stylish steakhouses are cropping up from Los Angeles to Boston.
"People nowadays have seen American restaurants pushing the envelope, and they're ready for steakhouses to do the same. There's no reason you can't walk into a steakhouse and expose yourself to new things," says Mathew Glazier, a partner at Glazier Group, which owns the three Strip House restaurants in Manhattan, New Jersey and Houston. The company is opening its fourth Strip House in October 2005 in Palm Beach Gardens, FL.
Charlie Palmer, chef and proprietor of Charlie Palmer Steak in Las Vegas and Washington, DC, agrees. "I almost hesitate to call (our restaurants) steakhouses because they are so different from traditional steakhouses," he says.
Palmer says his namesake steakhouses were designed to appeal to people from all walks of life, including women, who often consider traditional steakhouses good old boys clubs. The end goal: great steak and a warm, cutting-edge design. By no means your run-of-the-mill steakhouse, main dishes at Charlie Palmer Steak include grilled beef filet mignon with roasted shallots and cabernet sauce, Maine lobster poached in butter fondue and roasted Amish chicken with natural lemon thyme.
"The food's got to be great, but so does the space. You want people to feel comfortable," Palmer says.
"There's no reason you can't walk into a steakhouse and expose yourself to new things."
Another prime example of a steakhouse hitting on all cylinders with both top-quality steak and a hip, inviting format is The N9NE Group, with restaurants in Chicago, Las Vegas and inside the Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa near Palm Springs. N9NE plans to open its fourth outlet in Dallas in June 2006. Cofounder Michael Morton, son of Chicago steakhouse legend Arnie Morton, decided to fuse the best qualities from traditional Chicago chophouses like Morton's with a contemporary setting. N9NE patrons are immediately greeted by a 15-foot wall of water and stainless steel, as well as a stunning glass-enclosed wine cellar. Other design highlights include limestone walls, mirrored mosaics, ultrasuede booths and a centrally located champagne and caviar bar situated beneath a silverleaf domed ceiling with a 300-color computerized lighting system.
"We look at it as a steakhouse for the 21st century," says Morton.
Meanwhile, N9NE maintains the same standards of excellence for its steak as Morton's. It even cooks on the same equipment and buys beef from the same purveyors, says Morton.
So far, business is sizzling. Last year's sales at N9NE in Las Vegas, which doesn't serve lunch, hit more than $13 million, compared with $11 million in 2003. Checks averaged $85. Sales at N9NE in Chicago, where checks average $70, increased from $7 million in 2003 to about $8.5 million last year.
The Glazier Group, in turn, has experienced double-digit growth each year since it opened its first Strip House in Manhattan in 2000. Part of the restaurant's success is driven by its fun and sultry dining rooms, which are known for loud music and sophisticated menus. Designed by celebrity architect David Rockwell, The Strip House has certainly had fun with its format. Rockwell played off the name by creating a sexy, all-red French-inspired interior adorned with rich materials including silk, velvet and leather. The trim is enhanced with rosy lighting and the walls feature photos of vintage burlesque stars. "A lot of steakhouses are cookie-cutter. Our whole idea was to have fun with the name," says Glazier. Dining at Strip House is like coming to a party, he suggests.
Customers are clamoring for New York Strip, filet mignon, prime rib, rib-eye and Kobe-style wagyu.
Patrons can find a similar party atmosphere at BOA, with restaurants in Santa Monica, CA and Las Vegas. The premise behind BOA was to take the tried-and-true steakhouse menu and update it in a high energy, sexy dining room. "People want a more unique escape. They want to be entertained," says Lee Maen, a partner at Innovative Dining Group, which operates BOA.
At the same time, patrons want to eat high-quality steak and BOA sets out to give them just that, says Maen. BOA's eight-ounce petit filet is one of the restaurant's most popular menu items, although it is also known for its 40-day dry-aged Angus New York Strip. At $42, the latter is the most expensive selection on the menu. "We start off with Kentucky bluegrassfed beef and then dry age it for 40 days. I think we're the only one in the country that does this," he says.
Low-Carb Diets Still a Factor
Contemporary, upscale steakhouses are also capitalizing on another growing trend: People are consuming an increasing amount of beef in high-end restaurants, thanks to popular Atkins-inspired lowcarb diets.
Consumers nationwide are clamoring for New York Strip, filet mignon, prime rib, rib-eye, and even new designer meats like Kobe-style wagyu. Kobe-style Japanese beef is now raised on select farms in the U.S. In fact, 52% of fine dining restaurants reported that beef sales were up last year over 2003, according to the National Restaurant Association's Tableservice Operator Survey. One-third of all of these operators reported that low-carb diets had a favorable impact on their business, with three out of five operators saying they believed customer demand for low-carb items was higher in 2004 than in 2003.
While beef is certainly the low-carb king at steakhouses, these restaurants have always offered items other than steak, including low-carb menu choices like seafood and poultry. "People just never talked about these menu offerings," says Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant based in New York, Las Vegas and Sonoma, CA. Today, they're playing up their varied menus.
Keeping up with the low-carb trend, some steakhouses have modified other offerings to appease customers. Take Fleming's, for example. "We used to serve a big basket of bread (before the meal). But 70% of the bread was not being eaten, so now we serve a crostini vegetable plate with wine-infused spreads," says Dearing.
