One in a series of reviews celebrating Central Florida’s classic restaurants, those open 25 years or longer.
Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. But just as with Linda’s La Cantina, another independently owned restaurant reviewed recently in this series, the milestone comes with an asterisk.
As those who have lived in the area longer than five years know, Christner’s was originally known as Del Frisco’s Prime Steak & Lobster. It was not part of the Del Frisco’s Double Eagle chain, though both had the same origin. I won’t go into all the details here, but if you want to know more about the backstory, I’ve written about it in this article.
Russ Christner, who made the original deal with Del Frisco’s founder to open a steakhouse with that name in Orlando, chose a building on Lee Road instead of opting for something in the Tourist World part of town. That should have been an early indicator that this was meant to be a place for locals, a restaurant for celebrational splurges for some and for others a steakhouse for a fine piece of meat.
Christner grew the business and expanded the building’s footprint. But even as it got larger, he, along with his wife, Carole, maintained a hands on policy — Carole at the host stand and Russ wandering the dining rooms in his “uniform” of blue work shirt with a well worn and singed terrycloth towel over his shoulder — that kept it a family run business.
All that could have changed when Christner died in 2005. But Carole kept it going, aided by her son David, who left his job as a commercial pilot to become an accidental restaurateur, and David’s wife, Alice.
On a recent evening, all three were at the restaurant being the gracious hosts they’ve always been. The ambience — especially in the old bar and lounge, which is where I prefer to sit (ever since smoking was banned from restaurants; that’s how long it’s been around) — is still old style men’s club, but comfortable and unpretentious.
And the steaks are still some of the best in town.
Served on simple white plates that seem to have just been fired in the kilns of Hell (there was a reason Russ had that singed towel on his shoulder), the steaks have a crisped crust and a proprietary rub that includes a healthy dose of cracked peppercorns. And they’re always cooked to the requested temperature. And just to be sure, your server will insist that you cut into it while he or she is still standing there to verify that it is exactly as you like it.
My Ribeye was. Oozing red and with mouthfilling juices, the meat still tender to the tooth.
Russ’s Prime Strip, which my companion ordered, was just as nicely done. It was under the “Lagniappe” heading on the menu, the extra bit being a side order of Chateau Potatoes. That made the $39 12-ounce steak an extra bargain, relatively, compared to the 16-ounce potatoless Strip at $49.
The Chateau Potatoes were nice and creamy, but I also had to have a side order of the Potatoes au Gratin, thicker chunks covered with melting cheese. Worth the $13 charge? I’m going to say yes.
I’ve loved Christner’s Fried Oysters appetizer since the Del Frisco’s days, and they’re still terrific. Lightly jacketed and deftly fried, they’re served with a tartar sauce and a cocktail sauce, the latter being the more appropriate.
The Crab Cake was a huge mound of mostly crabmeat with some peppers and parsley, sitting in a puddle of Cajun Lobster Sauce.
After all that, I couldn’t pass up Carrot Cake for dessert. Wonderfully moist and with a rich cream cheese frosting. I also sampled the Bread Pudding. It was fine, but I liked the carrot cake better.
If I had remembered that dessert was so good I might have gone easier on the hot loaf of bread that was served when we were seated. It’s too good to not slather with the rich butter.
Service was good, and we appreciated the attention of a sommelier to assist with making some pairing recommendations.
Examine the high-end steakhouses and you’ll find that most are owned by corporations. Capital Grille, of course, is a Darden brand. Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s went corporate long ago. And Del Frisco’s Double Eagle, which moved into the area — Tourist World, of course — after Russ Christner’s agreement with the original owner expired, has 13 locations now.
A family owned and operated steakhouse is, you should forgive the expression, rare. A high-end restaurant that continues to meet the high standards set from the beginning is rarer still.
Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster is at 729 Lee Road, Orlando. It is open for dinner daily Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-645-4443.