Fleming's Prime Steakhouse
A restaurant mogul has tweaked America’s steak restaurant recipe, giving it plenty of affordable sizzle.
Photography by David Fenton
The steak house is trending plush these days, with $60 plates of American Kobe, foie gras in quantities that would appall even the most committed PETA-hating carnivore, and reserve lists stocked with boutique Napa Valley Cabs whose case price could fund a semester of med school.
The idea behind Fleming’s seems obvious: Put the modern steak house on a diet, pricewise, while preserving much of the swank. That’s no small feat, so it’s all the more amazing that on a Saturday night exactly one month after the downtown Walnut Creek steak house opened, Fleming’s was rocking: packs of thirty- and fortysomething guys in untucked shirts at the bar, lots of couples who’d bothered to dress up, and a wait for tables that stretched well into forget-about-it territory.
Turns out Walnut Creek is a natural for the formula Fleming’s pioneered years before the Wagyu palaces of L.A. and Manhattan started generating heat: a classic slab of USDA prime for less than two Andrew Jacksons, in a wood-paneled atmosphere that gives off more than a whiff of Benjamins.
Fleming’s, a 50-location national chain, is the brainchild of a guy who obviously knows his steak house and who definitely knows how to achieve chain restaurant glory. Paul Fleming not only held the development rights for Ruth’s Chris—which has a location just a block away from this new Fleming’s—in California and other western states, but is the “P. F.” of P. F. Chang’s. Fleming is no longer involved in those two chains, but just like his monument to lettuce wraps and faux stone Ming dynasty horses, Fleming’s already seems to have the kind of eager local following that can make a prefab concept feel full of personality.
The Walnut Creek location—the first in Northern California—is substantially smaller than other Fleming’s outposts. According to operating partner and general manager Michael James Martin, the 275-seat, second-floor configuration of Fleming’s Walnut Creek makes it unique in the chain. The difference has turned out to be an advantage—Fleming’s strives to be an approachable steak house, he says, and the compact space is more intimate.
“We see ourselves as much more user-friendly,” Martin says.
But the smaller setting doesn’t preclude grand gestures. Any steak house worth its creamed spinach has to create an aura of luxury powerful enough to quiet any qualms you might have about eating industrially raised beef. The menu at Fleming’s proudly states that the meat you’ll be eating was fattened on corn—grass fed is not in the vocabulary here—its cuts aged up to four weeks before being charred to a dark state of delectable under a gas-fired flame cranked to 1,600 degrees. Your steak arrives on a plate glazed with butter, and your wine flight shows up on a two-foot-tall wrought iron display rack.
You’ll be grateful on weekends for the distraction of the wine flight, with its identifying cards for each vintage, when the onslaught of orders can slow the kitchen to a pace that leaves you with no choice but to sip your red between courses.
Amid all the layering on, you might want to keep it simple when it comes to ordering appetizers. Instead of wading through Gruyère-crusted French onion soup and deep-fried calamari, it’s best to go for something crisp and tangy. Few things on the starters roster will set you up for grilled-steak bliss better than shrimp cocktail: massive pink tails nicely poached with piercingly aromatic dill and tarragon.
Go deep-fried to start and chances are you’ll end up in a state of greasy-fingered disappointment. That was certainly true of lobster tempura—at $26, just a few bucks shy of the cost of a petite filet mignon and with a batter coating that registered way too heavy. The kitchen redeemed itself, however, with a plate of portobello steak fries, a stack of meaty slices flocked with crisp panko crumbs.
No need for redemption at the broiler—the cuts are American steak house classics, with confident seasoning and the restrained beefiness typical of corn fed. High-blast broiling imbues the meat with a very respectable char, leaving the center soft, pliant, and—at medium rare—red and juicy.
Rib-eye is one of the hardest steaks to get right. It has a franker flavor than a New York, but its fibers are prone to toughness. Here, a 22-ounce bone-in specimen had flavor more subtle than lusty, but the texture was tender enough. Even broiled to the paler pink of medium, a veal chop was likewise moist and just about juicy—no small feat for veal. Sides of béarnaise unleashed a blast of vinegar that intensified the richness of the meat.
If you closed your eyes, the effect was just about primal: meat and salt beneath a taste of sear so intense it almost translated as smoky. Call it the flavor of the new luxe—and you don’t have to part with a Benjamin to get it.
At a Glance
What makes it special: A bit of the extravagant vibe of modern steak houses, with prices tailored to mere mortals.
Don't miss: Two-ounce tastes from any of the 100 bottles on the regular wine list. They're a third of the price of standard-size pours--a very affordable way to taste.
What to order: Shrimp cocktail, bone-in New York strip, bone-in ribe-eye, and veal chop, all with graqvy-boat sides of textbook bearnaise; sauteed spinach.
The space: Sprawling and classy, lines with dlubby paneling that glows in the amber light of big-bowl chandeliers.
When to go: On a jammed Saturday night for prime people watching.
Bonus: The cheddar-Pinot Grigio spread with toast--served gratis before dinner.
Contact: 1685 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 287-0297, www.flemingssteakhouse.com.
Hours: Dinner daily
Price: Appetizers $9–$26, entrées $23–$40
Alcohol: Full bar