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.
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.
There's some talk of creating an "international" AOC (the French geographical designation for food and wine) for these wines, which would bring them more attention. Meantime, it's good to see that a restaurant chain — a recognizable brand with a predictable menu — can also encompass the occasional surprise.
The steakhouse landscape is shifting in other ways too. Tilman Fertitta, whose Landry's chain bought Morton's The Steakhouse earlier this year (along with the iconic McCormick & Schmick chain, as reported on Crosscut in January) has decreed that Morton's will henceforth sell a filet mignon for $39. "It's not going to be your daddy's steakhouse," he promised Bloomberg News.
For its part, Darden spent $60 million this year on two chains of seafood restaurants to provide more nutritional balance to its portfolio.
And it's defending itself against claims of employment discrimination, namely that people of color are relegated to back-of-house jobs. (For what it's worth, on my visits to Capital Grille over the past couple of years, the front-of-house serving staff has been a kaleidoscope of colors and genders.) More controversial, at least in Florida, is the practice of luring Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants to mid-size communities with promises of tax incentives. Opponents of the practice question why a company that will compete with established restaurants should get tax breaks, but desperate for jobs and economic growth, some communities are saying yes.
That said, there's good news, too. Prodded by Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign, Olive Garden and Red Lobster have revamped their children's menus to include more fruit and unlimited refills of low-fat milk. Capital Grille restaurants don't have children's menus, though. For the grownups, the Generous Pour program will have to do: almost free refills on wine.
If you go: The Capital Grille, 1301 Fourth Ave, Seattle, 206-382-0900