Dining by Demographic
Our waiter stops by and moves his lips. The noise level in the packed dining room at Fleming's, the new steak house on Alabama, is so high that no one at the table can hear a word he's saying. He leans over and shouts to the diner nearest him, who then repeats to each of us in turn, "Something about a bone-in New York strip."
I already know from the menu that Fleming's serves wet-aged USDA Prime steaks hand-cut to generous proportions. There is also a variety of sides, mostly familiar 1950s stuff, served family-style. We look around a bit while we wait for the mute waiter to return.
Fleming's high-ceilinged dining room is an impressive expanse of cherrywood paneling, huge wooden columns and muted colors. It has a sort of elegant yet neutral quality. "It's like a really nice bank lobby," says one of my tablemates.
The three of us order a huge iceberg wedge and a pile of onion rings, which we split three ways. The salad comes with the usual tomatoes, red onion and blue cheese. The rings are greasy and made with a single layer of onion, which means there's too much batter per ring. But this is about the only quibble I can come up with regarding Fleming's food. The Parmesan creamed spinach is excellent, and the jalapeño au gratin potatoes are pretty good, too.
I order a massive porterhouse and attack it with a wooden-handled steak knife that Jim Bowie would have been proud to wield. Alternating between buttery bites from the thick filet side and wonderfully charred chunks of the strip, I power down half of the 22-ounce monstrosity before raising the white linen flag. One oversize crystal wine glass full of peppery Gigondas is enough to get me through my steak.
One of my dining companions orders charred salmon with Cabernet butter. It's a nice-size piece of tasty, fresh fish, cooked through but not overdone and served in an unobtrusive sauce. She drinks Roederer Estate sparkling wine in one of those new cylindrical champagne glasses that looks like a tall bud vase.
My other dining companion gets a thick New York strip. The steak is better than an inch and a half thick, cooked perfectly to medium rare and bursting with juicy flavor. He savors a California Cabernet with his meat. Each of us is delighted with our food-and-wine combination.
Fleming's features 100 wines by the glass, a fact that will be hammered into your brain almost ceaselessly from the second you walk through the door. That's because it's the restaurant's main marketing hook. Encouraging diners to buy one glass of wine at a time is how Fleming's keeps the average check low.
At one glass apiece, a couple might spend under $20 on wine. Sure, a bottle is a better bargain, but it adds $40 or $50 to the bill. And what do you do if one diner wants fish and the other wants steak? The flexibility of wine by the glass is quite attractive -- if the wines are any good.
Fleming's has a fascinating wine list. Sure, there are the ho-hum hyphenated Chardonnays: Murphy-Goode, Kendall-Jackson and Sonoma-Cutrer. But there are also cutting-edge whites like Bonny Doon Riesling, Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and Treana Marsanne/Viognier from California. There are the mundane Merlots: Geyser Peak, Clos Du Bois and Chateau St. Jean. But there are also Francophile favorites from Gigondas, Margaux and the Haut-Médoc. And for the rubes, there's even Beringer White Zinfandel. It's not a wine list that reflects good taste or bad taste; it's a wine list that reflects every taste.
Palm, Morton's of Chicago and The Capital Grille have come to dominate the national steak house market. They may be chains, but each is based on a famous original. Caricatures painted by famous New York newspaper cartoonists decorate the walls of the original Second Avenue location of Palm in New York, so the Westheimer outlet of the chain is decorated with cartoons of Houston celebrities. The original Morton's of Chicago and Capital Grille of Washington, D.C., were old "chop houses" where businessmen and politicians gathered for red meat in a men's club atmosphere. The chop house theme is re-created in their Houston locations.
The original Fleming's in Newport Beach, California, didn't start out as a well-loved local tradition. (If such a thing exists in Newport Beach.) It began as a carefully calculated marketing ploy.
Fleming's is the brainchild of restaurant concept packagers Paul Fleming and William Allen III. Fleming was one of the inventors of P.F. Chang's and once the largest franchisee of Ruth's Chris Steak House; Allen is the former CEO of the La Madeleine bakery chain.
