They have a new look
A long time coming, these steakhouses also break from tradition through aesthetic. If you close your eyes and conjure up an image of a steakhouse, what does it look like? If words like “dark,” “supper clubby,” “wood paneled,” “opulent,” and “banquette seating” come to mind, you’ve just envisioned the seemingly ubiquitous design elements found in classic steakhouses. While some of these finishes make an appearance in the design of news spots, they’re relatively few and far between.
Boeufhaus and Community Tavern ditch the floor-to-ceiling wood and white tablecloths in favor of exposed brick punctuated with rustic light fixtures and tablecloth-free wooden tables. Maple and Ash and RPM Steak strategically avoid the “cavernous” feel by allowing diffused natural light to spill into their respective dining rooms through windows; RPM Steak’s white seats make the space feel even lighter and airier. STK, Chicago’s self-proclaimed sexiest steakhouse, flaunts intimate curved booth seating, a marble bar, and textural walls and focal points. And Swift & Sons entertains the eye in all directions with playful tiled flooring, industrial chic metal piping, and a pastoral mural near the bar.
Driving forces behind the steakhouse boom
Chicago’s steakhouse boom hasn’t stemmed from a single catalyst, but rather, from a variety of factors. Maple & Ash Director of Wine and Service Belinda Chang captures the essence of the movement in one very poignant statement: “[The steakhouse] is a classic form -- an archetype for Chicago. Classic forms are constantly ripe for refinement and evolution.”
It’s true -- Chicago has always welcomed and supported steakhouses, but up until a few years ago, opening and operating a steakhouse was undeniably formulaic. Sure, one place may do béarnaise better than the rest, or another shines with its attentive service, but when it comes down to it, part of the appeal of classic steakhouses is that they’ve built a business off a clear set of diners’ expectations. Perhaps, then, the second-wave steakhouses are a way of repackaging a familiar dining experience in new and inventive ways?
“I think people have been very welcoming to the idea of redoing the steakhouse experience. People don’t necessarily want to dine at a place where all the vegetables, salads, and desserts are an afterthought... Steakhouses needed a refresh,” Psaltis says. Other chefs, restaurateurs, and industry experts echo the sentiments, including Chang, who says that steakhouses “embrace something uniquely Chicago. It’s a classic form where the focus is on the product and the guest, not the chef’s ego.”
Chef-driven concepts dominate Chicago’s greater food scene, and while the talent and ingenuity of these chefs is undeniable, there is something to be said for steakhouses’ collective propensity to value the approachable and comforting aspects of the food above the chef’s ego and influence. Each of these new steakhouses come equipped with great chefs who let their food, however foreign-leaning or familiar, speak louder than their own personal styles.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge the economical factor of the steakhouse boom, too. After the economic downturn in ’08, the luxury and opulence of the steakhouse experience fell out of favor, both out of necessity to exercise restraint and out of the notion that to indulge at that level wouldn’t be prudent. Now, the country has reached greater economic stability than it has in years, and as a result, people see dining out as a way to treat themselves and become a part of the country’s ever-growing food-obsessed culture. Steakhouses are a vehicle for checking those boxes, simultaneously embodying where Chicago’s dining landscape has been, and where it is going.
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Kailley Lindman is a contributing writer for Thrillist Chicago, as well as a freelance food photographer, food blogger at KailleysKitchen.com, and recovering vegetarian. Follow her at @KailleysKitchen.