Beefing It Up

New restaurants, old favorites specialize in steak

By Pam George

When Harry’s Savoy Grill opened in 1989, The News Journal praised the “meaty menu.” However, the Brandywine Hundred restaurant did not promote itself strictly as a steakhouse. But over the years, red meat has become the primary appeal of this popular neighborhood spot.

“Several years ago, we made a more conscious effort to market ourselves as a steakhouse,” says owner Xavier Teixido. “When we looked around, we said, ‘I don’t know many places that have steaks of quality and can prepare them the way we do.’”

Beef sales have been “really, really strong,” he notes. That is undoubtedly why Harry’s Savoy has more company. The Marshallton Steakhouse & Seafood slipped into the Hunters Den Restaurant location on Old Capitol Trail, and Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar opened in 2021 in Independence Mall. Bardea Steak should be open sometime this month in downtown Wilmington, and Big Fish Restaurant Group has plans for a steakhouse on the Wilmington Riverfront.

The tasty trend isn’t limited to northern Delaware. At the beach, Harvest Tide in Lewes has expanded to Bethany Beach. Theo’s Steakhouse occupies the former a(MUSE.) in Rehoboth Beach near Houston-White Co., another steakhouse.

However, producing a stellar steak is no easy feat — even for the pros. It’s all about timing, temperature, technique and seasoning. Not all who focus on this great American classic are destined to succeed. Remember The Vault and Conley Ward’s? If you don’t, it’s because they didn’t last long.

A Juicy Legacy

The modern steakhouse has its roots in late 17th-century London chophouses. These establishments served individual meat portions — or chops — and patrons were all male. Perhaps that is why so many steakhouses adopt a clubby atmosphere.

In America, the growth of steakhouses accelerated in the mid-19th century with the advent of Black Angus, a cross between Longhorn cattle brought by the Spanish and Scottish Angus.

In New York, home to the Meatpacking District, elegant steakhouses were a step far above chophouses, and ladies were welcome. Delmonico’s, arguably the nation’s first fine-dining restaurant, was famous for the Delmonico steak. (The “wedge” salad, lobster Newburg and baked Alaska were the restaurant’s other reported creations.)

Steakhouses continued to be popular in the 20th century. Longtime Wilmington residents remember Constantinou’s House of Beef, founded by John H. Constantinou, who came to the U.S. from Turkey when he was 15. He and his wife, Sophia, started with a sub shop and later purchased The B&O Restaurant in Trolley Square. The couple and their son, George, turned that business into a steakhouse in 1959.  After being sold in 1986, the iconic establishment closed in 1997. By that time, George’s son, John Walter Constantinou, had opened Walter’s Steakhouse, which is still going strong at nearly 30 years old.

Indeed, steak remains a culinary indulgence. For one, it’s approachable. There are few fancy terms or preparations. For another, it’s comforting — the savory equivalent of a warm slice of apple pie.

“It’s still ingrained in so many mindsets that if ‘I’m going to celebrate something, I’m going to have a nice steak dinner,’” says Jeff Matyger, the corporate chef with Platinum Dining Group, which owns RedFire Grill & Steakhouse in Hockessin. 

A Cut Above

Admittedly, the definition of a “nice steak” may depend on your wallet. Beef is a commodity that can be mass-produced, which means the cattle are raised on large factory farms and may receive hormones to make them grow faster. This meat will be less expensive than that found in a high-end steakhouse. 

And it’s not good enough for Bill Irvin, an owner of Snuff Mill. “If you’re really going to do the steak thing and you don’t go out of your way to source it, you’re not taking it seriously enough,” he maintains.

Snuff Mill purchases products from small operations where the animals are humanely treated and slaughtered. When an animal is stressed, it affects the meat, he explains. And you can taste the difference. Animals treated well have a superior flavor. “It’s pretty phenomenal,” he says

Breed and the animal’s diet also play a part in the pricing. Wagyu is any of four fattened Japanese breeds known for a superior taste. Then there are the USDA beef grades, with the highest being “prime.” Choice is more affordable, while select refers to primarily lean meat with slight marbling. (Bring out the marinade for the latter.) 

