Steakhouse chains are everywhere. They lurk behind your movie theaters, in your strip malls and just off your favorite highway exits. Their cookie-cutter layouts and low corporate prices attract parents trying to appease their bloodthirsty kids and young couples looking for a cheap third date.
But why go there when you could go to a local independent restaurant and eat better food?
"It's like with hardware stores -- I don't shop at Home Depot," said Steve Chicklis, owner and general manager of Blue Angus Cafe in Dracut. "If we keep going to Outback (Steakhouse) and places like that, little guys like us go out of business."
You might miss the 1,959 calories in the Bloomin' Onion (which Eat This, Not That! deemed the unhealthiest appetizer in the country), but
"When you talk about the advantage we have over a chain, they don't have the same freedom to monitor quality control and maximize guest satisfaction," said Scott Plath, owner of Cobblestones Restaurant in Lowell.
Cobblestones constantly refines its product. Just last week, the restaurant held a "steak school" with one of its purveyors, Kinnealey Meats of Boston. Representatives from Kinnealey conducted a blind taste test for Plath and the Cobblestones chefs to make sure they're serving the best-tasting meat they can.
It's this consistent commitment to quality that prompts more than half of Cobblestones's customers to order steak, whether it be its tender filet mignon or its top-of-the-line iron roasted prime ribeye.
"We seek excellence," said Plath. "If we stop hearing rave reviews, we're doing something wrong."
Gibbet Hill Grill in Groton also uses Kinnealey for its steak to go along with its impressive array of vegetables grown right on the surrounding farmland. The farm has expanded in each of its first four years and provides almost all of Gibbet Hill's vegetables including everything from tomatoes to beets to kale. Gibbet Hill has a small supply of home-raised beef for burger sliders, but it can't extend that supply to cover all its steak -- the demand is too great.
"The challenge with grass-fed animals is that there's only so much tenderloin," said chef Tom Fosnot. "If we did it here, we'd go through the whole herd in one weekend."
He's not exaggerating -- Gibbet Hill serves about 90 of its 20-ounce bone-in cowboy ribeye steaks in a normal weekend, along with about 150 of its 6-ounce filet mignon. The cowboy ribeye takes up almost an entire plate (the rest is filled with interesting sides like steamed broccolini and brussels sprouts) and isn't tarnished by any extra sauce or marinade.
"We like to let our steaks speak for themselves," said Fosnot. "The best steaks are the simplest ones. When you work with the farmer and see how much work goes into it, you don't want to ruin it by putting on something it doesn't really need."
Blue Angus might be better known for its delicious burgers, but don't sleep on its 12-ounce center cut New York sirloin strip. Chicklis buys it straight from a local vendor, Lowell Provision Company; he knows that in many cases, the little guy does it the best.
"I always want that connection with a local, smaller purveyor," said Chicklis. "I know that if I'm in a bind, he'll help me out every time."
Follow Pete McQuaid on Twitter @sweetestpete.