by LEN LEAR
There are some things in life that are way beyond my comprehension, including physics, Aristotelian philosophy, the New York Times crossword puzzle and how a pricey steakhouse like Del Frisco’s at 15th and Chestnut Streets (which has a ton of competition with numerous other equally high-end steakhouses in center city) is able to fill hundreds of seats every night during a severe recession.
Not too long after they opened in November, 2008, Del Frisco’s was trashed with a one-bell review by the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan, which is usually the kiss of death for a new restaurant. To make matters even worse, LaBan later returned and wrote that he was taking away the one bell, leaving them with the dreaded “No Bell Prize.” Among the many negatives, referring to the short skirts of female servers, was: “The only thing missing is the stripper pole.” (In honor of LaBan, the restaurant now has “The Craig LaBan Memorial Stripper Pole” near the bar, but I have not heard of anyone actually sliding down it.)
Now when you combine the LaBan reviews with the recession and the fact that Del Frisco’s has more seats to fill than any other restaurant in center city (about 600) as well as the stratospheric prices (appetizers from $15 to $19, soups and salads from $10 to $11, seafood entrees from $33 to $38, side dishes from $9 to $18 and steaks and chops from $39 to $89), I was sure we’d pretty much have the place to ourselves during our visit in 2009 as well as last week.
During both of those visits, however, it appeared as if every table was occupied, the bar as busy as a snow plow after a two-foot snowstorm, and as soon as any nearby table would empty out, new diners would fill it. And both visits were on weeknights, not weekends. I should add that last week’s visit was during Restaurant Week, but manager Rich Furino said that at least half of the customers were ordering from the regular menu. (He insisted, by the way, that all portions on the $35-for-three-courses menu were the exact same size as those on the regular menu.)
One reason for the crowds is undoubtedly the posh setting, which makes one feel like a celebrity. It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular setting for a restaurant unless they turn the Palace of Versailles into a steakhouse. The 1922 Packard Building, which was once a First Pennsylvania Bank but was then vacant for about 15 years, includes stately marble columns, ornate sculptured ceilings, gigantic windows and drapes and historical iron work.
The original details are enhanced by a sprawling central bar encasing an exquisite 34-foot glass wine chamber and mezzanine bar with aerial views of the restaurant. The tower has the capacity to hold about 2,500 bottles of wine (there are more than 7,000 bottles of wine in the entire restaurant), and the “Vault,” once the location of safe deposit boxes, has been transformed into a regal private dining venue. According to Furino, there is one bottle of wine worth thousands of dollars. “We are going to open it when the Flyers win the Stanley Cup,” he said.
If your credit cards can withstand the trauma, the food at Del Frisco’s is about as good as it gets. An appetizer of tuna tartare ($16) was heavenly, as was a crab cake with an ambrosial Cajun lobster sauce ($18). A 22-ounce bone-in ribeye steak ($49) had intense flavor with meat slipping delicately away from the bone, like silk falling from skin. A butterscotch cheesecake with a sublime butterscotch sauce ($10) was a symphony of magic, probably the best cheesecake we have ever tasted. A pomegranate martini ($14) elicited a low moan of pleasure.
Del Frisco’s is definitely doing its part to revive our comatose financial patient, having added hundreds of new jobs to the local economy. And while everyone expects good food, drinks and ambience at an opulent restaurant, Del Frisco’s also offers highly choreographed team service. It seems as if smiling, omniscient service personnel are swirling around the tables to attend to every need. If you coughed, an attendant might just appear out of nowhere to hand you cough medicine. (By the way, one satisfied customer is Mayor Nutter, who eats there often and usually orders the crisp duck steak.)
One local food columnist called the service infantry overkill, but we thought it enhanced the dining experience, especially when the servers are as terrific as Erik Elliott, who waited on us. The Havertown native referred to me as “Mr. Lear,” and anyone who calls me “Mister” automatically goes into my will.
Del Frisco’s offers valet parking at $18. For more information, call 246-0533 or visit www.delfriscos.com