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?

Meanwhile the St. Paul Grill, the sort of old-world superstar after which all the starlets style themselves, is now mostly coasting on its assets. Foremost among those is the lovely, lovely bar, all oak and shine and glass. At this bar, between a charming oil of nymphs cavorting in a waterfall and a soaring mirrored wall showcasing scores of glittering bottles, one can indulge in house-made pepper vodka ($5), try fancy cocktails like the sidecar ($6.95), choose from the much-awarded wine list, or sip any of dozens of single-malt Scotches, including some from distilleries that no longer exist, like Dallas Dhu. (A shot of the 12-year whiskey from this Speyside ghost costs $7.75.)

The St. Paul Grill has other graces. The servers are aces. The view over a light-festooned Rice Park and castlelike Landmark Center is romantic and evocative. The dining room is beautiful--it's the genuine gold-pocket-watch splendor that places like Ruth's Chris, Morton's, the Capital Grille and Merchants have spent fortunes trying to reprise. The atmosphere is so thick with Industrial Revolution clubbiness, you can almost see the ghost of James J. Hill hovering above your crab cakes.

So why are those crab cakes ($7.95) mushy and tasteless? Why does the cioppino, a seafood stew ($18.95), taste like nothing but canned tomatoes? Repeated visits to the St. Paul Grill proved to me that if you venture outside the safe alleys of drinks, potatoes, or premium bits of critters, you will be disappointed. A special of grilled striped sea bass ($19.95) was typically pathetic, with the terribly overcooked, rubbery bass not at all helped by a tomato-paste-y cream sauce. The potato-mushroom croquettes that accompanied the bass were a mess--the interiors had the consistency of barley stew while the exteriors were nearly burned, and tasted powerfully of cooking oil.

By contrast, the things the Grill stakes its reputation on--the grilled critters, the spuds--are as splendid as ever. The grilled shrimp cocktail ($10.95) is made of five succulent shrimp as big as pork ribs; the hefty burger ($8.25) is crowned with bacon and your choice of good cheese; the dry-aged steaks, like the peppercorn-sauced New York sirloin ($24.95), are admirable. And the potatoes, particularly the crisp, onion-and-bacon-infused hash browns ($5.95) and the sweet, golden french fries remain the best in town. (Fries are $2.95 a plate or $5.95 a platter.)

Desserts are sized for sharing and good enough, though nothing special. A banana cream pie ($4.25) was mostly fluffy and sweet, while a salad-plate-sized apple crisp ($5.25) with cinnamon ice cream and a crumbly streusel topping had a homespun, sugary appeal.

But like the other steak houses, the Grill could do so much more. Surely these big, expensive restaurants, drawing on vast resources in an increasingly competitive marketplace, don't intend to coast indefinitely on their ability to place expensive cuts of meat near flames? That would be cynical, right? Pessimistic? And depressing as all get-out?

Speaking of cynics, hand-wringers, and those annoying folk who try to jam-pack all of life into one unifying theory, don't you dare write in and point out that only boring people are bored. That's just one of those convenient tropes à la "a stitch in time saves nine." How often does a stitch in time save eight? Or 20? If I've learned anything in the year of Monica, it's that boring people are never bored. Never.

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