Year of the Cow

Boston’s already got a glut of steakhouses, and now even cutting-edge chefs are going into the meat-and-potatoes business. What’s driving the beef bonanza, and what it means for our hard-won reputation as a great dining town.

On a Saturday night at the Oak Room in the Copley Fairmont, the mounted deer heads on the carved wood walls overlook a scene of calculated prosperity. Women with fresh blowouts and showy diamonds eat their salads and petite tenderloins, while thick-fisted men carve into rosy hunks of meat. The waiters, avuncular and a bit weary-seeming, move among upholstered banquettes, turning off the little table lamps as guests leave, collecting the silver cutlery. The food is exactly what you’d expect: massive cuts, cooked to order; gratin dishes of spinach; wan broiled tomatoes; plates of olives like your great-aunt’s relish tray. This is the comforting steakhouse of your childhood (if your childhood was sufficiently affluent), recalling New York–style prototypes like the Palm and Peter Luger.

A few blocks away, where chef Pino Maffeo recently turned his avant-garde Restaurant L into Boston Public, the only carved wood is found on the antique Chinese screens that frame a minimalist dining room in muted shades of brown. The crowd is all-ages, multiethnic, urban and suburban. Instead of olives, waiters bring thyme-spiced flatbread, and the steaks are crowned with pats of miso butter. And yet, while his restaurant has almost nothing in common with the Oak Room save for the rib-eye, New York sirloin, and filet that it serves, Maffeo makes it clear that Boston Public is a steakhouse, too.

It is a striking change in course: Three years ago, when Restaurant L first debuted, Maffeo was considered one of the city’s edgiest chefs, a push-the-envelope type of guy famous for using centrifuges to clarify his sauces and layering his margarita sponge cake with homemade pop rocks. In opening a steakhouse, he’s chosen a cuisine where “technique” amounts to creating artfully placed grill marks, and “innovation” is adding herbs to the mashed potatoes. And he’s not the only one. This year alone, Ken Oringer and Jamie Mammano, celebrated chefs best known for their adventurous French restaurants, have joined the herd with KO Prime and Mooo, respectively. Another Francophile restaurateur, Seth Woods of Aquitaine and Gaslight, will open Prime 128 in Newton by early 2008.

It’s certainly a surprising trend, in this otherwise eco- and health-conscious era. But when you crunch the numbers, the fact that the steakhouse is sweeping the Boston food scene makes perfect—if slightly disheartening—sense.

The story of the steakhouse, like that of so many business booms, is one of modest beginnings accelerating into frenzy. First there was Grill 23 & Bar, which opened in the ’80s, when the local economy was high on real estate and what were then quaintly known as microcomputers. Morton’s arrived a few years later, and in the mid-’90s, as dot-coms raised the tide once more, the suits welcomed spots like Capital Grille, Plaza III, Abe & Louie’s, the Palm, and the Oak Room. It has long been the case that steakhouses follow bull markets, and now Boston had a respectable smattering of places to entertain a client over a decent cut of beef.

All the same, these new steakhouses remained background players—comfortable destinations for diners with conventional tastes and cash to spend, but most assuredly not the sort of place any respectable foodie would pay any mind. And as the ’90s gave way to the ’00s, the chowhound crowd (as well as their rich friends) turned their attention to star chefs like Oringer, Barbara Lynch, Todd English, Lydia Shire, and Ming Tsai. Restaurants became galleries of edible art, shrines to the artist’s vision; eating at the spot of the moment was a notch on your belt. “People began experimenting,” says Chris Haynes, a restaurant publicist who started his firm, CBH Communications, during that time. “We’re a city that likes to learn, and all of a sudden, eating out was like a hobby.”

Fleming’s opened in 2000, followed by English’s Bonfire in 2001 and Smith & Wollensky in 2004. While the trio’s Park Plaza locations made them a convenient choice for conventioneers, the restaurants themselves weren’t important. That changed in late 2004, when the swanky, conspicuously younger-feeling Metropolitan Club, a steakhouse-lounge in Chestnut Hill, got creative with the usual salad/meat/sides formula and became the restaurant that everyone was talking about.

