There was a seven-inch bone sticking out of the Fred Flintstone rib eye on the plate in front of me. I carved the monster chop with the heavy stainless steel chef's blade that they call a steak knife at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse in the Galleria. My dining companion and I were sharing the dry-aged Australian Kobe rib eye, at $90 the most expensive steak on Del Frisco's menu.
My usual gambit at an expensive steakhouse is to order a double-cut porterhouse and share it. But the porterhouse on Del Frisco's menu wasn't all that big. And when I asked the waiter which steak he recommended for two people to split, he told us about the Kobe, which wasn't on the menu. The dry-aged, oversized "tomahawk" cut Kobe rib eye he described sounded like it just might be the best steak in the city. My bargain-hunting intentions were quickly forgotten.
The first bite of the steak exploded in my mouth. Beneath the crunch of the crust spread thick with sea salt and coarse pepper, the warm, buttery fat and beef juice seemed to burst out of the rare red steak each time I bit down. I looked across the table in time to see my dinner mate take her first taste. She suddenly looked very serious. "Omigod, that's good," she said with her mouth full. The expensive Kobe steak wasn't nearly as tender as I expected it to be. There were some chunks that were downright tough. But it was without a doubt the most flavorful steak I've ever had in a Houston steakhouse.
Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse
5061 Westheimer, 713-355-2600.
Hours:11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays; 5 p.m. to midnight Saturdays; 5 to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Steak tartare: $136
oysters on the half shell: $14
Business lunch: $30
Kobe steak: $90
Onion rings: $10
We had started out our meal with martinis and an order of oysters on the half shell, one of my favorite combinations. My Tanqueray martini was excellent.
I was hoping for some Apalachicola oysters, but Del Frisco had run out of those and was now serving oysters from New England. Of the six that came in an order, three were large, plump specimens from Thatcher Island, Massachusetts, and three were pathetic, skinny oysters from Maine.
Oysters from northern waters are great in the fall, but when the water gets too cold, they will stop eating and shrivel up. I am guessing that's what happened to the Maine oysters. I summoned the waiter to the table, and while he watched, I scraped one of the deflated bivalves out of the shell and put it in a soup spoon that was sitting on the table — the meat of this oyster barely filled half the spoon.
"You call that an oyster?" I asked. I expected an argument, but instead, the waiter took my spoon to the kitchen and came back with three more of the Thatcher Island oysters. We also got an order of Del Frisco's onion rings — each one the size of half an onion. We saved a few to eat with our steak. Del Frisco's version of creamed spinach was our other side, and it turned out to be more cream than spinach.
I sat back and enjoyed myself. With my fat oysters and my insanely marbled steak, I felt like Diamond Jim Brady, who frequently ordered a similar meal at Delmonico's in New York. I ordered a Guinness when the martini was finished. Guinness and oysters is a classic Irish combo, and I love the way the thick stout tastes with a steak.
Across the table, my companion looked at me in dismay. "What's the matter?" I asked her. The steak was extremely rich, the spinach was oozing cream and the onions were deep-fried, she noted.
"I think we should have ordered a salad," she said.
Our waiter wasn't handy, but there was another waiter standing nearby, so I got his attention and explained the problem. "Ah, you need a little balance," he said, nodding.
He recommended the house salad, which had tomatoes and carrot shavings as well as mixed greens, and he managed to dash into the kitchen and come back with the salad in amazingly short order. When he set it down in front of her, my companion laughed in resignation. The salad was topped by two thick slices of bacon, which she removed and placed on my plate before she ate the vegetables.
"It's just such a guy restaurant," she said.
From the day construction began, Del Frisco's set out to be the top steakhouse in Houston. The 13,000-square-foot Galleria location is a copy of the 17,000-square-foot Del Frisco's in Manhattan. As in New York, the main dining room is on the second story, where diners can look out through the huge windows to the street below. The walls are mahogany, the floors are Brazilian slate and the grand light fixtures are made from Spanish alabaster and cost $75,000 a piece. The total bill for the Houston restaurant was reported to be more than $11 million.
An early press release claimed that all the meat was Prime, but a call to Del Frisco's meat supplier, Allen Brothers in Chicago, confirmed that while many of the steaks sold to Del Frisco's were wet-aged USDA Prime, the filets were USDA Choice. That puts the meat on par with a bevy of luxury steakhouses located within minutes of Del Frisco's location, including Palm, Morton's of Chicago and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.
It's not the quality of the steaks that puts Del Frisco's above its competitors. The service is outstanding. It's said that there are three tables per waiter — an astonishing ratio. And the "customer first" attitude is a stark contrast to the run-up-the-bill scams encountered elsewhere.
The appetizers are excellent. Del Frisco is one of the few steakhouses that serve oysters on the half shell. And while some high-end steakhouses refuse to make steak tartare for liability fears, Del Frisco's prides themselves on the raw chopped steak appetizer. And then there's the grandeur of the architecture and the dignified atmosphere.
The classy image is sort of amusing when you consider the humble origins of the chain's founder. The first Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse in Dallas was opened in the mid-1980s by a former Louisiana Winn-Dixie meat cutter named Dale Wamstad (who went by the name Del Frisco) and a woman named Dee Lincoln. Dee did the restaurant's radio commercials, and she was famous throughout Dallas for her recitation of the final digits of the phone number, "0-0-0-0!"
Wamstad's sordid life story was the subject of a Dallas Observer feature ["Family Man," by Mark Stuertz, March 16, 2000]. I liked the part where his former wife Lena got sick of his abuse and "pumped three .25-caliber slugs into Dale Wamstad's imposing 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound bulk in the dining room of Del Frisco's restaurant in Gretna, Louisiana."
Wamstad survived and went on to sell the original Dallas Del Frisco's and a Fort Worth branch that was under construction to the Lone Star Steakhouse chain in Kansas in 1995 for $22.7 million. Del Frisco's became the upper-end steakhouse in a three-tier chain that also included the mid-range Sullivan's and the low-end Lone Star Steakhouses, a Texas-themed chain with locations across the country.
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If you ask me, the scandalous Dale "Del Frisco" Wamstad legend easily trumps all those mobster tales that made the original Palm in New York and Morton's in Chicago famous.
On my first visit to Del Frisco's, I got the $30 businessman's lunch. You get your choice of soup or salad, and I went with a creamy asparagus bisque. For an entrée, I got a six-ounce filet mignon. The other choice was salmon topped with crabmeat. My dessert was chocolate mousse.
My tablemate got a boring salad and the crab cakes, two barely battered mounds of extra large jumbo lump crabmeat with a Creole sauce. Like the over-the-top Kobe and creamed spinach dinner, it was an extremely satisfying and unrelentingly rich meal — but no particular bargain.
Del Frisco's is currently the top steakhouse in Houston. Don't go expecting to find any bargains. Go when you're in the mood to celebrate and the money doesn't matter.