Rumors are swirling in the local steak house biz as the town’s beef barons prepare for an onslaught of hungry Republicans but otherwise contemplate a weak economy, reduced corporate spending, and skyrocketing beef and commodity prices.
—Morton’s recently and inexplicably cut ties with its longtime GM Kathleen Wagner and is operating with temporary bosses shuttling in from other cities.
—Kozy’s is expecting a windfall of new dinner business after the Westin at the Galleria opens in August.
—There are rumors that a prominent downtown steak house will close after the GOP convention.
—Despite published comments to the contrary, it does appear, based on numerous conversations with industry insiders, that Randy Norman, whose name hangs over the door at r. Norman’s, is no longer running the restaurant.
Why would a restaurant oust the guy it was named after? It’s impossible to know for sure, but let’s start with some background, and we can make an educated guess: Norman and partner David Koch opened the über-popular Bellanotte following Norman’s tenure as opening general manager of Capital Grill. Koch had a nightclub background, Norman a restaurant background, but Bellanote thrives as a club, not a restaurant. Its expensive Italian fare is mere fuel for drinking and partying.
Though Bellanote was a singular experience unequaled in town, r. Norman’s entered a deep and competitive steak house game downtown, populated by successful players with loyal clientele. The steak house habitué has high expectations and pays to see those expectations met. r. Norman’s is a strikingly attractive restaurant, but its recipes are not up to the caliber of its competition, and the food experience there has been disappointing in numerous visits I’ve made since its opening.
On the surface, it would seem odd that Norman, with the Cap Grill background, could not open a steak house with appealing recipes, but keep in mind that Cap Grill is a national chain. Its managers merely execute a carefully constructed playbook of time-tested recipes, and tinkering is not encouraged. (These days, Cap Grill is the only one of the national steak houses in town to have locally crafted chefs’ special on the menu—and they are winners.) Randy Norman didn’t need to hire a chef to reinvent the wheel at Cap Grill, but he did at r. Norman’s.
Norman also may not have taken the task seriously enough. Insiders tell me he could be seen at Oceanaire several nights a week, and I personally spotted him there on both my visits this spring. Trust me, you will not find another steak house GM in town out of his own restaurant and at a competitor (Oceanaire competes for the same expense account/affluent diner) during the dinner hour. Norman was, several nights a week.
The scuttlebutt on the street is that r. Norman’s is not ringing the cash register enough, so Koch and partners took action. Since Koch is publicly denying Norman is out, it’s hard to determine if these nightclub impresarios recognize the culinary handicap they are operating with or merely that sales are not meeting expectations.
Stay tuned—change is in the air all over town.