People were eating meat again, partly due to Atkins and partly to the post-9/11 craving for comforting, familiar—and ultra-American—fare. Meanwhile, the celebrity-chef fad was showing signs of peaking (remember Emeril’s doomed NBC sitcom?). In stepped the steakhouses to woo all those diners who’d wearied of being challenged. As momentum built, even the chains had an easy shot at success: When Ruth’s Chris took over the old Maison Robert space in 2005, it was an instant hit.

Now we’re reaching critical mass, with no signs of slowing. This year’s wave has had KO Prime and Mooo (née Spire and the Federalist) joining Boston Public in swapping tasting menus for slabs of protein. Add to that the suburban outposts, including a planned Ruth’s Chris in Dedham; the lesser chains, like Houston’s; and the countless Outbacks and Bugaboo Creeks, and you can’t help but wonder: Can one city really eat that much beef?

The answer, it would appear, is yes. Of the most popular Boston restaurants listed on the website OpenTable, steakhouses typically occupy three of the top five slots. Last year, Ruth’s Chris cleared about $10 million. And according to Grill 23 owner Ken Himmel, his restaurant, which made $3.2 million in its first year in operation 24 years ago, “has a good shot of doing $16 million” by the time the books close on 2007.

Talking about steakhouses, you’re quickly reminded that the restaurant business is just that—a business. Where your favorite little French place with the local morels and house-made bread caters to diners’ sentimentality, steakhouses are more straightforward. The food is simpler to prepare, and not nearly as perishable as, say, sushi-grade fish. Less ambitious chains can hire cheaper broiler cooks, who talk about “product” and “protein,” instead of purveyors and ingredients. It’s not that there’s no heart in it, but yeah: It’s about the money.

Other financial factors come into play. Consider where most of the steakhouses are located: the Back Bay, Copley, the Theater District, the Financial District. Commercial rents in those neighborhoods average $100 per square foot (in other parts of the city, it’s closer to $40). Even in
the South End, which has so far maintained more variety in its culinary mix, many of the restaurateurs own more than one property (think of Barbara Lynch’s multiple South End boîtes, or Andy Husbands’s Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel); this affords them more than one source of income and allows for buying materials in bulk. Smaller operators can’t compete, and so the one-off bistros and quirky cafés head out to Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Cambridge, and the suburbs. When small restaurants do launch close to downtown, it’s often in slightly left-of-center locations, like Tim Cushman’s haute Japanese spot O Ya, tucked into the Leather District. “Every restaurateur would tell you we’re nuts,” says Cushman, “going into a space that no one knows and doing a food that people aren’t familiar with. So far, so good—but we don’t take anything for granted.”

“If you’re going to open a restaurant in Boston right now, you’ve got to be a recognized name or have a killer concept,” says Charlie Perkins, owner of the Boston Restaurant Group, a real estate firm that brokers restaurant deals, including the one that brought Ruth’s Chris to town. “The barriers to entry are so high. The cost of construction is up 25 percent. Rents are steep. A liquor license can cost $250,000, and in Back Bay they can go for as high as $400,000. I get calls from young chefs wanting to open in the city and I tell them, ‘You just can’t.’”

Boston isn’t the only city in the midst of a red-meat swoon. Vegas is full of steakhouses. In New York, top restaurateurs like Laurent Tourondel, Jeffrey Chodorow, and Tom Colicchio have opened their own temples of beef. And Wolfgang Puck’s newest outpost in Beverly Hills is the aptly named Cut, which just got a rave review from New York Times critic Frank Bruni.

Still, the steakhouse boom has hit more intensely here. Insiders point to Boston’s oft-repeated reputation for being politically liberal but gustatorily close-minded, and say that although the city has experienced a surge of risk-taking chefs, the population has not yet caught up. “Bostonians don’t like froufrou food,” says Seth Woods, whose Prime 128 will stick close to the modern New York steakhouse model. “Steakhouses appeal to a large swath of people, and if you get them in the door, you can sneak some cuisine by them.” Jay Murray, executive chef at Grill 23 since 1998, adds, “There’s a core group—maybe 5,000 people—who will try cutting-edge restaurants about every year and a half. But they’re not going back every week.” Steak, on the other hand, always sells.