But a good steak isn’t necessarily Angus. Bison is the star at Ted’s Montana Grill in Christiana’s Fashion Center, which has an on-site butcher shop.  Many customers are now familiar with bison, says general manager Brian Parkinson. But a few still wonder if it’s gamey. (It is not.)

Regardless of the breed, tender cuts make up less than 10% of the cow, which is why tenderloin and ribeye cost more than shank. Aging also influences tenderness. Harry’s Savoy offers 45-day aged beef. 

“A few years ago, I said: ‘What do we have that no one else has?’” Teixido says. “We age our prime rib 45 to 60 days. Now one of our biggest sellers is a 45-day-aged ribeye.”  

The steaks are wet-aged versus dry-aged, which is a slower process. Snuff Mill features a 14-ounce dry-aged New York strip. Size also affects the price. For example, Snuff Mill’s 36-ounce bone-in tomahawk steak tops $130.

With these prices, it stands to reason that customers want the meat cooked to their liking. Establishments that can’t consistently deliver the goods won’t survive, Matyger notes.

More Than Meat

An elevated steakhouse needs more than tender, juicy cuts to stand out. “It’s everything around it,” Teixido says. “Do you have fresh vegetables? Are they seasonal? Do you have sauces?” At Harry’s Savoy, sauces include peppercorn, bearnaise, bordelaise, Bercy butter (made with shallots, wine and parsley) and bacon-bourbon butter.

Sauces allow guests to customize their steak, Teixido says. Toppings also let the guest get creative. For instance, they can garnish their steak with lump crabmeat and hollandaise. Toppings, available at an additional price, also include a crab cake, grilled shrimp, scallops or lobster.

In an upscale steakhouse, you’re also paying for the atmosphere and service. At Bardea Steak (opens this month), a beef expert will come to your table to go over the lengthy list of cuts that move from the animal’s head to tail. Like its sibling Bardea, Bardea Steak offers an interactive menu that encourages sharing. The approach is a staple steakhouse characteristic. Traditionally, steaks come alone, and sides — large enough for two or more — are a la carte. 

But not every steak-centric restaurant follows the norm. At RedFire, steaks come with a potato — baked, mashed or cut into French fries. Customers can also substitute a vegetable. Patrons at Ted’s Montana Grill get a choice of two side dishes, or they can upgrade to premium sides, such as Brussels sprouts with bacon, lemon and butter. All are made from scratch in the kitchen, Parkinson emphasizes.

Many restaurants known for their steaks have broader offerings to appeal to various diets and they state it in the name. Tonic Seafood & Steak and Brandywine Prime Seafood & Chops at Chadds Ford Inn are two examples.

A Slice of the Market

So, is the local market beefy enough for the newcomers? Scott Stein and Antimo DiMeo think so. The Bardea owners decided to focus on steak because it complements their high-energy Italian restaurant and does not detract from it. (The restaurants are next to each other.)  The steakhouse also provides balance.

 “We want to bring it down a notch,” says Stein of the ambiance. “People want a longer dining experience.” 

Eric Sugrue, the managing partner of the Big Fish Restaurant Group, is also confident. He will put two restaurants in the project across from Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant and Taco Grande. Sugrue, who calls himself a “big steakhouse sort of guy,” is inspired by Halls Chophouse in Charleston and Prime 112, a boutique steakhouse in South Beach. 

“We’re going to get creative with things and obviously have to accommodate the price point in Wilmington, which might be a challenge,” he says. 

The beef market had stabilized in March, although prices for everything have gone up compared to pre-pandemic costs. Nevertheless, the recent success of several restaurants with high-priced steaks proves that there is a market for quality beef. 

But will it last? “It seems like with the sales we’ve seen, the demand for steak is still there,” says Matyger of RedFire, “and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.”