December 13, 2012
Four days before opening night, Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse is buzzing with the energy of hundreds of workers. Tables are topped with white linen and set with wineglasses, even though they'll all be refreshed before the doors open for real. One woman is walking through the dining room with a pitcher of water, presumably rehearsing her route before the customers arrive.
"We've been looking for a Chicago space for 10 years," said Del Frisco's CEO Mark Mednansky, who was born in the city and grew up in Westchester. "We were really, really lucky to get this space. It's like a homecoming for me."
To the inevitable question of whether Chicago has room for yet another baron of beef, Mednansky is betting heavily that the answer is yes. The Chicago restaurant, only the company's 10th under the Double Eagle name (the group also owns Sullivan's Steakhouse and Del Frisco Grill concepts), has 540 seats in 24,000 square feet of space. There are 315 employees; 38 alone are runners, who schlep food from the third-floor kitchen to the second- and third-floor dining rooms. Not only is Del Frisco's the newest prime steakhouse in town, it also very likely is the largest.
Accordingly, Del Frisco's will need to sell a ton of beef to stay afloat, a prospect that doesn't seem to daunt Mednansky in the least. The concept may be new in town, but the restaurant's manager, Troy Smith, knows the market well from running Sullivan's Steakhouses (first in Naperville, then River North) for the past 10 years. And Del Frisco's is no stranger to competitive steak markets.
"Our New York store does about $37 million (in annual sales)," Mednansky said. "It's the busiest steakhouse in New York."
Del Frisco's, in other words, is a major player. But in Chicago, Del Frisco's may be less interesting for what it is than for where it is.
The restaurant has taken residence in the old Esquire Theater, a 1938 movie house on Oak Street. The theater is no more, but the building's facade has been left largely intact, and the vertical Esquire sign, a highly visual piece of Chicago history, still hangs out front, high above the much-smaller Del Frisco's name.
But once inside the front door, it's clear that considerable effort has been made to honor the theater's memory. The original marquee, rescued from a salvage store, spells "Esquire" in lights along the entry hall. Old film reels have been fashioned into lounge coffee tables. Restrooms are illuminated by movie-style spotlights; the sloping, one-piece sinks suggest the original theater floor.
"The theater was built at the height of the art deco movement," says Walter Pancewicz, principal at Aria Group Architects. "We wanted to bring some of that look back."
And so there are deco-look, multistory chandeliers of wrought iron, their glass beads hand-fitted with LED lights ("So you're not changing bulbs all the time," Pancewicz said), and stone-clad columns echoing a circa-1940s pattern. There are green and teal color accents and hexagonal patterns in the tile floors and ceiling trim.
And then there is the real eye-grabber: the 47-foot-tall, glass-and-steel wine tower with a spiral-staircase spine. "There's a million dollars of wine in there," Mednansky said. Fun fact: The tower doesn't sit on the floor; it's hung from the roof trusses, because the floor couldn't support the 20-odd tons that the wine-filled tower weighs.
And no, we're not talking about the Esquire's original floors; those are long gone, part of the studs-to-rafters gut job. "The interior was rubbish when we took over," Mednansky said. "There were holes in the floors, which were completely unusable. It was like 'Band of Brothers' in here."
And now it's a steak palace, serving lunch and dinner daily (as of this week).
Is there room in the market for another steakhouse? People asked the same question when Mastro's Steakhouse came to town in 2010, when Chicago Cut Steakhouse opened earlier that same year and when Michael Jordan's Steakhouse opened in 2011. Eventually, another major steakhouse will show up (though we're running out of operators who aren't already here), and the question will be asked yet again.
Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse
58 E. Oak St. ; 312-888-2499
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