Steak Appeal

Forget fusion cuisine. These days, the upscale steakhouse is a sizzling trend.

September 26, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

The current popularity of high-end steakhouses is proof that old restaurant trends never die, they just disappear for a while. Suddenly it's quite chic to be enjoying well-marbled steaks again, dripping with butter and cuddled up next to a baked potato with sour cream. It's as if nouvelle cuisine, fusion fare and small plates never happened.

When restaurant consultant Clark Wolf had dinner with the late, great Julia Child for the last time this summer, their eating place of choice was Lucky's Steakhouse in Santa Barbara, Calif. That part of the country is foodie heaven, and they could have gone to almost any kind of restaurant they wanted. For the record, TV's French Chef, in a wheelchair and with an oxygen tank, had asparagus, a New York strip and a mini sundae for dessert.

"This is the real McCoy, this is a real trend," says Wolf, whose company is based in New York. "It's no longer so fashionable to go to a high-end French restaurant. Our new updated comfort food is steak."

Newsweek certainly thinks so. "Steakhouses are the sizzling new hot spots for hip urbanites," the magazine reports. Not to be outdone, Bon Appetit, in this month's annual restaurant issue, says, "The hottest trend this side of Atkins is the glammed-up steakhouse."

Celebrity chefs who were once known for their haute cuisine are now grilling beef. Jean-Georges Vongerichten's New York restaurant Jean Georges was awarded four stars by The New York Times for its French food a couple of years ago. He owns a number of other places that specialize in fine cuisine, including fusion restaurants. This year he opened V Steakhouse in the new Time Warner Center, following his launch of Prime Steakhouse in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

Laurent Tourondel is best known for his fine French fish restaurant Cello, which closed in 2002. He's back with BLT Steak in Manhattan. (The initials stand for "Bistro Laurent Tourondel," not "bacon, lettuce, tomato.")

Master chef Joachim Splichal followed his upscale Cal-French restaurant, Patina in Los Angeles, with three Nick & Stef's steakhouses.

Baltimore's best example of the new breed is Fleming's in the Inner Harbor, part of an upscale chain. Fleming's, which opened in 2001, has 100 wines by the glass, a contemporary decor, and traditional steakhouse fare.

"It's got a young, fun vibe, but it's still fabulously professional," says Karen Bokram, 36, who describes Fleming's as her go-to restaurant in Baltimore. She's someone who regularly eats out at the hot spots in L.A. and New York. Bokram, publisher and editor-in-chief of Girls' Life magazine, does a lot of entertaining; and she can depend on Fleming's to have a lively atmosphere, good food and professional service.

Jack W. Hoffberger, 35, a financial adviser at Legg Mason, can't count the number of times he's been to parties at Fleming's or Ruth's Chris in Baltimore. In his age group, he says, those are where people are going for special occasions. But he doesn't believe their appeal has much to do with the food, even if they do have great steaks. The trendy new steakhouses, he says, "are about going out and having a good time."

Hoffberger has eaten at most of Vongerichten's restaurants and says Jean Georges, with its French cuisine, is his favorite. While he had a great time at Prime, he would go back to any of Vongerichten's other restaurants first because their food is more interesting.

But French restaurants come and go. A steakhouse is forever -- or at least it sometimes seems that way.

"The steakhouse is a very resilient type of restaurant," says Octavio Becerra, vice president, chef and co-founder of the Patina Group. "We've had problems in the past with mad cow disease and high prices. But we're always amazed at how sturdy they are."

High-end steakhouses seem to be as close to a sure thing as you're going to find in the always chancy restaurant business.

"You see restaurants going the way their customers dictate," explains Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Restaurant Association. "Fine-dining restaurants in general are doing the best they have in several years as the economy has improved. And in the U.S., the popularity of beef just keeps getting stronger."

Even those who are consuming more fish and chicken at home for health reasons can relax a little and enjoy a sizzling steak when they eat out.

Part of the reason that beef is back in the limelight is, of course, America's favorite weight-loss diet. The low-carb mania has had a huge impact on the restaurant business, as it has on everything food-related. Beef prices may have shot up, but when a juicy steak is about the only food indulgence allowed, it's no surprise that the upscale steakhouse is the place to go for splurge dining.

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