Steak houses battle for supremacy in traditional seafood city
Posted: 8:35 pm Thu, October 22, 2009
Confounding the worst economic times since The Great Depression and the multitude of warnings about red meat and cardiac arrest, no fewer than eight high-end steak houses exist within easy walking distance of each other in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor area. A ninth, the highly acclaimed Prime Rib — the city’s oldest steak house — is only an eight-block walk from the Inner Harbor.
Unlike the 44-year-old Prime Rib, which owner Buzz BeLer says is thriving thanks to changes in the menu and dress code to accommodate the times, most of the Inner Harbor steak houses are parts of national chains. But these are not mass-production emporiums.
Each is striving to offer something unique in a high-priced, highly competitive environment to attract tourists, local business workers and families from the city and its environs. That’s no easy task in an economy that’s left more Americans than ever saving their money instead of spending it and corporations watching expense accounts like Ebenezer Scrooge.
The latest addition to the steak house array, Sullivan’s, opened in February at the height of the national economic panic. Located in the Verizon building at Pratt and Light streets, Tina Lavelle, Sullivan’s manager, acknowledged, “People aren’t going out and spending $15 on a martini or $50 on a steak anymore … so we’ve built our menus and our wine list knowing what the economy is.”
That still doesn’t make it cheap. A martini or other cocktail at Sullivan’s runs more than $10 including tax, and a 24-ounce Porterhouse steak costs $40.
But Lavelle says there are plenty of less expensive alternatives, such as a prix fixe menu of three courses for $34.95 and a promotion on Thursday evenings, called “Swinging at Sully’s,” that offers a $5 martini, $5 bar entrée and a $5 glass of wine. Combine these offerings with live music in the bar area, a uniquely heated patio for cigar smokers, and discount valet parking and Lavelle claims Sullivan’s is packing them in.
Lots of competition
“We throw a party every night and we’re jamming,” she says. “We know there’s lots of competition out there, and they’re all good so we have to work at it.”
There are plenty of others, some of which, like Shula’s Steak House and Morton’s The Steakhouse, are located in hotels where those visiting for business or as tourists don’t have to leave the building for a steak.
Others include the Capital Grille and Fogo de Chao on Pratt Street, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse on Aliceanna Street, and two Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses, one on Water Street and another in the Pier Five Hotel, all within walking distance of each other.
Every one of the steak houses appears to offer a three-course prix fixe menu in the $40 range. Some have promotions similar to Sullivan’s 5 for $5 deal. At Fleming’s it’s called 5 for $6 till 7 p.m.
Of all the choices in the Inner Harbor area, Fogo de Chao on Pratt Street near Market Place may offer the most distinctive experience. Part of a national chain out of Brazil with U.S. headquarters in Dallas, Fogo de Chao is patterned after the typical Brazilian gaucho eatery where a diner has a card at his side that’s red on one side signaling, “I’m done,” and green on the other side, signaling, “Gimme more.”
While the green faces up, servers who are also the cooks of the selections of meat, sausage and fowl, come by the table to slice off parts of what they’re offering. Adding to the Brazilian atmosphere, the chef/servers dress as gauchos, as the cowboys of Argentina, and neighboring parts of Brazil and Uruguay, are called.
“Unfortunately, we don’t believe the recession is over for the restaurant industry,” said Flynn Dekker, Fogo de Chao’s chief marketing officer. “But while many of our competitors have created prix fixe menus … we have always had a prix fixe menu that includes all 15 cuts of meat, a gourmet salad and unlimited sides.”
The full experience at lunchtime is priced at $29.50, or $19.50 for the salad bar alone, which does include several cold meats. At dinnertime, the full menu is $46.50 and $24.50.
Fogo de Chao says it doesn’t keep track of percentages among business, tourist and local patrons, but Dekker said, “With the changes in expense account spending, we’re seeing a greater mix of business and tourist trade.”
Lavelle calculates that Sullivan’s patronage is about 50 percent business and tourist patrons on weekdays and 75 percent from Baltimore or the surrounding area on weekends.
Dave Derewicz, the manager of Prime Rib, says the restaurant’s patronage is drawn almost overwhelmingly — about 80 percent — from city or county residents, with many repeat customers. “We have families going back four generations coming here,” he said.
Not ready to give up steak
Attractions like the fixed price meals, combined with consumers giving up so many things — vacations, new cars and fancy appliances — during the recession, have helped such high-end restaurants, says Beth Vallen, an assistant professor of marketing at Loyola University of Maryland.
“You can’t be denying yourself all the time,” says Vallen, who studies consumer behavior. “People are giving up so many other things in so many other domains that they are not quite at the point of giving up a good steak dinner.”
All of the restaurateurs interviewed for this article credited such city organizations as the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore for helping them in the difficult times, particularly the popular Restaurant Week promotions.
Times do not appear to have been so gloomy to Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership.
“We’re seventh in the country in terms of residential density, eighth in median income,” he explained. “We have 160,000 people downtown every day and our tourist season brings in 12 million visitors a year.
“These restaurants do research to decide if they can make money,” he said. “Tourists do provide lots of foot traffic, but a lot of business people go to these places and a lot of families come down.
“I guess Baltimoreans like red meat,” he added.
But watch-your-diet diners will be pleased to know that every one of these restaurants has a good variety of seafood on the menu, too, including the oldest steak house in town.
The Prime Rib, whose gestures to changing times include a $30 fixed price menu and riddance of its longstanding coat-and-tie dress code, has added more seafood to its menu lately, according to BeLer and Derewicz.
“We sell almost as much seafood as we do beef,” said Derewicz.
“You gotta go with the flow, but you can’t throw away what makes us tried and true,” said BeLer. “So, we have unique combination of old traditions and new. That includes really fresh seafood every day — fresh, not farmed.”