More steak, please: Capital Grille tries its chops Downtown
Entrees at The Capital Grille include porterhouse steak
The Capital Grille's Shellfish platter
The Capital Grille's stores include wine cellars such as this.
Share with others:
It seems that Pittsburghers just can't get their fill of sirloin, filet mignon and rib eye.
At least that's what the folks at The Capital Grille, the wildly popular national steak house chain, are betting as they prepare to open their first Pittsburgh outlet tomorrow in the former Lazarus building, Downtown.
Judging by the reactions from some diners who had been invited to a series of preview lunches and dinners last week, the upscale chop house will do just fine in a town that already boasts Ruth's Chris Steak House, Morton's, The Steakhouse and Hyde Park Prime Steak -- while seeking to set itself apart from the rest of the pack.
At first blush, The Capital Grille seems to shout expense account/business lunch/men's club, with the obligatory dark wood paneling, thick carpets, gleaming marble and portraits of the two Andrews, Mellon and Carnegie -- although muckraking journalist Nellie Bly is on the wall, too, along with someone named "Frederick McFeely Rogers" -- Fred Rogers, to you.
"It seems to be a more elegant and clubby atmosphere than Ruth's Chris," said Lynette Lederman of Squirrel Hill, who admitted she had never been to Morton's, whose decor is somewhat similar. But her daughter, a Chicago resident, had been raving about the restaurant to her. "She's been a Capital Grille groupie for years."
While some of the lunch menu's items -- from the famously dry-aged, hand-cut $24 sirloin to a delectable $12 cheeseburger made from chopped sirloin, smoked bacon and sweet onions -- might require a trip to the emergency room afterward to pump out the arteries, there were healthier choices available, too.
Ms. Lederman's dining companion, Selena Schmidt, raved about a vegetable side dish that included yellow wax beans, tomatoes and pattypan squash.
"It was really different, really refreshing," said Ms. Schmidt of the North Side. "It wasn't like, 'Hey, here's a head of broccoli.' It was much more interesting than that."
Nationally, a lot of restaurant goers share her assessment: The Capital Grille ranked first in a 2006 Consumer Reports readers' survey, just ahead of Ruth's Chris Steak House, which came in second, and Morton's, The Steakhouse, which came in third.
"I think they're definitely going to give these other places a run for their money," said North Hills restaurant broker Terri Sokoloff, one of those taking in a preview lunch at The Capital Grille Wednesday. "The servers were really trained well, it seemed, and there was a lot of attention to detail. Of course, everyone likes everything new."
When it comes to food fashions, steak definitely sizzles these days -- in the boardroom as well as the dining room. Last week, Darden Restaurants Inc., owner of twin moneymakers The Olive Garden and Red Lobster, forked over $1.19 billion to Capital Grille's parent company, Rare Hospitality Inc., which also owns Longhorn Steakhouse, a lower-end chain.
With only 28 Capital Grille outlets compared with 109 for Ruth's Chris and 74 for Morton's, Darden reportedly sees room for growth, said Michael Whiteman, a New York-based restaurant consultant. But he doesn't believe any upscale steak house concept can grow into hundreds of restaurants because the American market is too thin for that.
Still, even the celebrity chefs are getting into the act -- Wolfgang Puck, Thomas Colicchio and other big names in food are opening glitzy "designer" steak houses under their own imprint -- veritable showplaces that forgo the typical men's club dark wood paneling for skylights, "water walls" and other lighter touches to lure women diners. They also star $170 plates of Wagyu beef (the American version of the much-famed Kobe) and side dishes that go far beyond traditional creamed spinach and potatoes Lyonnaise.
Pittsburgh isn't at the chef-owned level yet -- they're mostly concentrated in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlantic City. But Mr. Whiteman believes it can be, especially now that the city will soon have a casino.
"The average person visiting a Pittsburgh casino will have less money to throw around than a visitor to Las Vegas, but there still will be some proportion of high rollers and wealthy people who will want to show off or give back their winnings, so a casino is a perfect venue for a chef-driven steak house," he said. "My sense is that a steak-lover's town like Pittsburgh will embrace these new chef-driven restaurants so long as the experience isn't overloaded with who-are-you-kidding razzmatazz.
"The side orders generally are more enticing than those offered by chain steakeries, food presentations are more exciting and there are more interesting flavor profiles than those offered by a dumb hunk of meat on a plate," he added. "That said, you have to remember that traditional steak houses are a cliche for good reason -- no one doesn't understand them."
That may be why The Capital Grille is a slam dunk for tradition-minded Pittsburghers -- or maybe not.
Nancy Bernard of Forest Hills was a guest at one of the preview dinners last week. She loved the food, finding the servings less "gargantuan" than Morton's -- especially the flourless chocolate cake for dessert -- but remained skeptical about its prospects, given the prices and the location.
"It won't be a question of food but of the neighborhood," she said, noting that while condominiums are planned for the former Lazarus building, "those tenants alone won't be able to keep it afloat. Perhaps they'll coax the pre-Benedum/Heinz Hall crowd with dinner specials.
"But Pittsburgh has too many problems in my opinion to support such luxurious restaurants."
First Published August 24, 2007 5:17 pm