Steak House Shuffle

Houston is a market where you can't toss a rib eye without hitting a restaurant claiming to serve the best beef. So jumping in with your own claim isn't for the timid restaurateur. How will Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar fare as the new kid on the chopping block? Better, thanks to a serendipitous steak house shuffle.

Fleming's, the brainchild of P.F. Chang's China Bistro creator Paul Fleming, is set to open November 13 in the new West Alabama strip, The Centre at River Oaks. But luckily, it won't have to compete with Vallone's. That longtime River Oaks steak house spot recently vacated its Kirby Drive home to make room for the Vallone Restaurant Group's Anthony's, which lost its lease in Highland Village.

And if you followed that, here's one more twist: Ten-year Anthony's veteran Maeve O'Gorman Pesquera is now the operating partner of the new Fleming's.

"It was a logical next step for me," says Pesquera. "But I'm glad not to be in direct competition with Mr. Vallone." Pesquera, who attended the Hilton School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston, became the Vallone Group's youngest, at 21, and only female general manager when she was promoted to the spot at Anthony's. A fixture at the tony eatery, she was on a first-name basis with local celebs and popped up in gossip columns and party pages. She even met her husband at Anthony's. But the chance to invest lured Pesquera away.

"Both our operating managers and our executive chefs are partners in our restaurants," says Fleming's joint venture partner Skip Fox. "It's a great concept because it adds to the feeling of community."

But Fleming's is still a chain restaurant, number 19 in the expansion, and that's why food legend Tony Vallone isn't too worried.

"There's nothing like local quality," Vallone says. "You just can't compete with it. We have the best service and the best steaks, it's all 30-day-aged Prime flown in from Chicago. Only 1.5 percent of all beef is Prime." While Vallone's other flagships, Tony's and the newly relocated Grotto, offer continental cuisine and seafood fare, Vallone's Steaks, Fish and Chops was known for its beef. The bad news for Fleming's is that the Kirby location, now taken over by Anthony's, is still serving Vallone's steak menu. "It's all the atmosphere of Anthony's and the quality and steak menu of Vallone's," says Vallone.

The 2001/2002 Zagat Survey lists 41 steak houses in Houston, but since its publication a dozen more have opened up and only a handful have bitten the dust. The Hotel Derek's Maverick Supper & Whiskey (formerly the ill-fated Ling & Javier) bills itself as Southwestern comfort food, but its no. 1 seller, according to managing director Kingsley "K.C." Sorber, is its 28-ounce T-bone. (Runner-up is the juicy porterhouse.) Just down Westheimer is a Sullivan's Steakhouse franchise, and not too much farther east is the venerable Stables Steak House. Go the other direction and you'll run into Capital Grille and The Palm.

"I think there's too many," says Vallone of area steak and chop shops. Of course, that's not going to stop him from looking for a new location for Vallone's after the first of the year.

Just how much meat can Houstonians eat? Neither the Texas Restaurant Association nor the Texas Beef Council knows for sure. But according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Americans spent more than $57 billion on beef last year. That's about $205 and 65 pounds per person, although a lot of that is in hamburger. Those figures indicate a 5.7 percent increase over last year's numbers, continuing the consumption growth seen in the industry since its all-time low in 1997.

Fleming's has its own strategy for getting a piece of the saturated market.

"We're going to offer really good steaks, cut fresh daily," says Fox. He also touts the chain's concept: a family-friendly nonsmoking establishment with airy decor and more than 100 wines by the glass. As opposed to being a direct competitor to the clubby meat-and-cigar establishments like Morton's of Chicago, Capital Grille and Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, it will be an alternative. "We're not going for the expense-account crowd. We want to be a neighborhood restaurant." They just happened to pick a neighborhood full of steak houses.

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Marene Gustin