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Steak houses spin off more casual siblings

Sales for steak houses grew 6.2 percent in 2013, several points ahead of the 2.4 percent growth for all full-service restaurants, according to Chicago research company Technomic. Even so, many customers still see these palaces of red meat as special occasion or business dinner restaurants. High check averages are one reason. An overly formal atmosphere is another.

To bump up frequency of visits and attract younger customers with thinner wallets, several well-known steak houses are launching more casual, less expensive concepts. They share well-crafted cocktail, wine and beer lists, menus that encourage grazing and sharing, extended hours and a relaxed ambiance that appeals to women, millennials and diners like me. These four are leading examples.

Wollensky’s Grill

The Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group opened its first Wollensky’s Grill in Chicago, transforming the downstairs dining room of the established Smith & Wollensky steak house into a relaxed, pub-style space. A horseshoe-shaped bar, the focal point of the room, sets the stage for guest interaction, as do the high-top tables, multiple TV monitors and the food. The menu begins with “Sociables,” the Grille’s name for appetizers, and goes on to include other shareable items as well as less pricey versions of steak house classics.

Menu sampler:

  • Steak House Punch (Appleton Estate Rum, Crème de Pêche, Remy Martin VSOP, Lemon & Lime Juice, Peach Simple); $13
  • Lobster Corn Dogs with Cognac Mustard Sauce; $16
  • Steak Frites; $32

Morton’s Grille

Morton’s The Steakhouse now counts three Morton’s Grilles in its family, all of which are designed to be everyday destinations for drinking and dining. Customers can get a traditional steak dinner with a la carte sides, but the menu is dominated by more innovative fare. Under its “Mix, Mingle & Share” heading, there are 14 starters to whet the appetite, after which diners can move on to items such as short rib sliders, blackened mahi mahi or a Mediterranean flatbread. During weekday “Power Hours” from 3 to 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to closing, guests can enjoy beer, wine and cocktails for $4, $5 and $6 respectively and $6 bar bites.

Menu sampler:

  • Portobello Steak Fries; $12
  • Hot Pastrami Reuben; $18
  • Morton’s Prime Burger; $17

SideDoor

Though not strictly a steak house, Lawry’s prime rib dinners are served steak house-style and steaks are featured on the menu, with prices ranging from $39 to $59 for a hunk of beef. Last year, the Chicago location spawned SideDoor—a laid-back sister concept adjacent to its parent. SideDoor sports an open kitchen, bare tables and a beer list curated by the resident beverage director. A number of the selections are local Chicago brews and rare cellared beers; servers make pairing suggestions from a menu that includes cheese and charcuterie boards, sandwiches and heartier dishes. Half-price bites are served weekdays from 3 to 5 p.m.

Menu sampler:

  • Deviled Eggs; $8
  • Prime Rib Poutine; $14
  • Slow Roasted Duck Confit; $15

Del Frisco’s Grille

Del Frisco’s, a pioneer in developing its next-gen concept, now has 16 Del Frisco’s Grilles in its portfolio. No two are identical, claims its website, with each locale (from California to Atlanta to New York) boasting its own menu and vibe. Chefs have the flexibility to get creative and cater to local tastes. “Food to Fight Over” is the catchy name given to the shareable appetizers. Desserts figure more prominently here than on the other concepts’ menus.

Menu sampler:

  • The Adult Milkshake (Nocello Walnut Liqueur, Creme de Cacao Chocolate Liqueur, Vanilla Ice Cream); $9.50
  • Cheesesteak Eggrolls; $12
  • Lamb Burger with roasted tomato, arugula, tzatziki sauce, frites; $16.50

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