Of men, meat, and money

Capital Grille lays it on thick

A group of men was leaving through the thick, beveled glass doors--large, beef-eating men in casual business attire. They were grunting, jabbing.

Several minutes later, one of them returned in an anxious flurry. He approached the hostess.

"Oh, yes. Yes, we did find it," she said, moving over to a nearby closet. She pulled out a yellow legal pad with a magazine underneath it and handed him the bundle.

With a big smile, the beef-satiated gentleman held up the legal pad. "This is important," he pointed out to her. Then he lifted the magazine, flaunting the glossy cover in front of her face. "But this is even more important."

It was the latest issue of Playboy.
"Politically incorrect" is the cliched adjective most often applied to Capital Grille, a 12-unit pricey steak-house chain anchored in Atlanta. Red meat. Red wine. Red leather. Billowing gusts of cigar smoke. Walls plastered with portraits of shameless capitalists from the past.

The Washington, D.C., version is regularly packed with rabid, feral members of the vast right-wing conspiracy (Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, Haley Barbour). These are not hospitable environs to Brie-nibbling, Chardonnay-sipping compassion fascists.

Then again, politically-incorrect-and-proud-of-it posturing has lost much of its heterodoxical punch since it has been co-opted by former PC enforcement goons. The sort of people who once routinely convulsed with indignation at the slightest misapplication of a personal pronoun or an ethnic classification now employ racial stereotypes to pump up heads of state. (See Toni Morrison's rant in the New Yorker in which she said President Clinton was "black" because he "displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.")

Beef-witted leering? Hip. Cool. Sophisticated. Etiquette fit for the bullet-proof limo set. Bring on the girlie mags and ogle through lunch. Judging by the growing number of steak houses sprouting from the earth, going meatless and dry in Dallas is a sure-fire recipe for an open-ended, involuntary hunger strike. Political incorrectness is now PC.

One thing that surprises Capital Grille General Manager Greg Cavanaugh is the enthusiastic reception the Dallas version of this clubby, urban carnivore lodge is receiving from women. He cites a number of reasons: dark floor-to-ceiling paneling has been replaced in part with soft fabric wall coverings; the light, eggshell-hued ceilings; and the attractive chandeliers. "Of course, the women's room is magnificent," he adds. Which is no doubt where many of them end up after a few Stoli Dolis, an infusion of Stolichnaya vodka with pineapples billed as the house specialty drink.

But maybe what's allowing women to comfortably trickle through Capital Grille's vestibule is that the most potent symbols of brazen carnivorous political incorrectness have been strangely toned down for Dallas. For example, glass-enclosed meat lockers with colorfully molding meats impaled on hooks--a front-of-the-house staple in virtually every Capital Grille--are absent here.

"Oftentimes a lot of the guys thought it was all right," says Cavanaugh, "but it wasn't really an appealing feature for women: big slabs of beef hanging up in a dry-aging process."

The collection of portraits, commissioned by the restaurant in every city it lands in to showcase local dignitaries of historical significance, includes the first and only woman in the entire steak-house chain. Sarah Cockrell, a shrewd 19th-century real estate investor who is generally regarded as Dallas' first capitalist, and who constructed an iron suspension bridge across the Trinity River seen as vital to the development of the city, hangs near one of the booths.

Other portraits include cattle baron Christopher Columbus Slaughter (who, according to legend, refused to have a Dallas hospital named in his honor because of the inappropriateness); King Ranch founder Richard King; and banker and Dallas founder William Gaston. There's also Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas, who committed suicide after losing a bid for the U.S. Senate shortly after Texas joined the Union. Mounted steer and ram heads join the portraits.

Despite all this seeming excess, the dining room is actually handsomely elegant and comfortable. Magnums (1.5 liters) and Jeroboams (4.5 liters) of California wine are clustered in corners and on banisters.

Service is prompt and attentive, if a little nervous and jagged in an over-caffeinated sort of way. On one visit, our server had the rapid-fire delivery of an auctioneer, making it nearly impossible to digest his explanations without frequent reruns. Thank God this place has a grunt-for-your-grub sort of menu with a little seafood splashed in.

But it does have an extensive wine list of more than 300 wines from France, Italy, and California arranged from least to most expensive. Included is an "International Reds" section that seems little more than a catchall cache of the not easily classified (Spanish, Chilean, and Australian wines studded with errant California-bottled varietals such as Petite Syrah and Sangiovese). Oddly, the list intersperses reds and whites.

Astoundingly, the wines are served at the proper temperature (reds are cool instead of room temperature, and whites are slightly chilled instead of cold), owing to the floor-to-ceiling, temperature-controlled wine kiosk. This exceedingly rare restaurant touch brightens red wines and opens the whites, making them better food mates, of which the menu is exceptionally worthy.

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