I finally had a chance to stop by Del Frisco’s to check out the renovations the high-end steakhouse underwent last year.
Basically, the two separate entities -- the main dining room and the lounge and piano bar next door -- were joined together as one with the addition of a cathedral-like foyer and main entrance. Walk through the front door and go to the right for the old dining room (the original entrance is blocked and the hallway is being used as storage) or go to the left to reach the bar and lounge. The night I visited more people were choosing the lounge than the dining room. But the nice thing is that the entire menu is available at the bar -- something that was not always possible when the piano bar was first added.
The other nice thing is that the food is still first rate.
Del Frisco’s has now been around for 16 years. When it first opened on Lee Road in mid 1993 it became an instant favorite, not only of mine but of Central Foridians who love great steak. When Florida magazine conducted its first annual Foodie Awards in 1998 it earned the award for best high-end steakhouse from both the readers and the critic. And it remained a favorite for several years even as competition in the high-priced meat market grew. We were willing to pay premium prices for Del Frisco’s steaks because the quality was unquestionable, they were cooked with precision expertise and the service was among the most professional in town. Dinner here was a special indulgence.
But then Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon bought the original Del Frisco’s Double Eagle in Texas and began to open other locations as their upscale brand. Del Frisco’s – Double Eagles all – popped up in Denver, Las Vegas and Manhattan. The corporatization of high-end steakhouses has been happening for several years. An independently-owned steakhouse is almost as rare these days as seared tuna, if you’ll forgive the slightly mixed metaphor.
But because of a pre-existing arrangement, Orlando owner Russ Christner was able to retain some independence.
And that was important because much of the restaurant’s early success appeared due to Christner and his ever-presence in the dining rooms, roaming among the always-full tables and booths in his trademark blue shirt with scorched terrycloth towel draped over his shoulder. The towel wasn’t just a prop but a necessary tool for grabbing the impossibly hot plates if he needed to lend a hand. He was literally a hands-on owner, and the restaurant operated best when he was giving it his full attention.
Christner developed melanoma and died four years ago. During his illness the quality of the restaurant flagged a bit, but things have been getting back to normal -- which means extraordinary in Del Frisco’s case -- for the last few years. There’s once again an emphasis on indulging a craving for a thick, juicy, high-quality, well-prepared steak served with pride by a mindful staff.
A finer piece of meat than the 16-ounce prime strip ($35.95) would be hard to come by. It was cooked precisely to order, a very red center within a crispy charred exterior that, thankfully, wasn’t coated with pepper, as it was the last time I had dined there. That the prime ribeye ($30.95), a bone-in cut that also weighed in at 16-ounces, wasn’t quite as good as the strip is only to say how terrific the strip was. Both were worth the price, which, you should know, buys only the meat – sides are extra.
The fried oysters appetizer, are wonderful. Huge, plump oysters wearing crispy golden jackets. I had them on my first visit and enjoyed them so much I ordered them again on my second trip.
I also had a sampler of three types of chilled shrimp, which included four prawnlike shrimp with remoulade, cocktail and mustard sauces. More oysters, please.
For dessert there was a perfectly wonderful carrot cake, whose $5.95 price tag belies its size. Moist and multi-layered with a creamy frosting. Praline parfait ($5.95) was good, too, with pecans and caramel over ice cream.
The wine list is a disappointment. Wonderful steaks deserve a more varied list with better, more complex selections.
The décor has never been one of the Del Frisco’s selling points. But it’s appropriately masculine, dark and moody. Perhaps a little too moody – a fight nearly broke out between several male guests on one of my visits. Big hunks of meat tend to bring out the caveman.
Carole Christner continues to operate the restaurant as the only Del Frisco’s franchise. Her son David, who worked at the restaurant when it first opened and then left to pursue a career as a pilot, has returned as co-owner. If the two of them are reluctant accidental owners only following Russ Christner’s dream, you wouldn’t know it. They have embraced the role of owner with the same hands-on excellence that Central Floridians have some to expect from one of the last great independently owned fine steakhouses in the country.
Del Frisco’s is at 729 Lee Road, Orlando. It’s open for dinner Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-645-4443. Visit the Web site here.