Florida is in the forefront, steering the meat-and-potatoes crowd to such nationally recognized leaders as Bern's in Tampa and McGuire's in Pensacola, along with Palm in Miami Beach, Nicholson's Farm House in Havana and Fort Lauderdale's 46-year-young Tropical Acres. And Florida boasts the base camps for both the phenomenally successful Outback chain and the latest brainstorm of master deal maker John Y. Brown, Roadhouse Grill. Here's my corral of current favorites:
2800 N. Tamiami Trail
It's not Palm, Peter Luger's or Smith & Wollensky, but it's still a classic New York steak house, one featuring all prime meats and more than a touch of New York class. Dinners are served every night except Monday and the average tab, without drinks, wine or tip, will run between $25 and $35.
3200 E. Oakland Park Blvd.
The secret to the success of this multi-million-dollar stunner in a much-used, and occasionally abused, Waterway property with a lively nightclub is chef John Heenie. He apprenticed at Chicago's top-of-the-line Stockyard Butchers, then spent almost ten years in the back room of one of the country's finest steak houses, Bone's on Piedmont Road, Atlanta. His prime cuts of perfectly aged steaks and chops are the featured attraction, but I like to start with the peerless lobster bisque or soft shell crab in red pepper beurre blanc freckled with capers. If you're not in a beef mood, order the incredible lamb chops, yellow tail with a shrimp-mushroom salute or even a roast chicken accompanied by boursin-blessed grits. Dinners, served every night but Monday, range from $15 to $27.
Delfrisco's Prime Steak House
729 Lee Rd.
I compensate for the loss of long-time favorite Chris's House of Beef with this Texas import, decorated to the nines and featuring a fine array of properly aged, cut and trimmed prime steaks, with side dishes of fresh vegetables and great potatoes. Dinner, with entrees ranging from $15 to $28, is served Monday through Saturday.
320 Fourth St. N.
A popular oasis for lunch when you can vary your steak diet with fine salads or even a kraut-stuffed Reuben. I like to concentrate on dinner when I can zero in on one of the steaks or chops, which always makes me feel like I'm in New York or Chicago. It's all Angus beef, management is proud to proclaim, and it's all prime. The prime rib is arguably the best on Florida's west coast and the New York strip is properly loaded with the pounding of the plains. And if you're not a meat eater, not to worry: there are gator nuggets to start and scallops, salmon or crab imperial to keep you off land. Lunch is served Monday to Friday and dinner nightly, with entrees $10 to $20.
501 N. Congress Ave.
This Atlanta-based chain, started in 1981, opened its first South Florida link last May, and it's in the process of expanding to Davie, Coral Springs, Miami and Fort Myers. Typical of the cowboy theme-ploitation escapes, Longhorn has a well-trained, well-supervised staff. It has some important extras - excellent Texas bean-less chili, perfectly prepared vegetable medleys, good salads and ribs, lunchtime all-you-can-eat liver and onions for $4.25 and very good steaks, aged and cut on the premises, shipped from Longhorn's own source in Atlanta, the well-named Superior Meat Company. Lunch and dinner, with entrees $8 to $18, are served daily.
Palmetto Park Rd. and Fifth Ave.
Not many landlords are as gutsy as Babette Haddad who decided to run a restaurant after several ventures fizzled and failed in her prime property, The Bayou, a Boca landmark that for years was the place to dine in town. She restored the building to its New Orleans origins and installed a solid Morton's kind of menu and prices, but with better treatment of the vegetables including my favorites, garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. The 20-ounce rib eye is a money-saver but not as flavorful as the strip sirloin. There's oversize lobster available, as it is at all the up-scale steak houses in Florida. Babette's feast is a nightly affair, with entrees $17 to $28.50.
Phillips Pt., 777 S. Flagler Dr.
West Palm Beach
What Palm, Peter Luger's and Smith & Wollensky are to New Yorkers, Morton's is to Chicago. The Morton's steak house chain, with three locations in the Windy City, has cloned and gone big time in recent years. There are now 30 links; the one in West Palm Beach is the only Morton's in Florida. It's a place for straightforward, no-nonsense meat and potatoes and vegetables without fuss or flair. Start your evening in the handsome, inviting bar; then watch the grill chefs do their thing near the entrance to the dining room. The broilers are stoked to produce 1,800 degrees of searing-in-the-juices heat - three times hotter than home. The setting is elegant and the prices for the nightly dinners can be as low as $40 for two if you split the giant, superb baked Idaho and a generous-size steak. My favorite is the porterhouse.
Ruth's Chris Steakhouse
2525 N. Federal Highway
3913 N.E. 163rd St.
N. Miami Beach
999 Douglas Ave.
661 U.S. 1
North Palm Beach
Ruth Fertel doesn't make a fetish out of steak, just a success. She oversees a chain of 48 steak houses - largest in the trade at her price level. Her legion of fans includes members of an organization called the Steak House Gang, which has its own newsletter. They rallied last May for the largest steak dinner ever staged in a single night to celebrate the fabulous Fertel's 30th year in the business. The name is odd but Ruth believes "people tend to remember it, especially when they're hungry," and when their dining-out budgets can handle the tab. Entrees at dinner, served nightly, range from $17.50 to $29.50.
Shula's Steak House
N.W. 154th St. at Palmetto Expway.
4860 W. Kennedy Blvd.
Last November, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula invaded Buccaneer Country with a successful expansion team. At his Miami Lakes base you can play a round at Shula's Golf Club, sweat a while in Shula's Athletic Club, then lunch at Shula's All-Star Cafe in Don Shula's Hotel. For upper-end steak spenders who want a decor to relive the glories of the Dolphins' 1972 undefeated season, these are the training tables of choice, especially for would-be linebacker-trenchermen who can handle a three-pound porterhouse, currently pegged at $58. The menu, painted on a football bearing Shula's signature, is strictly a la carte, as it is at all the big-ticket steak specialists, and nightly dinners average between $40 and $45 without tax, tip or drinks. No wonder the Miami Lakes restaurant, opened in 1989, is grossing in excess of $4 million a year.