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Strip Joint

At clubby Del Frisco's, you'll pay top dollar for sublime steaks in a monumental midtown setting, but the cheesy service may leave you cold.

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Of the 54 patrons seated downstairs at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, only six are women, and three of them are seated together. This instantly tells you that Del Frisco's can only be one of two things: a gay bar or a steakhouse. Your most immediate clue is that virtually all the guys sitting in clusters of six or more look like they could be contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (easy-fit, triple-pleated khakis and button-down blue oxford cloth rule).

However, it's the rare gay-bar owner who would invest this much money to make a room so butch. Considering the competition, it is faint -- almost insulting -- praise to declare Del Frisco's the grandest, most handsome steakhouse in town, a spectacular set worthy of Andrew Lloyd Webber if he had ever written a musical about beef. Why kick about sawdust when you can ascend steps of unbroken slabs of slate? The formidable braided and twined iron railing that traverses the stairs and block-long balcony is an homage to the cables holding up our city's suspension bridges. Elegant mahogany columns rise two stories, setting off an unforgettable view of Rockefeller Center to the north while framing a distracting view of the Fox News ticker to the northeast. (Forget about holding the attention of anyone seated opposite this tableau for at least ten minutes. It's like looking into the eyes of someone at a cocktail party in Los Angeles.)

The good news is that the steaks at Del Frisco's are terrific, unfailingly cooked to order, thicker than Almodóvar's accent, and even more tender than the fading frat boys who populate the place when they sink into bed next to their their waiting wives after midnight. From the usually overrated filet mignon, whose supple, buttery blandness gets surmounted by a brash pepper-splattered crust, to the Kubrickian ecstasy that follows the swift demolition of a superb 26-ounce "double eagle" strip, Del Frisco's is a silverware-clanking crowd pleaser.

That said, its managers still have a lot to learn about running a restaurant. The five trumpeted steaks (filet, rib-eye, prime strip, double eagle, and porterhouse) are outstanding, but there are an equal number of startling backslides that could keep you from wanting to come return with anyone other than your co-workers.

Some pointers:

1. The waiters here push high-ticket items with such Elmer Gantry-like vigor, it's surprising they don't end each meal peddling Amway table crumbers. A word to the wise: Back off. No one comes to a prime New York steakhouse looking for an early-bird special, so why don't you reknot your tie (or better yet, wash your hands -- waiters are constantly touching their hair and faces) and let your customers peruse the menu before you start hawking all the market-price items.

2. Because the kitchen sends out plates that are hot enough to singe flesh, even a veteran Catskills-hotel waiter could only handle two at a time. Given the à la carte nature of steakhouse menus, you do the math to calculate how many waiters it will take to serve entrées and side dishes to a table of eight. And if you don't happen to be sitting there, you can do your kids' trigonometry homework while you're at it.

3. The staff needs either to bond more or simply to pool their tips. On two occasions, our table was greeted by a waiter who then left with our drink order, only to be replaced by another chap who became noticeably peeved after realizing he'd been bested. One actually blocked the path of his eager predecessor until a manager appeared, whereupon all three engaged in an argument in full view and earshot of the dining room. "Well, I'm glad that's over," said the graceless victor when he returned to our table. No, we're over you.

4. Most of the restaurant's male waiters tend to cluster cliquishly at the top of the stairs, in case you're looking for yours. (Female servers and a cool waiter named Mark are the exceptions.) Busboys quickly change tables but rarely clear them, forcing overburdened managers to jump into the breach with their open double-breasted jackets flapping precariously over the creamed spinach. A solitary word of advice: Scatter!

5. It's a tradition as tired as Sparks's décor that steakhouses subliminally punish people who order anything but red meat. How refreshing would it be to end that tradition in a room as newly charged as Del Frisco's. When a kitchen is also capable of turning out a deliciously succulent veal porterhouse, a solid, spunky crab cake, osso buco in a becomingly sweet broth with a feisty splash of turtle soup, why must simple dishes like salads feel tossed off, or shrimp rémoulade be flat and rote? Onion rings are a sloppy delight, and skillet potatoes with onions could be a hit at the multiplex, but fried oysters are muddy as the earth in Gladiator, angel's-hair pasta won't even twirl on a fork, and the spinach is hardly -- as its name claims -- "supreme." Every fish is okay, no more, no less. But what's not okay -- in fact, it's infuriating -- is the unfulfilling, furiously hawked 30-ounce lobster tail that thrashed Cleveland. For $136 you get to struggle with a dead sea creature. For almost that much, you could swim with a porpoise.

Others have opened stalwart cow palaces with little more than a meat locker crammed with aged prime cuts. But Del Frisco's owners have invested millions in a space as impressive as it is unexpected. So why stop there? Why not replace formulaic desserts like cheesecake with additional fresh choices like their praline parfait? How about creating appetizers that do more than mark time till the main attraction? Or concocting side dishes that deserve to accompany such wonderful beef, carried by waiters with focus and peripheral vision? Del Frisco's has both the design and the ability to revitalize a hearty but stagnant restaurant genre. Or it can merely drive some more well-marbled aged steaks into its heart. That would be a shame because, in the end, it's easy but rarely rewarding to be a clone. Even the boys in Chelsea will attest to that.

Del Frisco's, 1221 Sixth Avenue, at 49th Street; 212-575-5129. Lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to midnight, Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight. Appetizers, $9.95 to $17.95; entrées, $24.95 to $49.95. All major credit cards.


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