The first tip-off that Del Frisco’s isn’t really a New York steakhouse came when the bartender pitched me a pineapple martini.
It’s hard to imagine something similar happening at any of Manhattan’s top beef bastions. Strip House? Minetta? Nah. At Del Frisco’s, it’s the signature drink.
A Dallas-based chain whose Midtown outpost was the country’s highest-grossing steakhouse in 2010, Del Frisco’s also ranks among the worst. Dinner for two can easily exceed $400 after tax and tip. No wonder they ring up $34 million a year in sales.
They know New York prices here, but not New York quality. An “Ultimat” vodka martini, advertised at $23, is indistinguishable from $13 versions elsewhere. Red meat entrees average out at $55. A $90 American Wagyu ribeye, the Japanese-style cut famed for its melt-in-the-mouth marbling, has the same texture as, and just a hint more flavor than, the $60 cuts.
So why’s this place packed as better spots struggle? Perhaps it’s the location; Del Frisco’s anchors Rockefeller Center’s McGraw-Hill tower. Is it the advertisements that compel? Its television spots are ubiquitous on taxi cab screens.
Maybe it’s the rewards plan. Earn 40,000 points and get a $2,800-value dinner for you and nine friends. Cool. Now tell me: If they can keep track of my spending, why can’t my bar bill be transferred to my dinner check? Flagging the bartender to close out tabs requires the hand waving skills of a runway crew.
Hosts bark your name when your table is ready. The tri-level space has 550-seats, three bars and two escalators. “This place used to look like a trading floor,” the managing director of a hedge fund tells me. Not anymore. A guy next to me ordered a chocolate martini. Dude!
Floor-to-ceiling windows bespeak Sun Belt monumentalism, though upstairs tables offer storybook views of Manhattan. Then there’s the claustrophobic back room, where my date and I basked in the angry red glow of a giant Fox News ticker. Not romantic.
Mealy tomatoes are $14. Caesar salad tastes pre-fabricated. The burnt cheddar on a $16 burger does a fine impression of a drink coaster.
Oysters sometimes arrive carelessly shucked with their bellies popped and liquor drained.
Correctly preparing tuna tartare requires a sharp knife; They must be using plastic here, given the mushy mess that arrives for dolloping on soggy toast. Tangy beef tartare, on the other hand, is excellent -- when the server remembers to bring it.
The crab cake is fine; it had better be for $20. The creamed spinach and mashed potato sides are decent enough too. Bread was offered during two out of four visits. A bone-in strip ($60) arrived sans bone. Eat your friend’s bland filet ($68) while waiters sort out the mistake.
Portions are Texas-size, perhaps bigger than at any other city meatery. But I may as well be at Outback. The wet aging favored here produces juicy meat minus the mineral tang and depth of flavor you get with dry aging. USDA Prime steaks are fatally overseasoned and lack char. The $65 ribeye is greasy, salty and has the mouthfeel of a sponge.
Lobster of Oz
Want some surf with that? The cheapest lobster tail on a recent evening was over $100 after tax. The 16-ouncer was so overcooked that it was harder to cut than our similarly hopeless porterhouse. The crustacean tasted like carpet. Returning it would have been a fool’s errand, since we’d have just gotten another thawed import from Australia.
Most of the 15 reds sold by the glass are New Worlders, beginning at $9 and topping out at $45 for a pour of Silver Oak’s 2003 Cab. Whites range from $10 to $30 (for Far Niente’s 2006 Chardonnay). Europe is better represented on the vast wine list, where anything sub-$100 can be considered a bargain. Toasty, clean-on-the-palate Nicolas Feuillatte champagne, reasonably priced at $65, will make both the meat and fish eaters at your table happy.
You can spend $1,000 on Chateau D’Yquem -- no trick there for the world’s priciest Sauternes. But you’d expect a great dessert to go with it and again you’ll be disappointed by leaden cheesecake, pedestrian bread pudding and a tasty, if supermarket quality lemon cake. Rating: 1/2 *
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Steaks are $36-$90. Set lunch for $32.
Sound Level: Loud when full, 80-85 decibels.
Date Place: No.
Inside Tip: Don’t eat steak? Try the $42 sea bass.
Special Feature: Free jellybean bin by the door.
Will I be back: Doubtful.
Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse is at 1221 Sixth Ave; Information: +1-212-575-5129; http://www.delfriscos.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: You can converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re just pretending to hear one another. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)