Thank Goodness It's Del Frisco's Grille

Sara Kerens

On a recent Friday, one of the cold ones, Del Frisco's Grille had a nice little buzz going. Out front, women in ultra-short skirts bounced in place to keep warm, clinging tightly to the arms of starched-and-buttoned-down dudes as they waited on a lengthy valet line. Stacked orange box lanterns illuminated the streetscape from above, and an AMG Gullwing pulled up and basked in the dusky glow. A $185,000 car and no one even noticed.

Inside, the host's stand was surrounded with diners trying to score precious real estate. I wasn't one of them. I'd made no reservation, and was hoping instead to snag a solo seat at the bar. Those hopes dashed like that Gullwing, though; by 7 p.m. the bar was a sea of occupied stools, sharp-dressed drinkers and fancy stemware.

It was nearly an hour before I snagged a spot, packed in tight between a middle-aged brunette and a younger couple on a date. We were surrounded by a crowd that ran two deep at times, all leaning in to order drinks and, occasionally and cheerily, shots.

I ordered a New York strip, medium rare, and pulled on a Budweiser (live with it, beer snobs) while I watched the crowd work. But my steak didn't come medium rare — a fact my server made sure we all knew, blinding the poor thing with a flashlight and forcing me to cut the steak in half to examine her "doneness." (This, by the way, is an odd and unnerving practice that seems especially common in Dallas. Might I suggest a meat thermometer?)

I speared the steak with my fork, held it up and asked him what he thought. He guessed: "Medium?" I agreed, and told him I'd ordered medium rare. After an uncomfortable pause, the steak was whisked away.

A second steak took more than an hour to come, a shame considering how perfect it was. A well-charred and blackened exterior, seasoned quite simply and beautifully, gave way to a sultry, scarlet center. It was a fine piece of meat. But it would have been finer if it had come more quickly, or had the service that surrounded the error been smoother. A bartender apologized and made two trips back to the kitchen to check on my meal. "We'll take the steak off your bill," he said, and then didn't.

The service wasn't terrible — just clunky. On two visits, empty beer bottles sat idle far too long while I sat at the bar. At a table, my waiter knocked over a salt shaker to move a glass, then knocked over a pepper shaker to upright the salt shaker. And my brunette bar companion that night had to bargain at length to get a ponzu dipper for her dumplings replaced with plain ol' soy sauce.

Here's the thing, though: She didn't seem bothered at all.

"Del Frisco's is a name people recognize," she told me. She seemed willing to deal with shoddy service to be a part of the brand, and no one around her appeared to disagree. Lit up in sunset tones, the Grille is as much a Place to Be as it is a Place to Eat.

Most evenings, the massive two-level dining room's tables and bar area are packed. Those who drink (that would be everyone) favor wine and cocktails over beer, and the Grille makes sure to deliver that booze efficiently. A number of mixed drinks are served on tap quickly poured over a shaker full of ice to chill, and sometimes right into a martini glass. Have the Skinny Sauza Margarita, made with agave nectar, if you're watching your figure. It clocks in at 160 calories, according to the menu.

Thankfully the rest of the menu neglects nutritional measures. I wonder how many people would order the pimento cheese fritters if they knew their caloric cost. Served in a small cast-iron dish, the crunchy pingpong balls crack open to release a runny goo of pimento-studded Velveeta. They remind me of a savory Cadbury creme egg, and they taste just as bad. Steak and cheese egg rolls use a similar queso and are better (because they have meat, duh). So are the chicken wings, which are served as little lollipops.

If you're getting a sort of upscale-Sam's-Club-freezer-section vibe, you're not far off.

Deviled eggs are loaded with mustard (in a good way) and drizzled with a sweet truffle-oil vinaigrette (in a very bad way). Order yours without the dressing and you'll save the snack.

Only the kitchen can save the ahi tuna tacos. The shells are pleasingly crisp, but the raw tuna and flat guacamole inside are a snooze. If they used ceviche or something else acidic to dress up these bites I'd eat them eight at a time.

A shaved prime-beef sandwich (read: French dip) needs less help. The kitchen wraps the finished sandwich in a paper cocoon that steams and softens the bread. A thick au jus and some horseradish cream make for decent dipping, and the shoe-string fries are perfectly crisp.

The same fries come with the burger, which is satisfying enough but strange. Why the kitchen uses two super-slim patties instead of one escapes me, unless they're really going for the whole elevated-bad-food thing. If they can sex up wings by turning them into lollipops, they can sex up a Big Mac, too?

Not quite. The burger is rich enough, but the patties are more than well-done. A thicker, single patty would surely improve what is potentially a stellar burger. For now, it's fancy fast food, complete with more of that melting synthetic cheese goo.

The mains steer the whole thing off course. Save those glorious steaks, the beef short-rib stroganoff and sole francese are your best bets. One heavy, one light, both satisfying enough.

Flatbreads come in roasted tomato, white clam, pulled chicken, and other varieties. If you're a fan of good pizza, steer clear of them all. The crust is surly and tastes of the burnt cornmeal that the cooks use to keep the dough from sticking to the floor of the gas-fired oven. I'm not sure the kitchen ever tried to perfect their rounds. They just needed pizza because, you know, what if someone feels like pizza?

It's pandering, but in the end I'm not sure it will matter. The menu is clearly designed so anyone who pushes open the door can find something that excites them. A budding cougar watching her weight can pound skinny cocktails and eat a low-carb salad covered in sliced steak. Her prey can order a big and greasy number that will keep tomorrow's hangover at bay. And those who want to sit down with a knife and a fork can have that experience, too. The menu is upscale Applebee's, but the lighting and crowd distract from the mediocrity, and one way or any other, the place oozes fun the way those fritters ooze cheese.

The Grille is an offshoot of Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, a North Dallas meat market built on big beef and big red wine. (Both the Grille and the Steak house offer a namesake cabernet; here it's $58 a bottle.) Since opening more than 20 years ago, eight additional locations of the steakhouse have sprouted across the country — Boston, Vegas, etc.

This is the Double Eagle's younger, drunker brother, and it's poised for similar expansion. The first opened in New York last summer; the Dallas location opened late in the year. Several waitresses and bartenders told me that more would open across the country. If they're in the right neighborhoods, they'll likely be very successful. Sure, they've concocted little more than a menu of half-elevated pedestrian fare in a space that commands a premium. But they've filled that space with customers more than willing to play along.

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