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Fancy steakhouses lure cash-strapped customers with high-quality burgers

Written By Scott Joseph On August 18, 2009

fleming's burgerHigh-end steakhouses are finding that fewer people are willing to shell out $30 to $40 for their slabs of marbled meat these days. The recession has provided variations on the “Champagne tastes on a beer budget” theme.

But people still go out to eat, and they still prefer meat. So what do you do if you’re a Fleming’s or a Ruth’s Chris or a Morton’s? You can’t buy a lesser grade of meat and expect to maintain your reputation for high-quality beef; and you can’t reduce your prices drastically enough to attract more business, at least not with the expectation that once the recession is over you can blithely raise them again.

But you can add something to your menu, something people love, something that will satisfy carnivorous cravings. And something you don’t have to charge and arm and a hindquarter for.

So that’s why the steakeries mentioned above — and a few other restaurants — have added burgers to their repertoires.

Hamburger — it’s the new steak.

Actually, the burgers aren’t part of those restaurants’ main menus but rather featured on a beefed up bar menu, some available during limited hours.

One of the best deals is the burger offered at Fleming’s, which just opened its second location on Restaurant Row Orlando. They’re offering a happy hour of sorts cleverly called 5 for $6 ‘til 7: five cocktails, five wines and five appetizers, each priced at $6 at the bar until 7 p.m. And they’ve added that burger to the mix, and despite what you’d expect, this was no minor slider.

It’s eight ounces of prime beef, cooked first on a flattop griddle so the juices don’t fall out of it then finished in the broiler. It’s topped with cheddar cheese and a couple of rashers of bacon. Add some iceberg lettuce (I prefer that crispy crunch) and a thick slice of cheese. And the bun was good, too, thick and soft but with a slight toastiness from the griddle. It was cooked to a precise medium-rare, the way God intended burgers to be cooked. The one I was served actually looked like the one in the promotional picture supplied by Fleming’s, seen above. It included two thickly breaded onion rings.


The burger is available after 7 p.m., but the price goes up to $12. I wouldn’t have a problem paying the higher price, so the six bucks is a bargain.

Nearly next door, Morton’s the Steakhouse added a burger to its bar lineup several months ago. Morton’s also has special bar bites pricing for happy hour and later, from 5 to 6: 30 p.m. and then again from 9 p.m. until closing. But the burger isn’t part of the special pricing. But its $15 price tag includes fries.

Morton’s version is also impressively large and also made of prime beef. Good bun, and the tomato and onion were sliced thick. But what was between the toasted bun this time was something more akin to a steak tartare sandwich. My medium-rare burger was so raw it was still cool in the center. Better than overcooked, I suppose.

There’s also a burger available in the bar at Ruth’s Chris, the upscale steakhouse that relocated from the New Orleans area to Central Florida during the floods of Katrina and is still trying to keep its head above water.

Ruth’s offers a 10-ounce prime burger served with fries for $13.95. I tried the three prime sliders ($10) and wish I had gone for the full-sized version. The slider patties were too small to request a temperature, and although the taste of the meat was satisfying, the overall experience was less so.

I checked with the other upscale meathouses with a local presence, including Del Frisco’s, Shula’s, Palm and the Capital Grille, and most said they do not offer a burger. Del Frisco’s and Palm don’t have one at all. Shula’s has one that is available for kids but is not offered to adults. “We have not gone down that path,” a manager told me.

The Capital Grille, part of the Darden family, has a burger on its lunch menu but it is not on the evening menu. However, a manager at the Pointe Orlando restaurant said if a guest wants a burger at dinner the restaurant will accommodate the request. And as a sign of the times, he said more people are making just such a request.

And steakhouses are the only ones getting into the burger game. Bonefish Grill, part of the OSI group of restaurants that includes Outback Steakhouse, a burger made with domestic Kobe-style wagyu beef has been added to the menu.

So hamburger isn’t just the new steak, apparently it’s also now one-half of today’s surf and turf.

Of course there are other restaurants that do great burgers, and many have been doing them for a number of years. Click this link for my list of the Great Burgers of Central Florida.

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