1. "We're too popular for our own good."
Got beef? Despite the sluggish economy and dietary warnings about too much red meat, steakhouses have (pardon the pun) done well in recent years. For 2011, sales for the premium steak restaurant category are projected to grow 6.1 percent, compared with 2.1 percent for the broader full-service chain restaurant category, according to market researcher IBIS World. Gains are more dramatic in some markets: In New York the number of major steakhouses featured in Zagat restaurant guides has increased sevenfold over the past 30 years, to about 125 today, says cochair and cofounder Tim Zagat. The problem with all this growth: concern there may not be enough quality beef to go around, given that the best steakhouses typically serve USDA-graded prime, which accounts for just 3 percent of the total supply in the country. What's more, the boom undermines the idea of steakhouses as unique destinations for special occasions. "It's a sea of sameness," says Mathew Mandeltort, senior consultant with Technomic, a firm that tracks the food-service industry.
2. "We make our steaks sound more special than they are..."
Given that prime beef is expensive and always in short supply, many steakhouses try to find clever ways to serve something other than that richly marbled and flavorful grade of meat. For example, steakhouses will boast of serving Angus -- a breed that's considered one of the better options available -- without always clarifying whether it's Angus prime or Angus choice (the grade below prime). "I don't think consumers are educated enough to know the difference, so restaurants take advantage of that," says Doug Bush, sales manager at Florida meat supplier Bush Brothers Provision Co. Even knowing the breed name alone won't help, since there's Certified Angus Beef (a registered brand, endorsed by the American Angus Association) and other Angus (fast-food chains offer Angus burgers, but they may not be from cattle that meet certified standards of marbling, flavor and juiciness). How to know what you're eating? Ask about the sourcing of the steak.
3. "...and even then, we don't always prepare them properly."
These days, beef buffs may find it increasingly difficult to get a steakhouse steak with the proper sear -- that telltale crusty texture, which signals that all the juice has been locked inside. Chefs can argue about method -- grilling over an open flame versus broiling -- but there's little disagreement that some common practices in busy steakhouses result in a less-than-ideal crust. One is precooking steaks earlier in the day, then finishing them when a customer places an order (all those juices escape during the first stage of cooking). Another is cramming too many steaks into a broiler at once, which plays havoc with cooking temperatures. Finally, the quality of beef matters, since marbling makes for a good sear. "The better the steak, the better the char," says celeb chef, TV personality and steak connoisseur Michael Lomonaco, of Porter House New York.
4. "More menu options aren't always a good thing."
Seafood at a steakhouse? Or a fanciful plate of pasta? It seems more the rule than the exception these days. But critics and industry observers alike contend that when steakhouses step outside their comfort zone, the results aren't always so impressive. A recent newspaper review tells of a steakhouse in Dallas that served "dryish" seared tuna (paired with a "soapy" Asian slaw); another, in Chicago, made a wet mess of a lobster roll ("too much watered-down mayo"); and one in New York offered a veal Marsala and chicken parm that a diner would "regret" ordering. Says award-winning food blogger Jan Norris, "The most successful steakhouses do one thing and do it well." But that thinking hasn't deterred many steakhouses from continuing to push limits. Consider, for example, the recently opened Modern Steak in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose eclectic menu includes non-steak specialities like maple-glazed salmon and "day boat" scallops with roasted salsify and "truffled clementine vinaigrette." A spokesperson for Modern Steak says the eatery is up to the task: "We have a huge emphasis on finesse and execution."
5. "We cater to corporate regulars."
Steakhouses were tailor-made for the corporate set, who like to entertain in style. Morton CEO Christopher Artinan has said that about 70 percent of his business is via corporate accounts. That's all well and good, but what does it mean for the couple looking to have a special evening? Industry veterans say the emphasis on business entertaining can result in less attention for those date-night tables, since corporate customers are likely to have much higher checks and tips. It's why some restaurateurs make a point of having managers stop by every table -- a "touch," as it's called in the industry -- to ensure small and large parties alike are getting good service.
6. "You see a wine list. We see $ signs."
