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Restaurant Tours: a good steak is no longer rare

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About a dozen years ago a national barbecue chain called Tony Roma's opened in Chicago and was quickly laughed out of town. Nobody muscles in on our rib joints.

Steaks are another story. In 1980 the Palm, a New York-based chain, took root in this once-impregnable bastion of beef. Shuttered for 14 months when the Mayfair Regent Hotel closed, it reopened this year to find the city invaded by every other upscale steak chain in the country. Counting Morton's, which originated here, we now have six (plus two new independents), all trying to cash in on the city's reputation for great steak, which dates back to the days when we were the nation's beef capital.

"Steak is still a tradition here, even though things have changed and you can get good steaks almost everywhere," says Ron Lenzi of the Erie Cafe (536 W. Erie, 312-266-2300). "My customers are mostly local, but we get good word-of-mouth to tourists. The chains haven't hurt our business." Lenzi, who spent 18 years working for his father-in-law at Gene & Georgetti's, opened the Erie four years ago, adopting the name of an old historic steak house. He wet-ages his gigantic prime porterhouses and other steaks in Cryovac wrap for six weeks in his refrigerated cellar. They emerge tender and succulent.

Smith & Wollensky (318 N. State, 312-670-9900), part of a New York-based group of fine-dining establishments, is the most recent invader. It established a bilevel beachhead at Marina City that's drawn criticism for its faux-vintage exterior, but the crowds appear to love its traditional masculine decor. "Chicago still means steak," says manager Patrick Norton, who spent several years here at the group's Park Avenue Cafe. Judging by the epic T-bone and 30-ounce pork shank, it also means size.

Size is one of the features that helped business at the independent Gibsons (1028 N. Rush, 312-266-8999) skyrocket to $12 million a year in less than a decade. Every serving, from the salad to the strip steak, is huge--so huge that waiters urge you to share everything. This brings the average check down to $45 per person, compared with $55 to $65 at other steak houses, says Steve Lombardo, one of Gibsons' founding partners. He says that business has been going up 10 to 12 percent every year for the past four years, despite the increasing competition.

Also still growing is Morton's of Chicago (1050 N. State, 312-266-4820), founded in 1978 by Arnie Morton, who introduced the living menu--a display of prime beef and gigantic lobster tails brought right to your table. He went national in 1982, and today there are 40 restaurants around the world with more on the way. Though Morton sold the group in 1989, little has changed in this low-lit, male-oriented sanctum. Raki Mehra, the maitre d' who was there for the opening two decades ago, still keeps things purring.

The Palm (323 E. Wacker, 312-616-1000) has reopened on the main floor of the Swissotel. Manager John Blandino says his trade is about 70 percent tourists. I found his finest strip steak--from a New York-based central supplier to the chain--a bit blander than the other prime beef I encountered. It was tender, but it lacked the tart, mineral tang of the very best.

Millennium (832 W. Randolph, 312-455-1400) is a new independent located on the Randolph Market strip. Its main problem lies in the sides: crab cakes laden with filler and baked oysters with a too-pungent topping. A unique item is a filet with the bone attached, which gives this typically mild cut a bit more flavor than usual. Farther west, near the United Center, is Carmichael's (1052 W. Monroe, 312-433-0025), whose main selling point, based on its press releases, seems to be that Mayor Daley eats there.

The Capital Grille (633 N. Saint Clair, 312-337-9400) has a great clubby look and feel, though its meat is all choice--a noticeable notch below prime--and prices are a few bucks lower. Ruth's Chris (431 N. Dearborn, 312-321-2725), founded in New Orleans and now the nation's largest upscale chain and franchise operation, with 64 restaurants, serves prime except for its tenderloin. The gimmick here is that the steaks are usually slathered in butter to improve their flavor, but the meat never quite matches the best in town. Even with prime meat, the supplier and aging time and method make a difference. A Ruth's Chris executive, who declined to be identified, also declined to identify his suppliers, though he said they included several local purveyors.

I found the best beef, coupled with immaculate appetizers, side dishes, and service, at the Erie Cafe, Gibsons (where chef Mike Clark also does especially well with fish), Morton's, and Smith & Wollensky. They all serve prime meat from local purveyors, mainly Allen Brothers and Stock Yards Packing Company, and all wet-age theirs except Smith & Wollensky, which dry-ages its beef on the premises.

But Bob Hatoff of Allen Brothers sounds a cautionary note: "The big chains need serious quantities, and there's usually not enough prime tenderloin produced to meet their needs on a regular basis--though this year there has been more prime available. The cattle are better fed. But we could pay for it with a shortage in '99."

The field is becoming even more crowded. Sullivan's, a chain with six locations across the country, will open right across from Ruth's Chris on Dearborn in January, serving choice Black Angus beef. And yet another member of the chain gang, the Grill, is expected to start serving prime steaks toward the end of the year. --Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ron Lenzi photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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