When I lived in Texas I asked my native Texan roommate what he thought was the best steakhouse in town. His answer was, “Man, I can cook a better steak at home.” I always liked that answer. True Texan confidence.
A New York strip from Publix costs around 13 dollars. The strip on the menus of Gainesville’s top steakhouses, Mark’s Prime Steakhouse, MT’s Chophouse and Embers hovers around 35 dollars. Feeling that the near threefold markup could use some explaining, I went on a quest to determine some value embedded in the premium.
Poised in the best location of the three restaurants is Mark’s Prime Steakhouse. Its downtown address positions it in the heart of a pre-and post-dinner scene, making it attractive and versatile for a date. It is also a good place to hold meetings or a company party. Peek into the private dining room and you might see pharmaceutical reps attempting to charm doctors or attorneys perusing spreadsheets and counting their billings. Celebrate the anniversary of your first year of business at Mark’s.
Mark’s induces a noise level that is fit for the merry. Conviviality abounds, laughter is permitted. It’s upscale but Mark’s will not turn down business. I have seen guys walk in wearing sandals. It’s Gainesville, not the city. But I would not wear a Daytona Beach tank-top and neon shorts. A polo or an expensive t-shirt and jeans is fine, though this is an opportunity to make an impression.
Whenever possible, I eat at a restaurant’s bar. I find my bartender at Mark’s to be a bit salty but I can understand. I give bartenders a lot of rope. They must not enjoy starting the same conversation every night. But it is part of the job. Give me something and I will give you something. But if bartending is not your career choice it usually shows.
Mark’s is not always this melding of New York prices with Williston service. At a recent birthday dinner for one of my friends, a college student named James handled our table of eight with ease and composure. And though Mark’s, along with MT’s Chophouse and Embers, is pricey for Gainesville, entrees can be split and sides shared, dampening the blow.
My petite filet arrives. It reeks of butter. It cuts like butter too.
MT’s Chophouse owner Mark T. leaves culinary jetsam in his wake. Not privy to details (and indifferent to them), I’ll say what I know of his transactions. Mark T. created the eponymous and aforementioned, Mark’s Prime Steakhouse, then sold it–yet they kept his name?–and opened his first Gainesville MT’s Chophouse at what is now the location of Embers. He then opened MT’s Chophouse (redux) at its current location off of 39th Avenue out by I-75. Got it?
Mark T. is a restaurat-/entrepren- eur. But he’s a flipper. He builds ‘em then sells ‘em. Given his history, it is a challenge to follow his vision. Each subsequent location of his restaurant gets more inconvenient. He began downtown, moved to Archer Road and now he’s by the highway on Gainesville’s last northbound freeway exit. He’s getting further and further away. Will he eventually leave Gainesville?
Because everyone who has eaten there will tell you this, MT’s menus light up from behind. It’s a clever touch, but you’re paying for it. Call it the lit menu premium.
Oh, the food. Eh, it’s great.
Cool name huh? Embers. Gainesville’s “only U.S. Prime Cut steakhouse,” though that confuses me. Why is Mark’s Prime Steakhouse downtown called Mark’s Prime?
I’m with friends and we’re waiting on someone so we go to the bar. I want the draft list to be a bit funkier, especially since I know Gainesville restaurants can source nearly any beer (visit Alcove or Stubbies and Steins to confirm). They do have a Lambic on tap but I settle for a Bass.
My friend is doing her best to guide her girlfriend here, but texting directions to Embers is difficult. It is on 43rd, in between Newberry and Archer roads. If coming from the North, once you pass the Goodwill you have to flip a bitch and quickly turn into the parking lot. If coming from the South and you pass the Goodwill you’ve gone too far and it is hell to turn around. You are better off keeping your girlfriend on the phone while she drives on 43rd, but talking and driving is illegal, right? Better to Google map it. Her girlfriend eventually figures it out and we take a table.
North-Central Florida’s only sommelier is a co-owner of Embers. It shows in the wine list. I am delighted to see several Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs on the menu. My friend orders a bottle for the table but he pronounces Willamette incorrectly as “Will-a-met.” I correct him, saying it’s pronounced, “Will-a-may,” like a French word. Our waiter corrects us both but is afraid to say how people from the Oregon valley would correct us. We tell him that we are a fun crowd and he can say whatever he wants. “It’s Will-am-it, damnit,” our waiter tells us. He’s delighted that we are not stiffs and we are delighted that he’s not one too.
At our waiter’s suggestion we order the Filet Mignon Flatbread. When it comes out, my friend goes, “looks like California Pizza Kitchen.” If you intend to order a steak for dinner then this app is unnecessary. Favor the fried gator tail with remoulade.
I preface my dinner order with “I’m torn between…” Do I want the slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone short ribs–not on many Gainesville menus–or a steak? The waiter gives slight favor to the steak which is twelve dollars more expensive. It’s a predictable consequence of showing your indecision. It’s not up selling, it’s good rhetoric. At some restaurants, waiters deliberately assert the most expensive item as the choicest item, but an exceptional waiter scores the decision like a boxing analyst scores a close fight, giving only a slight edge to one fighter over the other. At Embers the waiter artfully equivocates, and I order the New York Strip along with kissing-friendly Vidalia onions and the sautéed trio of cremini, portobello and shiitake wild mushrooms. And, unlike Mark’s or MT’s, at Embers I do not pay extra for these sides.
Seared Ahi tuna followed by a wood grilled New York strip served with a side of sautéed spinach. Bingo!
There is much overlap between these restaurants. Were the restaurants boxers, then they would have equal height, weight and reach and matching records. Standardize the fonts and their dinner menus read like identical bingo cards.
So am I “torn between” or is there a unanimous decision on the winner of this steak-off? To be honest, I’m not really scoring the fight. As is my hope for most independent Gainesville restaurants, I hope they all perform like champions.
But I have watched them spar and taken notes. With its downtown address, Mark’s has an effective jab. Not that it would, but Mark’s could let its guard down, lapse on quality and still survive because of its location. On food, beware Mark T.’s haymaker because he’s that strong. But he’s proven flighty before and fast footwork sometimes hides a glass jaw. Enjoy watching his superb technique while he’s still in the ring (i.e. Gainesville).
For the local enthusiast, Embers is the prize fighter. If you want an impressive and market price date then consider the Chef’s Table at Embers. Like ordering a sashimi platter at a sushi bar, you will get, at the intersection of the chef’s and your discretion, a variety of what is fresh that evening. The meal will include pairings suggested by sommelier Ryan Todd and the opportunity to interact with Chef Briton Dumas, a Gainesville native. And when the fall weather comes in mid-December you can enjoy the experience outside on Embers’ patio, a strength the other boys lack.
Costs are often better conceptualized when broken down to their per-unit value. Playing golf at Pebble Beach, for example, costs around $400 per round equating to $22 per hole or around $4.50 per shot for the 18 handicapper. That’s 5 dollar gimmes! I estimate that a 6 oz. petite filet yields ten bites. At Embers, Mark’s or MT’s, that’s nearly 3 dollars a bite. I’m wiser going to Publix and buying steaks but I do not own a grill. Instead, I have to broil steaks on a pan in my oven. I’m not a Texan, I do not have the skill or bravado to cook a steak better than these places can. But if I go too deep on the first date then I’m in a hole. Solution?
We’re going to Outback. I’ll take her to Pebble Beach once I’m sure she’s really into golf (and me).
Endnote: Embers would have beautiful golf course views but the property owners tore down the putt-putt that used to be there.