Shula’s Steak House made quite an impression when it first opened at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in late 1995. High-end steakhouses featuring huge hunks of USDA prime meat were, um, rare. Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster, which was originally known as Del Frisco’s, was a couple of years old. But Morton’s — then called Morton’s of Chicago — wouldn’t open an Orlando location until 1996, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House didn’t enter the area until 2000.
I liked Shula’s immediately. It was classy, service was first rate, and the food, though pricey, was excellent. In 2000, I even awarded it my Critic’s Choice Foodie Award for Best Restaurant Overall.
The upscale brand was founded, of course, by Don Shula, the legendary coach of the Miami Dolphins. (It has always been easy to remember which hotel the steakhouse is in because why would anyone put Shula’s into the Swan hotel?)
The first Shula’s was in Miami Lakes and the second, if I remember correctly, opened in Tampa. Orlando’s was third. Even after all these years, the company, Shula’s Restaurant Group, has only eight steakhouses, though it also operates other more casual brands, including Shula’s 347 Grill, which has a location in Lake Mary.
The company, now based in Ft. Lauderdale, has a new CEO, Bill Freeman, who previously ran the MINA Group of restaurants. So it may be that the brand is ready to take on the Ruths and Dels and Mortons of the world. Perhaps that’s the reason Shula’s Steak Houses are undergoing a brand-wide overhaul with a refreshed decor and a revamped menu from new corporate culinary director, Demetrio Zavala.
Orlando’s Shula’s is the first to be redesigned. I was invited to a media opening and then was asked to join a small group to have dinner with Don Shula and his wife, Mary Anne, who was the previous CEO and is the current chair of the board.
The new decor, by Florida design group Temper, is brighter and more open. A larger bar and lounge is just inside the entrance and is open to the main dining area. There are still touches of dark wood paneling but it no longer dominates. The feel is less old-style men’s club and more welcoming and inclusive. Crisp white tablecloths remain, but their brightness no longer stands out in the dark.
The restaurant hasn’t been entirely gelded. Photos, mostly black and white prints, of Shula’s years in the NFL are the only art along the walls but provide plenty of manliness. The most prominent are three large color photographs depicting three stages in his career: being carried aloft after his record 325th win; with his first Super Bowl trophy at the end of the Dolphins’ perfect season; and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It was melancholic to see the now 89-year-old former coach with his 1972 self in view behind him.
There are two other major changes to mention before we talk about the food. But these are food related, too, so let’s just go right to it.
Shula’s was known for its meat cart that was wheeled to each table of newcomers. The server would point out the various steaks and cuts, the size of the potatoes, the fresh asparagus and such. But most people couldn’t take their eyes off the huge live lobster with banded claws slowing squirming and the cart’s top.
The cart is gone, though it doesn’t mean the lobster is necessarily off the hook.
Gone, too, is the original menu, which was so succinct that it could be printed on the side of a regulation NFL football, and was. In the days before it was common to find online menus, I had to surreptitiously sneak — ok, steal — menus for later reference. Shula’s football remains the only one I was never able to spirit away. My throw was lousy and my dining companion fumbled halfway down the hallway and was tackled by a server.
I’m not sorry to see the football menu go; it was a bit kitschy. But the new concept isn’t gimmick free. Now each table is set with a small knife block filled with different styles of steak knives. Choose your weapon. (I told one of my hosts that if the restaurant really wanted to make a statement about the steaks all of the blocks would contain butter knives.)
Meat is still champion here. Seafood, including that lobster, is still available, but I believe a steakhouse is for steak.
So I chose the Steak Tartare, which, like the other cuts of meat, is fashioned out of certified black angus steak. The disk of minced meat was blended with parsley and capers and topped with crispy shallots. It was served with brioche points but was wonderful to just eat it with a fork.
I chose the Dry-aged Prime Cowboy Ribeye for my entree. It was a beautiful piece of meat, glistening with fat and cooked to a gorgeous ruby red medium rare. The truffle butter, béarnaise, hollandaise and other sauces we were offered to sample added nothing to the good taste of the meat. There was a bit of sinew in the steak that I might have balked at had I been paying the $72 fee, but it was otherwise an excellent steak.
My fellow dinner mates and I sampled several of the side dishes, including creamed spinach and macaroni and cheese. I chose to allot my calories to another bite of steak.
I saved myself during dessert, too, though the Molten Chocolate Lave Cake — haven’t seen one of those in years — was sufficiently oozy and rich.
Service was up to its usual standards. I was struck with how many servers approached me during the event to tell me they had waited on me in the early days of Shula’s or at other upscale restaurants that are now long gone. It tells me that this serving staff considers their job to be a professional career, and it shows.
I don’t know if I would still crown Shula’s Steak House the overall best restaurant in the area; there are so many other contenders these days. But it’s certainly among the best, and I’m delighted that it is still dedicated, even in its redesign, to fine food and service so many years later.
Shula’s Steak House is at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, 1500 Epcot Resorts Blvd., Lake Buena Vista. It is open for dinner daily. The phone number is 407-934-1362.