Anyone who caught a glimpse of restaurateur Dee Lincoln, dancing in celebration in her canary yellow suit after successfully bidding $160,000 for a 15-liter bottle of Dalla Valle Vineyards' Maya at last June's Napa Valley Wine Auction, would correctly surmise that the four Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak Houses she runs are no ordinary steak houses.
The 39-year-old Lincoln is a celebrity in Dallas, where she moved from New Orleans in 1990 to open the original Del Frisco restaurant on Belt Line Road. She has also made a name for herself in Napa, where she has spent more money at the annual charity auction over the past two years than anyone else.
But in Denver, Lincoln is unknown. Instead of trading on her visibility and her reputation as a flamboyant personality partial to rarefied California wines, she has had to make the Denver Del Frisco's reputation with its food.
This was no easy task, for Denver knows its beef. Brook's, one of the last great unaffiliated steak houses in the nation, sits just up Interstate 25. The requisite Morton's, Ruth's Chris and The Palm franchises do their suit-and-tie business downtown. The Denver Chop House, near Coors Field in lower downtown, is one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the state, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association.
Fortunately, Del Frisco's has its own personality. With its dark wood interior and dim lights, it could pass for a Chicago speakeasy, and it's usually just as raucous. "We're a true steak house," says general manager Marc Steron, "not a 'fine dining' experience." Unlike the stylized presentation of most of the national chains, the rehearsed litanies that come complete with well-marbled props, Del Frisco's service is down-home unpretentious. A one-page menu lists seven steaks, three veal dishes, lobster, appetizers and sides, and a solicitous server explains each on request.
He usually doesn't have to, for Del Frisco's is a restaurant for regulars, with Broncos quarterback John Elway and coach Mike Shanahan and cable television magnate John Malone among them. Without the name recognition of the national chains, the restaurant has ceded much of the tourist and convention business to its rivals. "Sixty percent of the people that come in have been with us before," says Steron.
The focus here, of course, is on red meat. The cold-water Australian lobster tails are tasty but often dry; salads perfunctory; the shrimp remoulade appetizer a messy disappointment. None of that matters, of course. Steak houses exist to serve steaks, and the $29.95 Prime Porterhouse--trucked in twice a week from Midwestern slaughterhouses--is a classic of its genre. Lightly marbled, not as tender as fattier steaks but far more flavorful, it is the menu's flagship item and probably the best cut of meat in the city.
Wine, too, sets Del Frisco's apart. In the mere two years the restaurant has been open, the management hasn't yet been able to assemble vast first-growth verticals like those at the Dallas and Fort Worth properties, though it does have several vintages each of Lafite Rothschild, Latour and Burgundy's Romanee Conti. The restaurant compensates with well-chosen selections of its own, such as Pahlmeyer Merlot, Archery Summit's hard-to-find single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, Michel Chapoutier's Rhone reds and a panoply of California Cabernets that includes Harlan Estate and Staglin Family Vineyards, as well as all the traditional favorites. It even specially orders favorite wines of frequent customers (although those wines are available to others as well).
Denver's Del Frisco's is the first of the group with a separate cigar lounge (the Dallas restaurant also has one), complete with walk-in humidor. Cigars are priced from $8 to a $75 Fuente Fuente OpusX Torpedo, and private cigar lockers are available.
In a sense, Denver is a trial run for Del Frisco's next location. Early this year, the chain will open a 16,000-square-foot restaurant on the plaza level of the McGraw-Hill Building in New York's Rockefeller Center. --Bruce Schoenfeld
Bruce Schoenfeld is a Colorado-based writer.
Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House
8100 East Orchard Road
Phone (303) 796-0100
Dinner entrées $16 to $30