Commentary: Re-inventing the steakhouse

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Yes, many consumers have turned away from the ‘traditional’ giant slab of beef that used to anchor steakhouse menus. But the alternative may prove to be even better for producers.

Here’s how a recent restaurant review of a new D.C. area establishment in Silver Spring, Md. (which is actually “inside the Beltway”) begins:

“The Urban Butcher, the edgy new protein palace, is a combination restaurant, bar, lounge, meat shop and curing room, serving house-made charcuterie, American artisan cheeses and inventive beef, pork, chicken and seafood dishes.”

You had me at butcher.

As the review in Bethesda Magazine noted, Urban Butcher is in the vanguard of what restaurant critics are calling “next-generation steak houses,” the distinction being that the menu isn’t loaded with what the article labeled “huge slabs of beef from Midwestern feedlots in a mahogany-paneled dining room.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The brainchild of Raynold Mendizabal, a native Cuban and a mathematician-turned chef/entrepreneur, Urban Butcher’s menu includes locally sourced meats from heritage breeds and an eclectic mix of natural salamis, specialty sausages and cured hams, a selection the reviewer termed “a stark contrast to the safe, predictable and often boring restaurants in the area.”

Three things appeal to me about the restaurant itself and the trend Mr. Mendizabal seems to be helping to set.

First, I used to live in downtown Silver Spring some years ago, back when it was still considered “an emerging urban destination.” Translation: Deteriorating downtown in need of revival and less-than-stellar neighborhoods in need of renovation. Good to see that the town has apparently completed its comeback.

Second, I love the phrase “protein palace.” From women’s magazines (Women’s Health: “Protein: Your Secret Weight-Loss Weapon!”) to diet gurus (Dr. Oz: “A diet high in the right kind of protein — at the right time — can lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of diabetes and help you lose weight”) to medical authorities (WebMD: “High-protein diets can tame your hunger and help you lose weight”), we’re in the midst of a mini-version of the hype that accompanied the Atkins and South Beach Diet craze back in the 1990s. Only this time the recommendations to replace refined carbohydrates with high-protein foods are more sensible, more intuitive and ultimately, more beneficial to consumer perceptions of meat and poultry.

And finally, a new restaurant like Urban Butcher is exciting because quite honestly, the steak house category could use a facelift. It’s not just that our collective palates have become more sophisticated — to the point that a “huge slab of beef” no longer has the appeal it once did — nor simply a consequence of more people being willing to experiment with vegetarian-type entrées, especially when dining out.

If one were to consult a foodservice marketing specialist, about the last thing that person would recommend is opening a “traditional” steak house restaurant. Both the perception of a serving of steak, and the reality of beef’s pricing and value, would preclude a contemporary restaurateur — with rare exceptions (no pun intended) — from opening a steak house to anything like the kind of rave reviews accorded a concept like Urban Butcher.

And that’s good news.

The upside of the evolution

I would argue that the expansion of high-end foodservice menus to include non-meat entrées is a positive trend, good for restaurateurs and good for animal agriculture. That’s because the alternative to diners turning away from conventional ways of serving meat and poultry is abandoning the category altogether. By giving people permission to enjoy vegetarian-type dishes and by re-introducing the delights of charcuterie, ethnic specialties and those “other meats” (lamb, fowl and game meats), I believe more people stay connected with animal foods’ rightful place as an essential component of a healthy diet.

Now, most of us aren’t going to be preparing chorizo Espanol or serving Greek-style loukanika (lamb sausage) on a Wednesday night at the family dinner table. Nor are we likely to load up our carts with sheep’s milk cheeses or smoked bluefish rillettes on our weekly grocery shopping trips.

But those entrées are merely fancier versions of traditional foods that have been integral to many different cultures, and a visceral connection to what has sustained people in virtually every era and in every region of the world over the centuries is what we’ve lost with our post-modern, pre-packaged, convenience-driven lifestyles.

A restaurant like Urban Butcher — and I really believe it’s on the leading edge of a sustainable evolution in foodservice — can potentially do the livestock industry a big favor by showing the trend-setters who influence so much of what the rest of us deem to be acceptable that animal foods should always be the mainstay of both restaurant and household menus.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Wyo  |  April, 28, 2014 at 07:40 PM

GOOD News………GOOD Report

Frank Klafs    
April, 29, 2014 at 09:29 AM

if the steak is not rare and at least 16 oz, it does not belong on the menu

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Washington  |  April, 29, 2014 at 11:33 AM

Ha! Good point. Unfortunately, that's a distinctly minority opinion these days.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Washington  |  April, 29, 2014 at 11:33 AM

Ha! Good point. Unfortunately, that's a distinctly minority opinion these days.

siquijor  |  April, 30, 2014 at 05:41 AM

yes i agree

April, 30, 2014 at 09:05 AM

All I got out of the description was trendy, expensive and exclusive. If this trend continues, very few people will be able to afford to eat beef

SD  |  April, 30, 2014 at 08:31 PM

The "locally sourced meats from heritage breeds......simply shouts EXPENSIVE, very small servings prepared with exotic herbs and spices in a trendy atmosphere....and at very, very high prices. Might make some diners who aren't so interested in ostentatious entertainment yearn for a modestly sized (not huge, but thick!) very nicely prepared, steak served with great fresh vegetables and maybe a small elegant dessert and some good wines at a reasonable price.

Washington State  |  May, 01, 2014 at 07:59 AM

the operant word being "reasonable" price. Yes, it costs more to produce quality meats, but not hTHAT much more. Seems this place appeals to one's sense if "why not pay far too much, I'm wroth it.. besides, its all about the EXPERIENCE, isn't it?

MT  |  May, 01, 2014 at 10:42 AM

Food snobbery will save us. What could possibly be more "sustainable"? Oh, how I do hate that term. But, no question sucking up to the 1% is the future we're carving out for ourselves in the beef industry. Better watch out -- just because prices are up and we're making money hand over fist we shouldn't get too big for our britches. We worked hard to create our market (remember "Beef, it's what's for dinner"?) and now we are dumping all the ordinary shoppers to cater to food snobs. Smaller market but maybe more lucrative and recession-proof? I'm not convinced.

SD  |  May, 03, 2014 at 08:34 PM

While agreeing that we need to produce top quality beef, I believe we also benefit from the current beef industry providing so many 'different strokes for different folks', in that there is a wide range of prices and qualities of beef. Maybe we need to be sure we don't make it impossible for good producers who choose to produce a low in-put animal, while we are focusing on satisfying the customer who wants only the best. By low-input, I do not mean POOR qualilty, but possibly something like either 'sport cattle', that is Longhorn or Corriente based, or dairy genetics in a lighter weight end product fed only a short time. Or else native grass fed older market cows. But good, healthy animals, but not the fancy ones.

May, 08, 2014 at 01:37 PM

I wonder what heritage breeds they use? And what is the definition of one? Both old and endangered, or at least threatened?

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