Same Steak, Different House

Ruth's Chris Steak House
920 Second Ave. S., Mpls.; (612) 672-9000
Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily; closed on major holidays

Morton's of Chicago
Nicollet Mall and South Sixth Street, Mpls.; (612) 673-9700
Hours: Weekdays 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; closed major holidays

Diana Watters

St. Paul Grill
Saint Paul Hotel, 350 Market St., St. Paul; (651) 224-7455 Hours: Monday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Tuesday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

OK, hold on to your hats, boys, because I've got a new unifying theory to explain everything that's weird and annoying in contemporary culture. It's quite simple, really, when you think of it. Contemporary Americans have become genetically altered through continual immersion in the vapor chamber of perfume, diet soda, partisan politics, credit-card magnetic strips, screen savers, Matt Drudge, Carmen Electra, microwaves, and microwave popcorn butter. We've changed more drastically than Spider-Man when he got bit by that radioactive spider, more permanently than those species of salamanders who have evolved to live only in one single spring in the middle of the Mojave desert. In fact, we now have a segment of the population--a pretty large segment--that has evolved past boredom.

Past boredom! Past the perpetual thorn in humanity's side, the creative spur that brought us everything from Corinthian columns to Baked Alaska to kicks on Route 66! Boredom, reduced to nothing but a tickle in history, an affliction for the unevolved.

Where's my proof? I've got plenty. Exhibit A: the impeachment trial, and the Republicans who answer every query with "It's not about sex." Exhibits B through D: The Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, and Boyzone. Exhibits E through H must be kept confidential on national-security grounds. Exhibit I, and the topic for the rest of this hilarious essay: The way the big steak-houses have become as similar as Pepsi and Coke, as alike as Meg Ryan and Melanie Griffith. Why? Why, Morton's? Why, Ruth's Chris? Why, St. Paul Grill? Why must you blur so?

Before we start pointing out the flaws, let me get this out of the way: Each of these places serves steaks wonderfully. There is no problem in the serving of steaks. Steaks are getting done just steakily. No complaints there.

Further, all three restaurants are pouring fine libations. The service at all three is downright fine. I cannot complain about these restaurants' professionalism. They are staffed by the Cities' most professional professionals. Professional professionals professionally boring the hell out of me.

Lunching at Morton's recently, I began to suspect that I'm not alone in my ennui. Why else would three youngish business types spend their entire meal trying to re-create, line-for-line and in order, the entire dialogue from a Chris Rock HBO Special? (You know the one: "Marion Barry. Marion Barry smoked crack and got his job back....") This is what happens when you are eating the same shrimp cocktail and the same porterhouse steak in the same dark-wood-accented space decorated with the same gargantuan flower arrangement and the same big wine bottles for the millionth time.

My Morton's meal had three highlights--a special of lobster bisque; a Key lime pie ($6) with a tart, perfect filling and a flaky crust so nicely, crisply, freshly done that it pulled away from the filling like one book from another on the library shelf; and, perhaps best of all, the complimentary loaf of hot onion bread. That was the one thing that said: You are not just anywhere. You are at Morton's.

As for Ruth's Chris, the only real clues that I wasn't at Morton's were the thin, unappealing gumbo ($4.95), the blisteringly hot plates on which the meat was served, and a nicely lit and decorated vault that defines the ceiling in the main dining room.

Please, Morton's, Ruth's Chris, do something to individuate yourselves! You are like dueling noncolorfast shirts in my laundry, bleeding, blurring in an alarming fashion. Consider this hypothetical situation: Party A sits down to a Morton's dinner of Gulf shrimp cocktail, ($10.50), sliced tomato and onion salad ($5.95), Caesar salad ($5.95), spinach salad ($5.95), veal chop ($26.95), New York Strip steak ($29.95) steamed asparagus in hollandaise ($6.95), sautéed mushrooms ($4.50) Lyonnaise potatoes ($4.50), and New York cheesecake ($6) and crème caramel ($5).

Meanwhile, four blocks away, Party B sits down to a Ruth's Chris dinner of Gulf shrimp cocktail ($8.25), sliced tomato and onion salad ($5.25), Caesar salad ($5.25), spinach salad ($5.25), a veal chop ($26.95), a New York strip steak ($27.95), asparagus with hollandaise ($6.95), sautéed mushrooms ($4.95), potatoes Lyonnaise ($4.25), and cheesecake ($5.25) and crème brûlée ($5.25). Who has the better time? Which party saved a whopping $4.65? If mischievous aliens swapped members of Party A with Party B, how long would it take for anyone to figure it out? Mischievous aliens, please note: The watercolors at Morton's are of contemporary sports, while those at Ruth's Chris are of café-society scenes.

Think I'm being ridiculously nitpicky? I pick because I worry: With the addition in the last year-and-a-half of the Capital Grille and Merchants, two dark-wood-heavy steak-houses, to the downtown Minneapolis lineup, the city now has a total of six pricey downtown steak houses (Manny's, Murray's, Morton's, Merchants, the Capital Grille, and Ruth's Chris). Don't you think there's somebody out there shopping a business plan for a chain steak-house with wood accents, big flower arrangements, and watercolors of café-society folk playing sports, all with a 20 percent discount on each menu item and an easy profit on sheer volume?

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