This is what Pino Maffeo learned with Restaurant L, which appealed chiefly to “chefs and food writers,” as he puts it. “When the Boston diner reads that you’re using chemistry to make food taste better, they think, Science and food? There’s no connection,” he says. Six months after Maffeo and partners Nino Trotta and Olzhas Tugelbayev took over the space from owner Debi Greenberg and reopened it as Boston Public, business is better. “What’s changed in the kitchen? Nothing,” he says. The menu retains many of the items from Restaurant L, like Maffeo’s signature Laotian ribs. “But I definitely notice a different clientele,” he says.

In fact, that clientele—specifically, corporate types—is the golden ticket. Everyone’s looking to tap the mother lode of execs with expense accounts. “The business set doesn’t go to Aquitaine,” Woods says. “It’s too bistro. The tables are too close. It doesn’t have big seats.” In other words, it’s not a good place to settle in and close a deal. Prime 128, meanwhile, will be designed for privacy, and located amid the scores of office parks that dot the highway from which it takes its name.

Boston has seen this sort of culinary pileup before, from burgers to brasseries to cupcakes. But the steak boom represents a loss of diversity that has many feeling let down, even embarrassed. On the foodie website Chowhound, a thread titled “Too Many Steak Houses in Boston” begins with a modest suggestion: “I propose the City of Boston start limiting the number of licenses they give to chain steak houses.”

The chagrin stems from what steakhouses signify, which is to say, excess: huge slabs of meat, big potatoes, giant wedges of cheesecake. Meanwhile, the popular discourse on food-—in the pages of the New York Times dining section, in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, at the local meetings of the Slow Food organization—is focused on organics and sustainability, on zero trans fat and food miles. And our collective infatuation with red meat isn’t just making us seem culturally out of it. We look like bad citizens, too.

Most cattle bound for the slaughterhouse are fed a diet heavy in corn, which requires more water and fertilizer than other crops. Fertilizers, in turn, are made from fossil fuels. Then there’s the fact that cows are wired to eat grass, not corn, which can irritate their digestive tracts and lead to large-scale antibiotic dosing, not to mention excessive methane passing into the atmosphere, and…it gets messy. “It’s highly unsustainable,” says Peter Hoffman, chef-owner of Savoy in New York and board member of the Boston-based Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit that promotes eco-sensitive eating. While restaurants like the Met Club, Boston Public, KO Prime, and Mooo make a point of offering more environmentally friendly grass-fed beef as an option, there’s still a vast amount of corn-fed beef moving through this city every day. Spikes in the price of corn, brought about by the demand for ethanol, haven’t prompted the chains to embrace grass-fed beef, and aren’t likely to any time soon: Since people expect to splurge for a steak, restaurants can share some of the financial burden with customers who won’t be scared off by moderately higher checks. Jay Murray of Grill 23 estimates a 14-ounce corn-fed New York sirloin costs $8 more than it did just a year ago; to soften the blow, he’s been able to raise the menu price by $5, to $44.

At the height of the celebrity-chef craze, restaurants won praise when they were dubbed visionary and individualistic. The steakhouse uprising is built on the contention that vision and individuality are not at all what local diners want. To critics it looks like an overreaction at best, a play for easy money at worst. “There may be some truth to the argument that people got tired of reading menus they didn’t understand,” says Hoffman. “But I don’t think chefs had to embrace steak in response to that.” Tony Maws, chef-owner of Cambridge’s Craigie Street Bistrot, agrees, saying, “We often use the excuse ‘Boston doesn’t get it.’ But actually, they do, provided you know how to present something and have a staff that can explain and offer alternatives. There are a lot of people who are well traveled and not foreign to the idea of eating interesting food.”

He’s right, of c
ourse. But that doesn’t change the fact that for now, steakhouses rule. Much as local dining elites might bemoan this reality, it’s going to take a major cultural shift to turn Bostonians away from the cow. “People just love it,” says Oringer, who boasts that KO Prime has done “very well” since opening in May. “You can’t deny it. Especially in this town.”