In 2007, restaurant critic Frank Bruni of the august New York Times deemed the menu at Robert's Steakhouse, nestled inside a Manhattan strip joint known as the Penthouse Executive Club, worthy of review.
"Some of the very best steaks in New York City," he wrote, though he cautioned that the atmosphere "isn't for everyone."
No kidding. Who goes to a strip club for a fine-dining experience? Restaurants like Robert's would seem to be why the phrase "more sizzle than steak" exists.
And yet in Tampa, two high-dollar adult steak houses are getting by just fine. On Westshore Boulevard, across the street from Ruth's Chris, sits the Penthouse Club, where you can pair your $65 Surf & Turf with a selection from the restaurant's wine, champagne or cigar menus. And on Dale Mabry, just up the road from the Mons Venus, is the new Scores Gentleman's Club and Steakhouse, which boasts an enticing selection of USDA Prime center-cut steaks.
Who eats at these places? And is the food there any good?
If it's always been your fantasy to eat a steak while watching a topless woman gyrate, you could do worse than Scores.
Opened in November, Tampa's is the sixth Scores nationwide. The flagship club in Manhattan is famous for celebrity pop-ins and frequent mentions on The Howard Stern Show.
Scores' New York kitchen is run by Chef Will Savarese, formerly of New York's Le Cirque and Aureole, so the Scores brand does have some culinary pedigree. But Scores Tampa merely licenses the Scores name, so its hefty menu borrows heavily from the mind of owner Duke Mendel, who used to co-own the Penthouse Club, and Executive Chef Tommy Musarra, who has worked in fine restaurants in New York and Miami.
There's a $10 cover, which is waived if you're only there for dinner (yeah, right). The club is 6,500 square feet, but much of that space is dedicated to a dozen private rooms and seven champagne rooms. There is a cozy dining room behind the main stage, but you're also welcome to eat at the bar, among the dancers.
The menu, which is backlit for easy after-hours reading, reads like that of any other macho steak house: beef, veal, shrimp, with standard sides (i.e. mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, sauteed mushrooms, grilled asparagus) a la carte. There are a few Floridian touches, like grouper nuggets and "Chicken Gaspar," topped with caramelized onions, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and sauteed mushrooms. And there are specials — on one recent night, the app was Shrimp a la Orange ($14), five three-bite shrimp, chewy but hefty, with a cup of dipping sauce on the side.
Scores does a solid job with steaks, a rotund, inch-thick 16-ounce ribeye ($42) as juicy as anything you'll find on Westshore's steak house row. There are toppings, such as roasted garlic and blue cheese, "blackened" (cajun spices, bourbon sauce and creole mustard) and the aforementioned Gaspar. Add a lobster tail for $26 or get the Surf & Turf (a 9-ounce lobster tail and 8-ounce filet) for $60. If you're not into red meat, a selection of fish, chicken and pasta dishes, and an array of hefty salads, should do the trick.
For dessert, I tried the Banana Caramel Cheesecake Xango ($9), a decadent cheesecake layered with banana, wrapped in warm, flaky pastry and drizzled with caramel and cream, served with vanilla ice cream. It was delicious, but order at the risk of your own humiliation. In my life, few things have made me feel sillier than sitting in the middle of a strip club, eating ice cream from a 7-inch martini glass.
Opt for the Chocolate Covered Strawberries ($14) instead. All the better for sharing.
You may have been inside the Westshore Boulevard building that houses the Penthouse Club, back when it used to be a Houlihan's. Suffice it to say, the decor has changed a little — lots of mirrors, neon-colored lights and dark marble bar tops — but sections of the club remain much like a restaurant, with tablecloths and place settings and everything.
From a diner's standpoint, the club's main draw may be its lunch special. From 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, Penthouse offers its "Day Shift Spectacular," during which cover and all items on the lunch menu are — wait for it — free.
Yes. A free, hot, fresh-cooked lunch. At a strip club.
The selection is standard but solid — wraps, BLTs, chicken bruschetta, soft pretzels, salads, burgers. It's a legitimate burger, too, fat and round and loaded with toppings, the kind that might set you back $10 at Chili's. Chips or fries are free, or you can upgrade to a bowl of soup, including lobster bisque, for $1. Gourmet-ify your burger with thick bacon slices and blue cheese for just $2.
I'm going to go ahead and call it: If you're hard up for cash, this may be the best lunch deal in Tampa Bay. As long as you don't mind exiting in the harsh light of noon.
Penthouse's dinner menu is smaller than Scores', but it's similar, with many of the same items. Whereas Scores offers five cuts of steak, as well as a bone-in veal chop, Penthouse has only three cuts — a 10-ounce filet, a 16-ounce ribeye and a 20-ounce bone-in ribeye (though all are slightly cheaper than their counterparts at Scores).
Here, too, you can finish things off with the Banana Caramel Cheesecake Xango, as well as Molten Lava Chocolate Cake and a Gourmet Chocolate Chip Blondie.
No, the atmosphere at Scores and the Penthouse Club isn't for everyone, but neither is much seedier than your average nightclub. Okay, yes, there are topless dancers onstage. But at the bar, the dress code is more Ybor than Amsterdam. And, no surprise, the staffs are friendly and attentive. Three times at each club, dancers strolled up asking if I wanted company while I ate. "That looks gooood," said a Scores dancer, eyeing my shrimp. Indeed it was. Thanks for asking!
In the end, Scores and the Penthouse Club are no different than other high-end restaurants, in that you're paying as much for the experience as you are the food. For the same price, you could get a better meal at Shula's or the Capital Grille.
But every meat market has its own kinky quirks. Especially in Tampa.