Few things pair better with a steak than a full-bodied red wine, and steakhouses try to capitalize as much as possible on the beef vino connection, often stocking their lists with $100-plus bottles -- or $500 or $1,000 ones -- knowing they've got a captive audience. It's not that the markups are necessarily higher at steakhouses than at other restaurants; most fine-dining establishments charge about twice the retail price per bottle, somewhat less for more expensive ones. Rather, it's that they tend to offer fewer affordable options. Keep that in mind, say wine cognoscenti, and seek out steakhouses with larger lists or ones that feature bottles from places known for their sipping values -- say, Spain or South America.
7. "Our sides are pricier than ever."
In high-end steakhouses, sides are generally a la carte -- it's where these restaurants can rake in some real profits. (The cost of the raw ingredients in that $8 dish of hash browns: pennies on the dollar.) But lately, steakhouses are taking sides to the next level. At The Strip House's New York location, the $12 spuds come fried in goose fat; at Mastro's Steakhouse in Chicago, they're mashed with lobster meat for $18 (that's for the half order). Veggies are getting the same treatment. Wolfgang Puck's Cut in Beverly Hills offers $12 creamed spinach topped with a fried organic egg -- cheaper than the wild field mushrooms with Japanese shishito peppers, which goes for $19. Restaurants say fancier sides require fancier ingredients and prep -- hence, the higher costs. ("Our prices are dictated by the quality of ingredients," says a spokesperson for Cut. "We buy directly from the highest-quality purveyors and local farmers.") But purists say fancy-schmancy sides detract from what should be the focus. "All you need with a good steak is a salt-crusted baked potato and maybe a side of saut ed mushrooms," says Florida restaurateur Ken Wade.
8. "We outsource dessert."
Think steakhouses make their own "signature" cheesecakes and chocolate cakes? While many boast about their desserts, few have a pastry chef on staff. So don't be surprised if the Cheesecake Factory, which has a thriving food-service business, has provided your favorite steakhouse with that slice of decadence. It works great with a good supplier like a quality local bakery. The problem is the prevalence of mass-produced desserts. "We're talking refrigerated and frozen," says restaurateur David Manero, who once partnered with Danny DeVito on a steakhouse in Miami Beach -- and whose restaurants all make their desserts in-house.
9. "Counting calories? This could get ugly."
Most folks don't go to a steakhouse expecting diet fare. But if they knew what a splurge it was, they might rethink some choices. The steak itself isn't so bad: An 8-ounce portion of a leaner cut (say, filet mignon) can come in under 400 calories. But pile on the apps and sides, and it's another story. A 1997 study of steakhouse offerings by the Center for Science in the Public Interest made waves for highlighting cheese fries that topped 3,000 calories and fried onions (yes, Outback's Bloomin' Onion) that contained 1,600 or more calories. Some steakhouses do post calories on their websites; Outback goes so far as to list "Under 500" options (two lobster tails with "tangy tomato salad" and broccoli). As for the Bloomin' Onion, a spokesperson says it's one of the chain's "most iconic -- and delicious -- menu items." And it's intended to be shared.
10. "We're coasting on our former glory."
Many steakhouses remain fine-dining fixtures, but not all have escaped critique. A California Morton's got a dismal review from the Sacramento Bee, which likened dining at the pricey chain to paying $75,000 for a Honda Civic. Similarly, a Ruth's Chris Steak House was lashed by an Orlando Sentinel reviewer for a T-bone that tasted "as though it had been seasoned with lighter fluid." The reviews from amateurs can be even harsher. Take these comments about Old Homestead, New York's oldest steakhouse, on a popular site for foodies: "Stay away," carps one diner. "All hype, no substance," says another. (For their part, a Morton's spokesperson says, "We pride ourselves on being among the best steakhouses in every city we are in"; Old Homestead proprietor Mark Sherry notes the restaurant's long history, saying "we take [comments] into consideration on an operational level." Ruth's Chris did not respond to requests for comment.) But nothing quite tops the outcry from New York restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, when his Kobe Club took a drubbing from New York Times reviewer Frank Bruni in 2007. Chodorow challenged Bruni's integrity and knowledge in a full-page ad, noting that "Kobe Club is booming." The steakhouse closed in 2009.