August 7, 2015

If D.C.’s steakhouse days are over, why do so many new ones keep opening?

Want to see some Washingtonians go ballistic? Just call the District a “steakhouse town,” a place where the natives’ love of politics is rivaled only by their lust for thick slabs of charbroiled beef. Almost every time an out-of-town media outlet drops the S-word about the nation’s capital, locals rip in, gleefully noting how out of touch it is.

“In a trophy-class building that we work with, [landlords] don’t say, ‘Looking for steakhouse’ in any way, shape or form,” says broker Bill Miller, who represents both landlords and tenants. “If anything, people are concerned when another steakhouse comes along, and they go, ‘Geez, is this one too many?’ ”

The District has entered a kind of post-red-meat paradise, populated by celebrity-chef restaurants (both imported and homegrown), idiosyncratic neighborhood eateries, craft cocktail bars, high-concept beer emporiums and, slated for September, a restaurant dedicated to the ingredients of the Mid-Atlantic.

But since early last year, there has been a revival. No fewer than eight steakhouses have opened in the District.

Most of those operations, save for Claudia’s, have one thing in common: They’re native to other locales, created by outside celebrity chefs, well-known restaurateurs or large hospitality groups such as Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago (which opened Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab) or Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group in Texas. No matter how sophisticated Washington may think its tastes have become, outsiders still seem to view the town as a backwoods burg addicted to steak and potatoes.

Except this boomlet in beef caves is not that easy to explain away. Even the experts disagree. Some say Washington’s economic boom, which has attracted more people with disposable income, has likewise drawn high-dollar, high-volume restaurants that can afford the soaring rents. Others say the resurgence has to do with the large hospitality groups themselves and their never-ending need to expand into untapped markets. And then some say it’s just endemic to Washington.

“Politics and steak and potatoes [are] kind of like peanut butter and jelly,” says Mark Bucher, co-owner of Medium Rare, a small steak-frites chain with outposts in Cleveland Park and Barracks Row. “Big American car. Big American steak. Big American politics. I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to change that.”

Many of the newest steakhouses have leased space in what one real estate broker calls “trophy buildings”: mixed-use condo developments or multi-story office buildings that are home to lawyers, accountants and other business heavyweights. Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House occupies 18,000 square feet in the trendy CityCenterDC; Joe’s Seafood sprawls over 18,000 square feet inside the historic Union Trust building downtown;Mastro’s Steakhouse covers 14,000 square feet in the same downtown building as PricewaterhouseCoopers. STK DC, a lounge-oriented take on steakhouses, is a relative pip-squeak by comparison: The place takes up more than 8,000 square feet at the base of a Dupont Circle office building.

Prices and pressures

These days, though, it feels risky to place your bets on steak in Washington. Not only are there more than 30 places to order a cut of beef in the District — not including the steakhouses in the suburbs or the casual restaurants that offer steak, too — but beef prices have skyrocketed in recent years. Between July 2009 and July 2015, for example, average wholesale prices for prime rib-eye jumped by 51 percent, from $6.74 to $10.21 per pound.

Because of the soaring prices and, perhaps, America’s decreasing appetite for red meat, chefs and restaurateurs say they struggle to make a profit from beef, even when a prime 22-ounce bone-in rib-eye sells for $59 at Mastro’s and a prime 32-ounce porterhouse at Del Frisco’s costs $89. The sheer number of competitors makes it almost impossible for owners to raise prices significantly higher than their peers’.

“We try to absorb as much as we can” of the price increase, says Tommy Jacomo, executive director of the Palm in Washington, which opened in 1972. Jacomo says he regularly reviews other menus to make sure the Palm remains competitive.

Given such pressures, you have to wonder why similar concepts want to move here. Or why developers and landlords are eager to sign them to long-term leases.

“In a trophy-class building that we work with, [landlords] don’t say, ‘Looking for steakhouse’ in any way, shape or form,” says broker Miller, who represents both landlords and tenants. “If anything, people are concerned when another steakhouse comes along, and they go, ‘Geez, is this one too many?’ ”

The push, then, is coming from outside. With its relatively healthy economy and with wealthy counties surrounding it, the District has become a prime target for large restaurant groups. There’s a palpable sense among these groups that the city — despite its bureaucratic, button-down, red-tape reputation — has developed a swagger. That it’s a place where politicians, lobbyists, pundits, journalists and other members of the wonkocracy have become celebrities in their own right. Some restaurant groups are so gung-ho on Washington, they’re willing to compete with their own brands here. Houston-based Landry’s, for instance, opened Mastro’s despite already running two locations each of Morton’s and McCormick & Schmick’s in the District.

“The annual income [in Washington] is extremely high compared to other areas of the country,” says Tim Whitlock, chief operating officer for Mastro’s. “People can afford to come out, and people like to entertain in D.C.”

But why a steakhouse instead of one of the other dining concepts Landry’s owns? Part of the answer lies with the trophy buildings themselves. The lawyers, accountants and lobbyists who occupy those structures need high-end but approachable restaurants, with private dining rooms, for conducting business. The wheels of Washington, it seems, continue to be greased with rendered beef fat.

“If you’re a lobbyist or you work in government and want to take people out, steak is always a safe bet,” says Richard Sandoval, the chef behind Toro Toro and his eponymous restaurant group. “You won’t go out for what you don’t know.”

Besides, some of the new meat emporiums are steakhouses in name only. They claim or embrace the label even if they put an international spin on the clubby old concept (such as the Brazilian churrascaria Texas de Brazil) or if grilled beef is only part of their draw. Take Claudia’s on 15th Street NW: Its menu is as unconventional as its design. The former includes Latin small plates such as empanadas and chicharrones, while the latter incorporates a chic lounge with white-leather banquettes and contemporary fixtures, a dramatic departure from the traditional dark-paneled steakhouses with paintings of noble hounds and old white dudes.

No matter what you call them, these new-school steakhouses make some of the old guard nervous, as the younger generation flocks to the more contemporary playgrounds. C. Peter “Buzz” Beler, the Prime Rib’s owner, has seen the competition come and go over the 39 years he has operated in Washington. He says his classical approach, with prime meats, tuxedoed captains and a solo pianist tickling the ivories, will ultimately win over meat eaters, even the young ones.

Here’s what happens: I don’t have to attract” millennials, says Beler, who just signed a new 10-year lease. “They come when they have the money. . . .For me, it’s a matter of time.”