Contemporary steakhouses are blending tradition and innovation while cutting any pretentiousness.

With white tablecloths, tuxedo-clad waiters, and small menus that never changed, steakhouses were once the epitome of formality. They were reserved for those special occasions where guests dressed up and enjoyed a T-bone steak and their choice of baked or mashed potato. That experience is evolving into something more lively and engaging, thanks to a growing emphasis on innovative design elements and more diverse menus. 

“There’s been a trend over the past few years, across all restaurants, but especially in steakhouses, to move away from what people would consider pretentious,” says Yavonne Sarber, founder of Epic Brands, parent company of Son of a Butcher (SOB) steakhouse. “That means being forced to act a certain way, look a certain way, say certain things, and spend a certain amount of money.”

SOB offers USDA prime cuts, wagyu, caviar, and shaved truffles along with fresh seafood and scratch pasta—everything you’d find in a traditional steakhouse, minus the “boring atmosphere,” she says. 

The north Cincinnati restaurant doesn’t hold back on decor. Eclectic murals and museum-worthy artwork cover every inch of the walls, chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and faux animal fur drapes the back of chairs. Guests can even climb up on saddles at the bar or strike a pose in a bathtub at the entrance for that perfect Instagram moment.

“The consumer wants to be part of the experience now, so taking pictures and posting to social media is one way to encourage that,” Sarber says. “Ultimately, it’s about making it fun for people.” 

Carversteak at Resorts World in Las Vegas doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. Whether it’s the wine list embellished with rap lyrics and quotes from famous comedians, or the knife box presented to steak eaters embellished with the words “choose your weapon,” the restaurant offers a livelier vibe than guests might expect from a high-end steakhouse. 

“It’s definitely not pretentious, and it’s definitely not stuffy,” says Steve Geddes, vice president of food and beverage operations at Carver Road Hospitality, the group behind Carversteak. “The playful, funny wine list helps people relax and go, ‘Okay, it’s just wine. I don’t need to feel intimidated.’ The ‘choose your weapon’ tableside presentation is a cool way to have a little bit of theatrics, while also giving guests a better steak knife than they’re going to get anywhere else. We get a lot of comments about little details like that, because they really help break down barriers for people.”

The menu features dry-aged American steaks from artisan beef producers and Japanese-certified wagyu steaks, alongside some classic preparations of other steakhouse staples. 

“It can be easy to get a little too creative and end up losing the connection with your guests, so we started with the iconic dishes that you’d expect in a steakhouse environment,” Geddes says. “The culinary creativity comes in with some of the more unique entrees that give the restaurant a more diverse, international feel.” 

He points to lobster en croûte, a whole Maine lobster with a puff pastry shell accompanied by red pepper cognac cream, as an example. There’s also a variety of raw bar selections, like scallop crudo and yellowtail sashimi, and a handful of vegan-friendly selections. 

Sides and appetizers also provide an opportunity to break from tradition. Highlights at Carversteak include wagyu cheese steak bites and Korean glazed pork belly, plus potato gratin made with thin-sliced potatoes and parmesan cream instead of the usual heavy potatoes and creamy cheddar sauce. At SOB, playful appetizers like the “Million $ Deviled Eggs” with sweet and spicy bacon, pickle, and gold leaf add a touch of whimsy.

Miami’s Prime 54 steakhouse is putting a contemporary spin on steakhouse staples, too. Executive chef Michael Paley says dishes like the grilled Japanese sweet potato with charred jalapeno sour cream—his riff on a baked potato—and jumbo lump crab cake with tarragon beurre blanc showcase the kitchen’s commitment to updating classic flavors.

“I think there’s an opportunity for chefs to create a unique experience just by reimagining what’s on the menu with fresh ingredients,” he says. “I came up in à la minute kitchens, where everything was made to order, so we really try to strategize around that. How can we take something familiar and make it better? What ingredients are we using? How are we preparing it? How can we play with those classic flavors?”

When it comes to the center of the plate, Prime 54 encourages guests to share steaks with their table and explore the different cuts of meat that are cooked on a wood-burning grill in the restaurant’s open exhibition kitchen.

“We want to push toward sharing instead of just coming in and having your individual filet,” Paley says. “We like to offer larger cuts that people can share, and then they can explore some more appetizers and sides. The cost of meat is high, and menu prices are high, so I think there’s something to be said about menu design and how you absorb the sticker shock of what you’re charging.”

Consumer Trends, Feature, Menu Innovations, NextGen Casual