The term steakhouse used to mean lots of dark wood and green carpet and lighting more suited to a pool hall. Dens for men, basically.
The new Claudia’s Steakhouse is owned by a woman, Claudia Rivas, and presents itself as a kind of upscale hotel lounge, with a vibe more suited to Vegas or Miami than a city where people think it’s sexy to work long hours.
And in the heart of K St., no less, where showing up to work with a blue tie is regarded as a fashion statement.
Which I thought was kind of interesting when I first read about the place. I liked the daring.
When I dropped by recently for dinner, the dining room was nearly empty, which made it easy to take in its garish stylishness, though I had to use my imagination to fill in the cash-flashing trendies who should have been at the tables.
This is an age when restaurants want desperately to be seen as casual and approachable places that you can slip into a couple of times a week and feel at home. And here was Claudia’s, having none of that. There was nothing unassuming or unpretentious about the place. Forget faux-rusticity. Here was splendor. Grandeur. Big statements. It seemed determined to whisk us back to the pre-crash years of the early aughts.
Which was also interesting and daring in its way, though now I began to wonder: Is this brash defiance of culinary and cultural norms? Or blithe delusion?
At this point, I was primed to expect insanely out-of-joint prices and I was not disappointed.
$58 for a 12-ounce filet mignon. $65 for a bone-in ribeye. $98 for a 32-ounce porterhouse.
But fine: it’s a steakhouse, in DC, in the land of lobbyists.
It was the wine prices that caused my face go into free fall.
“What’s wrong?” my tablemate asked.
But my eyes were too fixed on the listing for Mark West Pinot Noir to look up.
You may have had this wine before. It’s an easy-drinking Pinot Noir, the kind of inoffensive red that many casual American restaurants add to their lists at the low end. I’ve seen it for $8 a glass. Claudia’s wants $19 for six ounces.
Columbia Crest Merlot, a wine I’ve had on airplanes, sells for $12 a glass.
At Total Wine & More, the Mark West Pinot Noir is currently selling for $7.97 a bottle. At Claudia’s: $72 a bottle.
St. Michelle Riesling, another cheapie, retails from the winery’s own site for $9 a bottle. You can find it at Total Wine & More for $8.99. Claudia’s: $44
Or how about this one: Simi Cabernet 2012 — a big, simple red, about which you can’t say much more than that it’s big and simple and red? It retails at Total Wine & More for under $17. At Claudia’s, it’s $18 a glass ($58 a bottle).
Mark-ups in the industry are generally two-and-a-half times the cost of retail. It’s one way that restaurants help to make ends meet. Discerning diners often don’t mind paying that extra cost when it’s at a place like Red Hen, where sommelier Sebastian Zutant approaches his job like that of a truffle hound, sussing out unusual or obscure varieties.
But five and even eight times the retail cost?
And for wines you can find at a Giant and Safeway?
Oh, and one final bit of price gouging for you: “The Claudia’s” — a cocktail of Nolet reserve gin, saffron bitters, and dry vermouth — goes for $125. Making it (by far) the most expensive cocktail in DC.
I’m not counting on a long future for Claudia’s, which, I should point out, is doing a nice job with its lineup of Latin small plates.
But if it somehow attracts enough tourists and unsuspecting locals to sustain a following, it will have proved something interesting and, I guess, daring in its way: the more steakhouses change, the more they stay the same.