ST. PETE BEACH
There used to be a fair number of restaurants like it, but in recent years the steak house has been supersized, hundreds of seats in vast and often fancy spaces. On one side of the bay Charley's, Shula's, Fleming's, Ruth's Chris and big-daddy Bern's do it up large. But on the Gulf of Mexico side, there aren't a lot of these beef behemoths.
And now the 1200 Degrees Chophouse has opened in St. Pete Beach, a town not swimming in steak houses. It feels charmingly retro, tiny and intimate, with just 48 seats and a wall of faux cowhide that sets off a little "moo" in your mind. It's not just the restaurant's size that's diminutive, it's also the price point: Steaks ring in mostly under $30 at a time when beef price are getting crazy (a recent USA Today story predicts beef prices will rise by as much as 10 percent by summer).
It's not owner Dan Casey's first rodeo. He has owned nearby Snapper's and Madfish for years, and got his start as a kid at the Wine Cellar in Redington Beach. There are a lot of reasons for this new venture. Having listened to hotel concierges on the beaches for years, he found visitors want steak when they come to Florida. Seafood, too, but nothing says "ah, vacation" like a sunburn and a fat ribeye.
But why such a small steak house? All his restaurants are small, partly because he likes the intimacy and family-feel of a small staff (many of his staffers do double duty at more than one restaurant).
Designer John Batemen did a tremendous job of reinventing the space vacated by Patrick's, adding mocha paint and charming banquettes, deleting a fireplace and rearranging the bar and the entrance to maximize space. But the kitchen remained teeny. Casey and his longtime chef Chris Burghart figured they'd have to work smart. Ruth's Chris and other high-end steak houses get that super-hot sear with a grill made by Montegue; Casey bought a similar product from Southbend that sears steaks on a griddle before broiling them swiftly at 1,200 degrees (thus the name).
The one-page menu, still a work in progress, will be largely familiar: New York strip ($23.95), filet mignon ($21.95 and $28.95), steak au poivre ($26.95) and a porterhouse for two ($29.95 per person). Entrees come with a sophisticated dinner salad, bread, and a choice of potatoes (the au gratin with bacon being the big winner). Green veggies are a la carte, a fact that Casey attributed to the sheer quantity of veggies thrown away at his other restaurants. In the face of lobster-crusted grouper ($26.95) and a baked potato, who wants to eat their broccoli? For those who do, sauteed spinach ($6.95), onion straws ($4.95) and the like are available, the servings generous enough to share with the table.
Huge wedge salad ($9.95) and chopped salad ($16.95-$18.95 depending on which protein you top it with) only make sense if you're forgoing a steak or fish entree. A quartet of bacon-wrapped, horseradish stuffed shrimp ($12.95) on the other hand make an appetizing and not-too-filling starter, as do the flavorful glazed meatballs ($5.95).
The best of the steaks is a meaty, well-marbled ribeye ($26.95) paired with a decadent Gorgonzola sauce; a straight-up New York strip lacked the lush white ribbons of fat that render a great steak so melt-in-mouth. And on the fish side, a pan-seared sea bass with lobster beurre blanc ($25.95) vies with seared salmon with a tomato bacon vinaigrette ($19.95) for most memorable.
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As at Casey's other restaurants, the wine list is smart, a collaboration between their distributor and the staff responsible for the wine lists — Dara Wilkerson at Snapper's, Doug Casey at Madfish and Max Andrews at the Chophouse. Nothing is above a 200 percent markup (most restaurants go 250 and as high as 300 percent), and the list leans heavily to mid-priced and vibrant California bottlings, with lots of range outside of cabernet sauvignons.
For now, desserts seem a bit of an afterthought (the salted caramel panna cotta was a good idea, $5, but so firm it was chewy), and service pacing is still getting its bearings, occasionally requiring pantomiming across the dining room for a check or more water. Still, as snowbird season reaches its frenetic heights in coming weeks, this newcomer will clearly be on the lips of every hotel concierge on the beaches.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.