The vegetable plates, as well as Fleming's varied menu, have struck a chord with diners. The Outback Steakhouse-owned chain now has 32 restaurants and is on track to have 50 open by the end of 2006. Comparable store sales at Fleming's were up 15.6% during the fourth quarter ended December 31, 2004 compared with the same quarter in 2003. Comparables sales jumped 11.6% for the five weeks ended March 26 compared to the same period in 2004.
In the late 1990s, Americans discovered they love to go out to eat steak.
Beef: It's What's for Dinner Out
Americans have indeed renewed their love affair with steak and are enjoying going out to steakhouses more than ever before—especially now that there are so many exciting choices, say restaurant consultants.
In the 1980s, Wolf explains, going out to a steakhouse was considered a big deal because people primarily cooked steak at home. But when the economic boom and Atkins diet craze hit during the late 1990s, people started flocking to steakhouses again. "We discovered we love to go out to eat steak. The restaurants know how to age it and cook it better than we do," says Wolf.
This is certainly evidenced by the numerous high-end chains—like Fleming's, Smith & Wollensky, The Palm, Ruth's Chris, and others—that are opening up new locations all over the country. Likewise, independent steakhouses, like Cleveland's Red, Santa Monica's Lincoln Steakhouse and Philadelphia's Barclay Prime, are also staking out prime turf in the competitive playing field.
"When you look at the history of steakhouses, they've proliferated and the chains have been successful," says Manfred Jachmich, owner and operator of Morgan's Steakhouse in Houston, which opened in April in the former Rotisserie for Beef and Bird location. "I've done a number of grill concepts here in Houston and with Morgan's, I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. With a steakhouse, people understand the concept even if each one has a different strategy," says Jachmich.
In Houston, for example, Fleming's appeals to women, Morton's attracts the business crowd and Strip House offers a sultry steakhouse experience. "Everyone has a different image. Morgan's is a chef-driven steakhouse," says Jachmich, who cooks meat exhibitionstyle over the former restaurant's rotisserie.
Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consulting firm, says there's certainly room for all types of steakhouses. Those that effectively differentiate themselves from the more traditional restaurants are proving that they too can succeed in a crowded marketplace, he notes.
Take Lincoln Steakhouse. With a $78 check average, Lincoln offers a varied menu that includes plenty of seafood for health-conscious Southern Californians. The chophouse with a sleek contemporary interior has watched its business increase by 10% a month since it opened in April 2004, says John Baydale, director of operations at Star Group Management, which runs the restaurant. He attributes this in part to Lincoln's great food, as well as a youthful and hip atmosphere that attracts large groups of female diners. Patrons, he says, love executive chef Jack Melson's Southern-inspired classic American favorites with a contemporary flair, like bone-in filet mignon for $40, Colorado rack of lamb for $32, Ahi tuna with seared sesame vegetable slaw for $24, and Southern red rice paella of shrimp, soft shell crab, alligator sausage and chicken in a tomato gravy for $24.
Even in America's heartland, steakhouses are proving that they can serve all-time favorites with a new twist. Red, which opened in Cleveland in December 2004, is described as "hip, hot, swank, cool" by executive chef Jonathan Bennett. Red's 50-plus-item menu includes seven steaks, three of which are aged primes. The menu also boasts a wide selection of pastas and seafood with a Mediterranean flair.
Owner Brad Friedlander, who also runs Cleveland's Moxie, was determined to offer the best steak in Cleveland in an inviting, postmodern 1950s-style steakhouse.
"This is a menu that I wanted to do for 15 years. It's timeless," says Friedlander.
Ways with Sides
Remember the days when the most exciting side dishes at your neighborhood steakhouse were creamed spinach and baked potatoes? Steakhouses have a come a long way since then—so have sides. Although some restaurants still feature old-fashioned favorites like sautèed spinach and mashed potatoes, many have poured attention into new items like escarole, tomatoes and garlic at Red; truffle whipped potatoes at Barclay Prime; tartar of surf and turf including Ahi tuna and Kobe James beef at Lincoln; and fried Jerusalem artichoke and spinach soufflè at Morgan's. "Do we need another steak and creamed spinach place?" says Manfred Jachmich of Morgan's. Maybe not. But, if the sides are infused with new flavors, some of these classics can rise to the occasion once again. Instead of a broccoli side, for example, Jachmich serves a leek and mushroom dish. Fleming's offers its own spin on potatoes with its house specialty: potatoes with cream, jalapeÒos and cheddar cheese. Charlie Palmer Steak is also on a mission to reinvent steakhouse sides with a new version of an American institution: the casserole. Inspired by childhood favorites from his mother's kitchen, Executive Chef Bryan Voltaggio recently unveiled cured tuna and shitake mushroom with egg noodles—an updated tuna noodle casserole—at the Washington, DC location. This updated favorite is made by curing tuna with a salt rub containing orange zest, coriander, pepper, fennel and picked thyme. The tuna is then marinated overnight and served with a creamy bèchamel and roasted shiitakes. Other casserole creations include a spin on the traditional baked pasta casserole: Ricotta-stuffed rigatoni with basil-scented coulis. The casseroles range from $7 to $9.