When I visited Stoney River Legendary Steaks on a recent Saturday evening, not one, not two, but four black-clad young women greeted me inside the front door.
I thought maybe this was overkill.
But then I glanced at the seating chart one hostess held. Actually, this looked less like a seating chart than a student's crude sketch of the Schlieffen plan or maybe the blitz packages of the '85 Bears.
And then I noticed the crowd waiting inside the front door. And the crowd waiting near the working fireplace. And the crowd waiting at the bar. And the crowd waiting around the bar (who were waiting twice, really: both for a table and just to get a drink at the bar).
I wondered whether four hostesses were enough.
Stoney River doesn't take reservations. It has "priority seating." You call the restaurant and ask for a specific time. If it's available, you're "guaranteed" a wait of no more than 30 minutes from that time.
If you're a smartass like I am, you're already thinking, "OK, so I just ask for 'priority seating' 30 minutes before I actually want to eat, and then I show up at the time I really want to eat, and my table's ready."
Sadly, no. Your wait begins when you arrive and give your name to the hostesses, who write your name on a slip of paper and, according to some theorem of higher restaurant mathematics, give it a place in the stack of slips of paper that comprises the waiting list.
And then you wait for one of the hostesses to come tell you your table's ready a much more stressful process than you might imagine, since your slip of paper has nothing on it except your name, and the interior of Stoney River is dim. The hostesses wander around the bar with bewildered looks that seem to say, "You know, at Applebee's, they have those little buzzy things to deal with this shit."
Stoney River has ten locations in six states. Its home office is in Alpharetta, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, but its corporate parent is Nashville, Tennessee-based O'Charley's Inc., which runs several of its flagship O'Charley's restaurants in the St. Louis area.
The Stoney River concept splits the difference between big chains like Outback or the Cheesecake Factory and smaller, more refined steak-house chains like Ruth's Chris or Fleming's. Like the big chains, the wait is long and the scale huge: Four dining rooms surround the massive, high-ceilinged bar and open kitchen; among the desserts is a piece of chocolate cake so gigantic that it comes to the table with a steak knife sticking out of it.
But once you're seated in one of the cushy booths or spacious tables, you'll find service that's polished and friendly without being obsequious, and a menu that tries to appeal to a gourmet sensibility. In fact, there's even a section of the menu called "Gourmet Entrées."
But you'll probably order from the section called "Legendary Steaks." According to its Web site, Stoney River offers "premium, grain-fed Midwestern beef, [wet-]aged in our own lockers and trimmed by hand."
This isn't quite as fancy as it sounds. Grain-fed that is, corn-fed Midwestern beef is what most of us have been eating since we earned our carnivore merit badges. A growing number of aficionados believe the taste of corn obscures beef's true flavor not to mention their objections to the drugs you have to pump into a cow so it can digest corn in the first place. Wet-aging is certainly better than no aging but it's the minimum a steak house with any pretensions should serve. As for "premium," Stoney River serves Certified Angus Beef, a brand that, according its official Web site, grades as USDA prime or the upper 35 percent of USDA choice.
The ten-ounce "Lodge Filet" I tried was a tender, juicy and tasty steak but not a steak that distinguishes itself from any other tender, juicy, tasty steak I've had. The filet came seasoned with Stoney River's own blend of herbs and spices. This too didn't strike me as especially distinct a little salty, a little peppery, and not much else. In this case, I didn't mind. A good steak doesn't need much more than a little salt and pepper, maybe a dab of maître d' butter. (A great steak dry-aged, prime, grass-fed doesn't need a thing.)
Far more interesting was the "Coffee-Cured Filet," which as the name suggests was marinated for four hours in coffee. My first few bites did yield a strong coffee flavor good coffee at that, very dark, with hints of cocoa but this soon gave way to a deeper, funkier essence. The best comparison I can make would be mushrooms in a red-wine sauce, but I don't think that captures it entirely. At any rate, I wouldn't want every steak I tried to taste like this, but it was a welcome change of pace.
It was certainly more interesting than one of the other highlighted steak entrées, "Beef Medallions Oscar." This was satisfying the crab meat was flavorful (more on that in a moment), the asparagus nicely done and the meat tender but not memorable.
Since Stoney River is a steak house, I have to mention the potatoes: They were excellent, most of all the peppery potato gratin that accompanied the "Coffee-Cured Filet." Best of all and where Stoney River sides with the big chains to its advantage both a potato dish and a vegetable are included with your steak.
Stoney River offers several non-steak entrées. I doubt many of these are interesting enough to entice the committed steak fan especially the horseradish-encrusted catch of the day; I can't imagine many catches of the day, let alone every, best served by a horseradish crust but the rack of lamb was excellent. This came in a simple, slightly tangy reduction that highlighted, rather than masked, the lamb's gamey qualities.
Also excellent was a special of two crab cakes. As a native Marylander, I cringe when I see crab cakes on the menu. They're usually a crabomination: too much breading, too little meat, small, drowned in some ungodly remoulade, etc. but these weren't presented as real crab cakes. Instead, they were two loosely packed piles of jumbo lump Indonesian blue crab meat. Indonesian blue crab isn't as sweet as Chesapeake blue crab, but it's good so good that I thought the lemon sauce accompanying the dish, though fine, was irrelevant.
The crab cakes were also available as an appetizer. Other appetizers include steak house standards like shrimp cocktail and lobster tail (these are tempura-battered and fried; you can also order one to accompany your steak). I was especially impressed by the lobster bisque, which had enough lobster flavor that the dash of something like Old Bay across its surface was superfluous. I was also (guiltily) impressed by the dinner rolls, which, when slathered with cinnamon-honey butter, tasted like freshly fried doughnuts.
The wine list was notable for its wide range of by-the-glass selections and a few bottles in the low-to-mid-$30 range (i.e., affordable by steak-house standards). One waiter brought my fiancée a taste of a white wine he thought would pair well with her crab cakes. It did, and a glass of his selection was only $6.50.
At that moment I could almost believe I was in a truly excellent restaurant. As it is, Stoney River is a decent restaurant, but one that seems driven less by putting a "premium" product on the table than by building a brand. Its steaks are "Legendary" (that's Legendary, by the way), its entrées "Gourmet," and since it has priority seating, you know even before you arrive that it's popular.
Then again, Stoney River is merely following what seems to be the axiom of all these higher-end chain restaurants: If you make them wait, they will come.