It’s been 19 years since Russ Christner opened Del Frisco’s Prime Steak & Lobster on Lee Road in Orlando. It was the first Del Frisco’s outside of Dallas. Christner told me at the time that his friend, Dale Wamstad, who founded Del Frisco’s (and you thought his name was Del), was reluctant to grant Christner the rights to open a restaurant under his brand. But he relented, giving Christner a 20 year license to use the name, with an option to renew for another 20.
When Del Frisco’s opened in 1993, it became an instant hit, at least in my book. It was a high-end steakhouse with unquestionably high quality meat, and with unapologetically high prices. It was a special occasion place for some, a regular indulgence for others. It was the first recipient of my Foodie Award for best steakhouse.
The restaurant had a distinctly masculine, clubby mien, as many old-school steakhouses do. But Del Frisco’s got much of its atmosphere from Christner himself. He was ever-present, roaming the dining room in his iconic light blue shirt with a trademark terrycloth towel, full of scorch marks, on his shoulder -- always prepared to pick up one of the sizzling plates if necessary. You could tell he loved being a restaurateur.
And his restaurant grew. He bought the property next door and had a bridging structure built to marry the two buildings together. In the new space he put a piano lounge. It seemed clear that the reason he put in a piano bar was so that he could sit down every evening and sing a song or two. I heard him sing once; he was a great restaurateur.
But there came a time when the quality at Del Frisco’s began to flag, and I said as much after a visit to see if the Foodie should remain on Lee Road. But what we didn’t know at the time, at least not those of us really didn’t need to know, was that Christner was ill. He was fighting melanoma, and that, understandably, was taking his energy, and taking him away from the restaurant.
He lost his battle with the cancer in 2005, and his wife, Carole, who had always been a co-owner of the restaurant, now found herself front and center in its operation. To help her, their son David left his job as a commercial pilot and became an accidental restaurateur.
Seven years later. And Del Frisco’s is fading away. No, not the quality of the restaurant. In fact, the state of the current restaurant is as strong as it ever was. But, as I reported earlier, the people who now control the Del Frisco’s brand have decided they would rather not have the Orlando restaurant continue under the Del Frisco’s brand. Lawyers were hired. The deal between Russ Christner and Dale Wamstad could be challenged, they determined.
I learned the details, or some of them, on a recent visit, a special occasion, as usual. The restaurant now sprawls, but I still prefer the booths in the original bar area. My friend and I were shown to a perfect table. We ordered glasses of wine after our server tirelessly delivered tastes of several options.
The fried oysters here have always been a favorite. These, in a r-less month, were not as plump as in the past, but they were as perfectly breaded and fried as ever. I also had the shrimp remoulade, no small offerings here -- big, firm shrimp smothered with a spicy remoulade sauce.
Our choice of steak was the New York strip, cooked to a gorgeous medium-rare, the center of the thick cut still a deep bluish red. The steak had a crisped crust from the high-heat grilling, and it was loaded with freshly cracked pepper. As good a steak as ever.
To accompany, we ordered the potatoes au gratin, thick slices of potatoes in a creamy sauce, topped with melted cheddar. Arteries be damned.
Service was stellar -- professional, accommodating, and friendly without being intrusive. But I was most impressed by what a charming host David Christner has become. He has assumed the role nicely. He wears no terry towel on his shoulder; that was his dad’s schtick. But he is undoubtedly a restaurateur, accidental no more, greeting tables and being the affable host his father always was.
The Christner name belongs on this restaurant. Really, it should have been all along.
Christner’s Del Frisco’s is at 729 Lee Road, Orlando. It is open for dinner Monday through Saturday. Here is link to delfriscosorlando.com. The phone number is 407-645-4443.