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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.

 

Incentives aside, good-quality steak—we’re talking 24-ounce porterhouse, 18-ounce rib-eye, 11-ounce filet—is not cheap. 

When it comes to food costs, the chains have an advantage. “We have enormous buying power,” says Ferreira. Fleming’s is owned by OSI restaurant group, which also owns Outback Steakhouse and several other restaurant chains. Fleming’s serves USDA Prime beef (the top 2-to-4-percent of beef in the country), wet-aged four weeks. “It allows us to pass the savings on to our customers,” he says. “Our most expensive steak is the prime bone-in rib-eye. It’s $43.95.”

Capital Grille in Stamford is one of 44 of the steak houses owned by Darden, which also owns and operates LongHorn Steakhouse, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Seasons 52 and Bahama Breeze—1,800 restaurants in all. Capital Grille’s signature coffee-crusted sirloin with caramelized shallot butter is made from what managing partner Greg Varna calls “choice or higher” beef that is dry-aged 14 days in-house. It costs $42. Ruth’s Chris in Newington, a locally owned franchise, gets its wet-aged prime through two Midwestern meat vendors approved by the corporate office for sales to all 130 restaurants. 

The independent restaurants can’t compete on purchasing power, but find other ways to cut costs. Carmen Vacalebre, whose restaurant group includes three Carmen Anthony Fishhouses, speaks plainly: “I can’t purchase as well as they can, but I’ve been using Statewide Meat in New Haven since I started—I’m his biggest buyer. He ensures that I get the best certified-Angus beef, wet-aged a minimum of 21 days.”

At Central Steakhouse, chef Jeff Ghazali found savings by switching from buying precut steaks to whole carcasses, which he butchers himself. “The key is to have no waste,” he says of the “high choice” beef he gets from Stockyard in Chicago. High choice, the top 10 percent of choice, is less expensive than prime and, because the chains buy up the best prime, it’s a better bet for this small-scale chef-owner. “It’s better than prime that isn’t really prime,” he says with a knowing laugh. Butchering the meat himself allows him to create new cuts like the “strip loin” (the top of the loin), a 7-ounce steak he serves in Central’s surf-and-turf dish. (He makes gravy from the bones and trimmings.) On weekdays, he sells smaller, less expensive boneless steaks. “College students want a nice place to take a date,” he says, “and I hope they’ll come back when their parents are in town.” On weekends, when the restaurant is busiest, he offers bigger bone-in steaks and his new specialty: house dry-aged (14-day) rib-eyes. “That’s what the real steak eater wants,” he says. “It’s so beefy.”

David Burke Prime Steakhouse also distinguishes itself by air-drying Creekstone Farms (Ky.) prime natural, hormone-free beef on-site. Chef Chris Shea believes that the panel of Himalayan rock salt in the humidity-controlled refrigerated locker draws out moisture from the air and imparts an almost imperceptible saltiness to the meat. Looking around at the shelves stocked with whole portions of air-drying beef labeled with their dates, Shea smiles, “I can tell you with pride, it doesn’t get better than this.” They offer 30-, 40- and 55-day aged steaks. The cooks use the trimmings and bones to make a sauce they call “The Love,” which is brushed on the meat after grilling and served on the side. It’s also the base of their “Parisienne-style” onion soup. Meat trimmings go into the dry-aged burger.

Considering that dry-aging reduces the weight of the meat by about 25 percent, the cost of one of David Burke Prime’s signature 40-day rib-eye steaks (ranging from 14 to 18 ounces) is a good value at $49.

Over the last 15 years, steak houses have become more and more popular, the recent economic slump notwithstanding. When Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse opened in Newington 23 years ago, it was the first high-end national chain in the state and the 19th Ruth’s Chris to open. Today there are 130 worldwide. Vacalabre, a local businessman, steak lover and New York City steak house habitué (Smith & Wollensky till about 10 years ago, Del Frisco’s since then), opened his first steak house in Waterbury in 1996. “There weren’t  a whole lot of them,” he says. “It was the hottest concept at the time.” He opened his second Carmen Anthony’s Steakhouse in New Haven six years ago. The first Morton’s opened in Stamford 12 years ago, and in Hartford two years later. In 2000, Joseph Kustra, who had worked at the fabled Peter Lugar Steakhouse in Brooklyn for 15 years, opened Joseph’s Steakhouse in downtown Bridgeport, where he serves 21-day dry-aged USDA prime steaks. In 2002, Jeff Ghazali and his business partner opened Central Steakhouse after noticing that steak was the most popular dish on their Malaysian restaurant Bentara’s menu.

 

Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, a partially locally owned outlet of the national chain, opened in West Hartford in 2008, bringing a brighter contemporary vibe to the genre. (The first Fleming’s opened in 1998; now there are 31 across the country.) Capital Grille opened in Stamford in 2008.

Celebrity chefs were next to jump from the grill to the stockyard. Tom Colicchio partnered with Foxwoods to open Craftsteak in 2008. It offers a choice of sourced corn-fed dry-aged or wet-aged, grass-fed and Wagyu beef. David Burke, who was once the corporate chef for Smith & Wollensky, opened Prime at Foxwoods around the same time. Amid its Vegas-worthy decor, Prime is making old new again with tableside service (preparing Caesar salad, carving steak and putting the final flourishes on the “cake in the can”) and knowledgeable and personable staff.

Surely a sign of the health of the steak house is that these celebrity-name places haven’t spelled doom for Cedar’s Steak House, a Foxwoods-owned property that’s been there from the beginning in 1994. “We’re doing 3,700 to 4,000 covers a week,” says Robert Morgantini, the general manager of this traditional steak house with a loyal, longtime following.

Each Connecticut steak house has a different business model, yet whether a general manager describes himself as “just an employee,” or, as in Ferreira’s and Varna’s cases, as part owner, all these managers, partners, owners and chef-owners have something in common. They’re proud—proud of the quality of their products, the professionalism of their staff and all the ways they make their guests feel special. “We create an experience that makes you say ‘wow’,” says Varna. When Carmen Anthony says that no one cares more than a local owner, you believe him. But also talk to the staff at David Burke Prime.

Burke, who has three restaurants in New York City, one in Chicago and one in New Jersey, might not always be physically present at his Connecticut restaurant, but he is there in spirit. His name is invoked frequently by staff who have worked with him for years. A big laminated sign in the kitchen reads, “What would David want?”

To ride out the recession, many high-end steak houses have had to shave profit margins. Cutting quality was out of the question. “We have never done anything to compromise the quality of what we serve; even when the economy took a turn, we’ve never compromised quality or portions,” says Ferraro at Morton’s. And there’s a certain optimism these days in the voices at state steak houses—whether it’s chef Shea saying Prime’s doing 600 to 800 covers on Saturday nights, or Vacalebre declaring, “Once the recession is over, our brand will still be in place.”

Maybe they know that they’re on to something primal. “Steak has never gone out of style, and it never will,” says Ferreira.
 

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