"If you think about the steak business the way we thought about the steak business, it becomes painfully obvious that there is a $35 price gap in check average between the high-end guys -- Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Del Frisco's -- and the more casual steak houses like Outback," Allen told Nation's Restaurant News. Fleming's is "a value play underneath the high-end guys."
If top-end steak houses resemble men's clubs and cater to businessmen with expense accounts, then Fleming's would target the more cost-conscious demographic of couples. The key is to appeal to women, say the two highly experienced restaurant chain packagers. So they developed a "female-friendly" design -- with lighter colors, softer lighting and floral arrangements. A wider range of entrées, including grilled fish and seafood, is no doubt supposed to keep the feminine palate happy as well.
To complete the value play, the menu offers plenty of old favorites. Middle-brow appetizers include shrimp cocktail, French onion soup and fried calamari. The wine list varies from restaurant to restaurant within the chain, but 60 percent of the labels on every list are "recognizable" -- in other words, supermarket wines.
The menu and wine list are devoid of personality. They read like a statistical mean average of the nation's food and wine preferences. And that's exactly what the founders had in mind. "I have never tried to educate customers," brags Paul Fleming in the restaurant's press release.
Fleming is a businessman who spent nine years in the oil and gas leasing business before he became a restaurateur. And if profits are the measure of success in the restaurant world, he is living proof that the oil business is a better training ground than hotel and restaurant management schools or culinary institutes.
Fleming's founders proved the concept's profitability in the rich Republican ghettos of Newport Beach and Scottsdale, Arizona, where they attained a sales-to-investment ratio of more than two-to-one, and a return on investment in excess of 30 percent, according to Nation's Restaurant News.
Then they sold the concept to Outback Steakhouses as a joint venture partnership. Fleming's was a perfect fit for Outback, which was looking for a way to break into the upscale American steak house market. Outback provided the financing for expansion while the founders remained at the helm and shared in the profits.
The second time I went to Fleming's, I got the double-cut lamb chops, which were astonishingly tender and had that slightly gamy lamb tang. A Caesar salad was wilted and too cold, as if it had been kept in the refrigerator too long. But I also got a haystack of shoestring potatoes, which were hot, salty and very crisp. With my lamb, I tried an inky purple Syrah/Cab blend from France that held up nicely to the big taste of the meat.
My dining companion had a pleasant spinach salad and the large (12-ounce) filet mignon, which was absolutely magnificent. The steak was so tender, we almost forgot to chew it. He ordered a California Merlot, which he didn't like, and then a Chateau Coufran Haut-Médoc, which was also listed under the Merlot section. I persuaded him to save a little of the Californian so we could compare the two side-by-side. As expected, the brawny French Merlot kicked the flabby Californian's ass.
We were seated in a leather-upholstered booth that was quite comfortable, except that it was right next to the kitchen. But at least we didn't have to wait. On our first visit, a Thursday night, we waited in the bar for 40 minutes past our 8:15 reservation. The hostess finally led us to -- you guessed it -- another table right next to the kitchen.
In order to get a good table at Fleming's, evidently you need to know Maeve O'Gorman Pesquera. Pesquera used to be the general manager at Anthony's, where she attracted "a constellation of local socialites who vied for the 'seen and be seen' tables on a nightly basis," according to her bio in the Fleming's press kit. The good tables at Fleming's apparently are reserved for the same air-kissing aristocracy.
If being relegated to a third-rate table by an employee of Outback Steakhouse strikes you as a little too much indignity before dinner, you might want to eat your steaks elsewhere. Until recently, I might have suggested a funky homegrown alternative, like Brenner's out on the Katy Freeway. But Brenner's quietly went out of business last fall. Few independents can compete with the combination of ambience and meat quality that the national steak house chains provide.
Now, however, there's not much choice besides the chains. It reminds me, depressingly, of what happened to radio. If you want to listen to rock and roll in Houston, you pick a Clear Channel Communications format that's targeted to your age group. And if you want to eat steak, you shop around for a restaurant concept that's been packaged to appeal to your demographic.
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