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A Stampede for Steak

Boston Globe - By Alison Arnett, Globe Staff

Saturday, February 24, 2001 (Boston Globe) —  It wasn't supposed to happen this way. In the '90s, cutting back on beef, Americans embraced chicken breasts, savored extra-virgin olive oils, and sampled world cuisine. Steakhouses were passe, their strips, filet mignons, and tenderloins the high fat heart-wreckers of yesteryear.

So why is the steakhouse - with its retro hunks of meat and ritualized side dishes - all the rage today?

Beef now outsells chicken in restaurants, 7.2 billion servings to 5.2 billion in 1999. East Coast sophisticates as well as Midwestern farmers settle down to steaks when they dine out, bumping steakhouse traffic up by 5 percent, twice the increase of the restaurant industry as a whole.

"This is America," says Clark Wolf, a New York-based restaurant consultant. "We happen to love steak." That's the simple answer, but his amplification sheds more light on this renewed love affair with red meat. "There is a bit of creativity fatigue," he says. After a long economic boom and the rise of celebrity chefs and their esoteric flavors, "diners are looking for something familiar."

So, too, are Bostonians. In the past several years a landscape that once held the Capital Grille at one end, Grill 23 & Bar at the other, and Morton's of Chicago in between, now has more company. There's Abe & Louie's, Fleming's, and the Palm in the Back Bay; Plaza III in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and the elegant Oak Room of the Fairmont Copley Plaza. In Waltham, C.P. Nutting's, with former state treasurer Joe Malone as a co-owner, is reportedly going great guns. In Cambridge, Davio's in the Royal Sonesta Hotel has just been refurbished and its menu rethought, with steak as the star. In Brookline, Jae Chung, most known for creative pan-Asian sizzle, is featuring steaks and chops at his newest restaurant, Jae's Grill.

Early this year, demand pushed Grill 23 to expand its dining capacity by 50 percent; now sales are up 50 percent over the same period last year. And in June, restaurant mogul Todd English will open a glitzy steakhouse in the Boston Park Plaza Hotel.

Some call this phenomenon the natural result of a long economic boom, the euphoria of good times engendering a craving for the meat associated with luxury. After all, the late '80s witnessed a similar, though smaller, wave when Morton's and Grill 23 opened; Capital Grille braved the recessionary early '90s and was still a hit. Others see a return to a protein-heavy meal as a reaction to years of too much pasta. And as the firestorm in Britain over mad cow disease spreads to the rest of Europe and the US supply gets a scientific seal of approval, there's the sense that we're gorging on beef while the going is good.

Whatever it is, restaurateurs all over town say customers can't get enough of beef. "A good steak is a bit of a reward to yourself," says Radius chef-owner Michael Schlow, known for his finely-honed sauces and elegant dishes. His slow-roasted rib-eye with creamy potato puree is simple - and one of his bestsellers.

The menu of Pigalle, a new and elegant French restaurant near the Theater District, is succinct: four entrees plus a couple of specials. But of that list, one dish is a sliced sirloin with braised short ribs and black truffle cream potatoes, and another is a steak frites of rib-eye with creamed spinach. One evening's special is roast filet of beef with daube of oxtail; on weekends, there's a porterhouse steak for two. "Beef is definitely the cake winner," chef and co-owner Marc Orfaly says.

"We have to listen to what our customers tell us," says Steve DiFillippo, owner of two Davio's restaurants in the Boston area. His decision to boost the Cambridge Davio's roster of Northern Italian dishes with steak was prompted by diners asking, "Hey, Steve, do you have a filet mignon or a rib-eye steak," he says, adding that meat orders have been up about 30 percent in his restaurants over the last three years.

Consultant Wolf sees another reason for steak sales in restaurants. "It's part of the evolution," he says. "We don't do anything at home." As more people eat out more often, they're more likely to save steak purchases for dining out. And, he adds, they trust steakhouses to have the best stuff. "I think consumers are somewhat concerned about what they're buying," he says, fearful about quality in a supermarket setting.

The "long period of prosperity" also means that diners want to celebrate with the kind of dish associated for centuries with wealth, Wolf says. Even the current threat of an economic downturn affects this, says Milford Prewitt of the trade publication, The Nation's Restaurant News. "A guy may not go to the Lexus showroom to get a new model," when he's fearful about his stocks, but he figures "he still can afford a steak."

America's love affair with the steak is set against the stark contrast of Europe, where the fear of mad cow disease has swept from Britain onto the Continent. As the beef supply of country after country proved to be tainted, consumption rates have plummeted. Here, where beef cattle are not fed animal byproducts, the steak supply seems to be safe, and Americans are in a frenzy to consume as much as possible.

When it comes to health concerns, moderation is, as always, the mantra of nutritionists. Dr. C. Wayne Callaway, a noted nutritionist and associate clinical professor of medicine at George Washington University, agrees that reducing fat got a lot of attention in the early '90s. But, he says, the "overselling of `don't eat fat,"' resulted in many turning almost exclusively to carbohydrates and then gaining weight. So now comes the anticarb, high protein fad. "It's hard to make a blanket statement," he says, adding that Americans tend to go to extremes.

Changes in lifestyle - with less physical activity plus high fat, high salt, high sugar snacks - are bigger problems than a steak, he thinks. Many of his patients are at least partial vegetarians at home, but when they go out "they're paying for it, and want their money's worth."

So, even if steak lovers eat only chicken breasts and tofu at home, they still save indulgence for eating out. Some diners see value in a cut of steak no matter what the price. The double-cut filet mignon at Morton's rings in at $56 with nothing more accompanying it than bernaise sauce and a sprig of parsley, yet steakhouse diners rarely complain about the price.

Rich Evans, a contractor who lives in Cohasset, says he usually orders steak in restaurants. "I find it a little more filling," he says, adding that "I don't mind spending a little extra when I want to have a good steak."

Although steak tends to be associated with male diners, Linda Murray of Marblehead belies that generality. "I do love steak," says Murray, who goes out with women friends about once a month, often to steakhouses. "There's no way I can make it that good." Her choice is filet mignon, medium rare.

English and his partner, Jim Cafarelli, are banking on the craze continuing. "The desire to do a steakhouse has been around for at least four years," Cafarelli says. After going to dozens, he envisions one that goes against the grain of the men's club mold with dark wood and etched glass. English says diners want to know the source of their meat - just as they are interested in where vegetables are grown or how chickens are raised. So he'll let diners know steak origins - Kobe, Japan; Italian Chianina, grown in Montana; or Argentine beef.

Former treasurer Malone says he saw a steakhouse in Waltham as a good business proposition. The city has encouraged many restaurants in the last decade, especially ethnic ones, but the "steakhouse piece was missing." Jimmy Burke, who owns the Tuscan Grill and other restaurants, was Malone's adviser in the venture. The response has been great, says Malone. "Going back to basics" he adds, seems to be what a lot of people want.