Lessons on Running a World-Class Steakhouse from 5 of Chicago's Best
Chicago is practically synonymous with steak.
The Windy City is surrounded by some of the best cattle ranching land the Midwest has to offer. With generations-old families who raise beef that’s famous worldwide for it’s melt-in-your-mouth flavour, Chicago locals have access to some of the best meat right in their backyard. And Chicago’s history as one of the premiere meatpacking cities in the United States only adds to its case for being Steak Capital, USA.
A concept that’s as old as the city itself is the Chicago steakhouse, where chefs serve up perfectly cooked cuts of beef that live up to the city’s status as the beef capital of the U.S. But while Chicago steakhouses have deep roots in tradition, the most successful ones today are changing the game — modernizing the classic steakhouse concept for a new generation of guests.
When you think of a Chicago steakhouse, you probably think of pomp and circumstance — wood detailing, banquette booths and white tablecloths; expensive scotch and starchy sides; gut-busting portions of prime cuts of beef, all with dim lighting and soft jazz music lilting from a piano in the corner.
In 2019, though, steakhouses are evolving into spaces that are consistent with restaurants who offer different cuisine types. Now you see more dishes meant for sharing to encourage a communal dining experience; bright, open dining rooms; sides prepared with as much thought and care as the star of the dish.
Running a steakhouse today means striking a balance between honoring the traditional roots of the craft, and delivering the type of dining experience guests want from a more modern restaurant. It’s not an easy balance to achieve, but many of Chicago’s steakhouses are doing it. Here are five lessons from five of the Windy City’s top steakhouses.
Lesson 1: Embrace the classic steakhouse offerings
“Ninety percent of steakhouse customers know what they want before they walk in, so it was important for us to give it to them,” Chris Pandel, executive chef at Swift & Sons, told the Chicago Tribune.
So Pandel designed a menu around really embracing the classic cuts of steak that people expect to be able to have at a steakhouse: filet mignon, ribeye and New York strip. That’s the big takeaway that other owners and chefs can learn from Swift & Sons’ success: The most important thing about a steakhouse is the steak, and it’s OK to lean into that.
But with that said, it doesn’t mean Pandel only focuses on the meat. Swift & Sons also offers fish, pasta, lamb, chicken — even a venison pate and vegan charcuterie. And its most popular dish is a beef wellington made for sharing between two guests.
“30 to 40 percent of the menu allows customers to have a different experience, so if they want to take that leap of faith, the opportunity is there,” he said. “Our original idea was to do a really great version of 'the wheel,' as we call it around here. We wanted to use our relationships with local farmers, to allow seasonality to play more into the menu than it does in a traditional steakhouse.”
Lesson 2: Don’t be afraid to try new things
Lesson one is to embrace tradition and offer the steakhouse classics diners expect to see. But the success of Gold Coast’s Maple & Ash defies that lesson and gives us our second takeaway: Don’t be afraid to branch out and try new things.
“We challenge one another to look at service and food in different ways and always with the goal of blowing people’s minds. We’re not afraid of change, we thrive on it,” general manager Raylene Westbrook explained.
And so, Maple & Ash’s menu does offer the filet mignon, ribeye, cowgirl and tomahawk dishes a guest expects to see at a steakhouse — alongside different twists on the same ingredients, like gourmet meatballs and beef stroganoff. There’s also the playful and adventurous option, described on the menu as “Let us take care of you,” a choice that’s sure to result in some familiar steakhouse tastes and some clever new twists on the concept.
As executive chef Danny Grant puts it, “You give (guests) what they want, make them comfortable and get them to trust us, and then they'll try the ricotta truffle agnolotti. That's a fun thing to see.”
Lesson 3: Embrace modern trends and dispel the traditional steakhouse “air of mystery”
For Giuseppe Tentori, executive chef and partner at GT Prime, the dimly lit, smoky, traditional atmosphere that comes to mind when one thinks of a traditional steakhouse wasn’t the right path.
“Steakhouses can have an air of mystery when it comes to the kitchen - guests rarely get to see what is going on behind the scenes,” he explained. “It was very important to me when I opened GT Prime to have an open kitchen where our guests could watch food being prepared and plated. Cooking a beautiful cut of steak on the wood-burning hearth is an amazing thing to see!”
The open kitchen concept is not the only modern trend at play at GT Prime.
“I also think it’s important to not only have luxurious cuts of steak, but also an interesting variety of other meats - we carry bison and venison, as well as lamb. We make sure our sides are elevated and composed and could be enjoyed by meat eaters and vegetarians alike,” Tentori said.
But be careful of making too many changes too quickly.
“One thing that I learned when I opened GT Prime is that it’s better to offer familiar steakhouse staples at the get-go, so that your guests can understand what your concept is. Once they love the restaurant and trust your expertise, you can begin introducing new and different menu items. It’s always better to evolve slowly!”
Lesson 4: Use the best products — and focus on all your ingredients as much as you focus on steak
While steak is the star at a steakhouse, it doesn’t have to be the only menu item that gets guests excited. RPM Steak gives us this lesson: Get the best in all your ingredients, from steaks to vegetables to pastry supplies.
“I don't know if I'd use 'redefine' to describe what we're doing,” Head Chef Doug Psaltis told the Tribune. “We're a product-driven steakhouse. We pay a lot of attention to our purveyors, and there's a great integrity to the product we bring in. Grass-fed beef, wagyu, dry-aged, we try to find the best of all that.”
The best of steak, but also the best of everything else. Alongside an extensive menu of prime beef cuts, there’s a long list of salads that employ the freshest seasonal produce, and sides made from local veggies that are cooked to order with the same care that goes into the main dish. Getting the best of the best local ingredients can be a challenge for any restaurant owner, but ChefHero’s network of local suppliers can help.
“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,” Psaltis explained. “Steakhouses needed a refresh.”
Lesson 5: Take great care of your staff, and they’ll take great care of your guests
There’s been a lot of focus on the food in these lessons, but steakhouses still have to follow the same rule that can make or break any restaurant: Hospitality is a huge key to success.
For that lesson, we look to Chicago’s oldest steakhouse: Gene and Georgetti, the Franklin Street staple that’s on its second generation of ownership — and sometimes third generation of happy, loyal guests.
Owner Tony Durpetti could singlehandedly write the book on lessons for running a world-class steakhouse. But of all the advice he has to offer, Gene and Georgetti’s hospitality might be the most important takeaway.
It all starts with how the restaurant treats its staff.
“We've got professional waiters here; they raise a family, they put kids through college. Busboys wait in line for one guy to retire so they can move up. It's how it works here,” Durpetti told Eater in 2014. “When somebody retires they get a big party thrown for them and their family and then I give them a check and a plaque for however many years they've been here. The joke is that someone has to die or retire to get a job at Gene and Georgetti.”
The staff then extends that same hospitality to the restaurant’s guests.
“Some of our regulars come here three or four days a week. But we have a major variety of Italian specialties on the menu as well. Some regulars come in and they want something special and the kitchen will make it for them. If somebody wants an omelette at night, the kitchen will make it for them.”
Running a steakhouse in Chicago means taking on decades of tradition and fighting with a crowded market of old-school spots and creative restaurateurs putting a modern twist on a city staple. These lessons from Chicago’s top steak spots show there is room for innovation in a market so steeped with tradition, as long as it’s done with respect to the storied history of Chicago steakhouses.