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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.