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The juicy grilled steak is an American icon, and the high-end steak house is a temple of casual luxury. In bad economic times, when businesses cut back on expense-account dining, they get hit hard. But Connecticut steak houses have weathered the storm. Fear not, steak lovers, the steak house is strong. In fact, it’s evolving and getting even better.

“We felt the pinch,” says Carmen Vacalebre, owner of Carmen Anthony Steakhouses in Waterbury and New Haven. The 2009 year was the restaurants’ worst. “But sales are up for 2010,” he says. Over the last two years, many customers cut back on the highest-priced entrées, skipped appetizers and declined dessert. But the “pummeling is over,” according to the November 2010 industry report “Dinner Trends in the U.S.” Sales at Morton’s The Steakhouse plummeted in 2009 with a decline of 19.5 percent, but rose by 7.1 percent in the second quarter of 2010, according to the report. “People are spending more than they were a year ago,” agrees Josh Itkan, general manager of Morton’s in Hartford.

The steak house itself is changing. Once a bastion of male privilege, with plenty of dark wood, strong drinks and big steaks (and after-dinner cigars)—steak houses are lightening up and drawing new customers, men and women, with welcoming promotions and prix-fixe specials. Morton’s introduced Bar Bites and Power Hour, which offer $5 and $6 specials on food at the bar (four mini filet mignon sandwiches, for example), wine and beer. Itkan says it’s helped broaden the customer base.

“We have a very diverse age bracket, from 22-year-olds to people in their 80s,” he says. “In the past it was 30-to-60-year-olds.” Adds Frank Ferraro, the general manager of the Stamford Morton’s, “It’s opened up a different avenue for business entertainment, drawn younger professionals, and the female population in the bar is growing. It’s dispelled the myth of ‘the boys’ club.’”

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in West Hartford has a “5 for $6 till 7” bar promotion on wine and appetizers. Ed Ferreira, the managing partner, says he’s kept business “outstanding” by doing “a lot of things—being pro-active and creating value with smaller-portioned items, lowered wine prices and a burger bar menu.” Burgers? Yes. Once verboten, hamburgers are on the menu at traditional and New American steak houses alike. And there are deals. David Burke Prime at Foxwoods in Mashantucket, whose hip decor—tall, curved banquettes covered in black-and-white cowhide, horn-shaped red glass sconces and glowing panels of orange-pink Himalayan rock salt—is the antithesis of the traditional steak house, offers a $5 dry-aged burger Thursday through Saturday. “The most expensive thing in a restaurant is an empty seat,” says general manager Darragh Moore. “David would rather do a burger at 55 percent food costs—he’d rather reach out and have you here.” Central Steakhouse in downtown New Haven serves burgers at lunch, and on Tuesdays runs a $5 burger special (choice beef, homemade foccaccia bun and unusual toppings such as sweet red chili sauce on the Malaysian Street Hawker burger, a nod to chef/owner Hasni “Jeff” Ghazali’s homeland). Morton’s offers a $15 burger-and-fries every day, at the bar only.

Steak houses have tried to grow profits by boosting liquor sales. Morton’s has invested in a wine-and-spirits program, training managers to be sommeliers. In Stamford, Ferraro and his associate manager are certified sommeliers. “Fairfield County has a lot of discerning palates, and wine is a big part of the dining experience,” Ferraro says. “We want to make sure we have the knowledge to steer people to wines that pair well with their food.”

At Fleming’s there’s “The New Fleming’s 100,” 100 wines by the glass in a “user-friendly” menu that lists each varietal from lightest to most intense. Many are under $10 a glass. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Newington offers half-priced bottles of wine on Mondays.

The thinking behind the good deals is that customers will return on a special occasion or for business, and treat themselves to the real deal: a big, thick, well-marbled steak seared to their ideal doneness. Add hash brown potatoes, creamed spinach, a glass of bold, red wine and a decadent dessert and it’s feel-good city. It may be expensive, but attentive customer service, a steak house tradition, makes it feel worth it. Signature steaks at these steak houses cost from $40 to $50, sides not included.

Cash Cows

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