N9NE, Park Cities Prime, BLT. Steakhouses are the kudzu of the Dallas dining industry. Sure, there's a culling every now and again: Smith & Wollensky, GF Prime, Fleming's, Ruth's Chris, etc. But they come back thicker and pricier, wearing more feminized plumage. Can our gullets and bill clips sustain them?
"I think there's a deep market here," says Michael Morton, founder of N9NE Group (Ghostbar, Nove Italiano and the upcoming Liquid Sky lounge). N9NE Steak House opened in Victory Park last month. "The steakhouse component is extremely competitive, but I also think it's very deep." But is it hedge fund lucre deep? With a crisp, club-ish design targeting the young and aspirational (reggae and a silver leaf dome ceiling that changes hues), N9NE comes off as a meat market with your choice of sirloin or sweaty loins. And beefy ones at least are pricey. Ring up $25 hamburgers (Kobe that) and $44 sirloins. It all seems so...unsustainable, demographically speaking. As one young entrepreneur knee-deep in seven figures recently said to me: "These prices make even me flinch."
Question: Will the traditional steakhouse populace flinch? Morton insists not. He points out his restaurants in Chicago and Vegas are consistently among the highest-grossing venues in their respective cities. "Why can't you have an energy in the restaurant that doesn't have to have those heavier, classic 20th-century tones with Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand on the airwaves?"
Plus, Morton says, his restaurants get the cream of prime beef. Because of his long relationship with beef suppliers such as Allen Brothers and Stock Yards in Chicago (Morton's The Steakhouse founder Arnie Morton is Michael's father), Morton claims he is able to demand the tightest beef specs in the business, leaving his competitors to scrabble over prime scrap. Good stuff. But can Dallas afford to care, long term?
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More deep steak-market thoughts: McDonald's franchise mogul Ed Bailey, who recently bought Patrizio, is launching a 10,000-square-foot, two-level prime steakhouse called Bailey's Prime Plus. It will slip into the $500 million complex of retail (an 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods), apartments, condominiums, office towers and the Valencia Hotel in 2008, rising across Central Expressway from NorthPark Center. "It will be an absolutely posh steakhouse," says former Mansion on Turtle Creek maître d' Enam Chowdhury, who is helping Bailey develop the restaurant. "It will leave no stones unturned, if you will." Those stones include Ralph Lauren furniture and fabrics for a nice, clean kilt look. "Good steakhouses are making money," Chowdhury points out. "With all of the convention people that come to town, they all go to our steakhouses. Even if you have a fantastic restaurant, they all gravitate toward the steakhouses."