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The state of local steakhouses

With lower prices than its steakhouse neighbors, Seattle's stately elder sibling to Olive Garden and Red Lobster is making some decidedly Northwest claims about its beef.
Capital Grille's sirloin.

Capital Grille's sirloin. Ronald Holden

Steaks in an aging locker at The Capital Grille.

Steaks in an aging locker at The Capital Grille. Ronald Holden

The last time I wrote about steakhouses for Crosscut in February 2010, I wondered whether Seattle diners would fork over $100 for a piece of meat (admittedly, very good meat) at the Metropolitan Grill. The answer, in case you're wondering, was a resounding yes.

But not everyone wants to drop a Benjamin on dinner for one, so it was time for another survey, for cats like myself who are no longer quite that fat. Which leads us down a road more traveled, to a grove of Italian olive trees.

Before you scoff, pause and consider: Darden Restaurants, landlord of the garden (and fisher of its red crustaceans), is the world's largest chain of full-service restaurants, including Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Founded in 1968, Darden now encompasses nearly 2,000 locations, employs close to 200,000, serves 400 million meals a year, and generates $7.2 billion in revenue. And lest you think it's all mid-market, suburban, shopping-mall pablum, keep in mind that the Darden corral also includes a chain of some 40 upper-end steak houses called The Capital Grille, with a Seattle outpost in the Cobb Building.

(The 1300 block of Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle has turned into a real restaurant row in the past couple of years. You can start at Purple, on the southwest corner of Fourth and University, cross the street heading north, and stumble into The Capital Grille before getting to Potbelly Sandwich Shop and Michael Mina's RN74.)

Yes, Darden's "culinary inspirations," as they're called, "come from the fishing villages of Maine, the family tables of Italy and the American West," skillfully evoking traditions that probably never existed.

Now, nothing against Seattle's fine stable of locally owned steak houses (The Met, El Gaucho, Daniel's Broiler, John Howie Steak, The Brooklyn, Jak's) or the multi-unit, out-of-town entries (Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Sullivan's) which vie with The Capital Grille for upscale business customers. CG aims to match the competition on quality and beat them on price.

The priciest item at CG is a $46, 24-oz, dry-aged Porterhouse; at The Met, it would set you back $68. At El Gaucho, they'll wheel the carving cart to your table with a 35-oz Porterhouse for 135 clams and divide it for two. Point being, CG underprices the locals because, they say, they purchase their beef locally and dry-age it in-house, in the 6,000 square-foot basement below their 8,000 square-foot restaurant.

Says Managing Partner Nic Kassis, a transplanted Australian, "We strive to provide extraordinary service and value."

Steak houses, of course, are a highly competitive niche, especially since they seem immune to the pressures of a distressed economy. You wouldn't want to go there for a blind date; that's what quaint neighborhood bistros are for. But steak houses are the default location for expense-account dinners, the business equivalent of a first date, if you will.

Another wrinkle: the folks who eat those dinners can also be talked into buying better wine than they might drink at home. Fleming's, which pulled out of Seattle, had a notable wine list. El Gaucho, Met Grill, John Howie and Sullivan's all have top-level sommeliers. At Capital Grille, the wine guru (back at Florida headquarters) is George Miliotes, one of fewer than 200 Master Sommeliers in the US.

In addition to compiling a wine list of big reds from California and Bordeaux, Miliotes has come up with a concept called "Generous Pour." For two months every summer (until Labor Day), diners can pay $25 and get up to nine wine pairings. An apéritif of Italian bubbles, a quartet of California stalwarts (Villa Mt. Eden pinot noir, Ferrari-Carano and Conn Creek cabs, Gary Farrell chardonnay), a fine Bordeaux, a decent Italian blend, a very pleasant South African dessert wine.

At a dinner earlier this month for members of the media I was particularly pleased that the ninth member of this year's list was a wine from the Slovenian side of northeast Italy's Collio region (where it's called Brda), made from ribolla gialla grapes.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Aug 21, 11:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Most all of my best steak dinners were in Omaha and Kansas City years ago for far less coin. Hereford House, Majestic, Golden Ox, Jess and Jims, and Jennies in Kansas City come to mind.

animalal

Posted Tue, Aug 21, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

The Spudder in Tulsa was excellent, and the restaurant is filled with the owner's collection of oil industry memorabilia.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Aug 21, 7:40 p.m. Inappropriate

The best steakhouse in Seattle is in Renton. It is the Melrose Grille. The prices are proletarian, the ambiance is casual, the libations are filled to the brim, and the service is akin to a diner with class. There is no need to drop several C-notes on a dinner for two in a downtown Seattle "posh-a-teria" when you can drive a few miles to eat like it is 1955. I like to refer to Melrose as "The People's Steakhouse."

Melrose Grill
(425) 254-0759
819 Houser Way S, Renton, WA

Posted Wed, Aug 22, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for the tip, grousefinder! "Proletarian" pricing is hard to find these days.

Meantime, the Peter Luger chain warns that this summer's drought is going to push steakhouse prices even higher: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-21/peter-luger-steak-prices-may-soar-as-drought-culls-herds.html

Posted Wed, Aug 22, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's a vote for Jack's Bar and Grill in downtown Redding, California. A terrific stop on I-5. Big steaks; big drinks; big friendly locals; looks like it might have in the 1940's. Get there early because there are no reservations, no pretense, and the place is small and always packed. Probably best to plan to stay overnight, since unexpected conversations with strangers often ensue.

gabowker

Posted Thu, Aug 23, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Gagowker, you jogged my memory!! Further down south on I-5 in California is the Harris Ranch hotel and steak house property just off the Coalinga exit. 2 great meals about 20 years ago; hope it's still open!

animalal

Posted Tue, Sep 18, 5:54 a.m. Inappropriate

animalal, Harris Ranch's web site is still up, and says the restaurant is still open. (In my experience, you can usually find hamburger from them at Grocery Outlet, too.)

hbobrien

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