The wife and I miraculously found ourselves by ourselves on the final afternoon of the long holiday break. We dumped our kids on my parents so we'd have the leisure to browse undisturbed the deep-discount Christmas junk at Target, a selection of knickknacks we'd likely misplace before the opening of the 2012 holiday season.
But we were both quite famished, the Mrs. and I, and instead of hitting up the usual fast-food or "casual dining" joints, we decided to sample the latest restaurant to open in our quaint hometown, the literally named Grill 454, which is a catchier name than, say, Grill Veterans Memorial Highway.
I wasn't sure what to expect, considering that the venue previously housed Charlie Brown's, a family-friendly steakhouse and sports bar that disappointingly lacked references to Snoopy or The Coasters, as well as Golden Corral, which served what could be defined as "food" only if your definition was as broad as "something you can ingest that might not kill you."
We hadn't read the from a couple of weeks ago that described the restaurant, so we had no idea what to expect. We had passed the place on New Year’s Eve evening, and the parking lot was full. That didn't influence my assumptions of the restaurant's quality, however, because in Commack you can open an establishment that serves day-old bologna-and-muenster sandwiches and for the first month it will attract crowds that make passers-by assume it was the site of free tickets to a concert featuring Justin Bieber, Pearl Jam, Paul McCartney, and zombie Frank Sinatra.
We entered Grill 454 at 2 p.m., when there was a moderate lunch crowd (probably because most people had off on Jan. 2). We were led to our booth by a cheerful hostess, and I noticed that the restaurant looked very much like the old Charlie Brown's, but it was as if Charlie's cousin, an urbane interior designer (we’ll call her Sally), gave the place a slight makeover. (A few Charlie Brown's tchotchkes remain, like the old-timey photo in the men's room of guys practicing golf putts outside a dry cleaner while waiting for their pants to be pressed.)
We didn’t receive menus when we were seated, and I became agitated when a party of six received their menus. Moments after that, a waiter rushed over with menus for us, possibly because he overheard me mutter to my wife, "DID YOU SEE THAT THEY GOT THEIR MENUS ALREADY???"
Upon reading the menu, I soon understood what kind of restaurant I was in. Gone was the Charlie Brown's menu with laminated pages and color photos and random inserts promoting deep-fried jalapeno poppers and the salad bar. Hello, classy leather-clad menu with all-caps serious-serif text. The ribeye steak was described bluntly as RIBEYE STEAK — no need to tell you that it's USDA corn-fed Midwestern whatever. Don't know what COLORADO LOLIPOP [sic] LAMB CHOPS are? Well, the menu isn't gonna tell you what they are, so when you ask your server, try not to sound like a rube from the suburbs.
And be prepared to shell out 32 bucks for the privilege of licking those lollipops. There ain't no $9.99 "steak" with fake grill marks, paired with a fist-sized potato here, my friend. Like most "real" steakhouses – meaning the kind I dream about dining at every week but can only afford to patronize when I go to a bachelor party or win the lottery – the signature menu item is the porterhouse, and for 42 dollars a person, you might think you were in Midtown or Brooklyn.
The wife and I had no desire to drop 84 bucks on lunch, not counting sides ($8 each) and other et ceteras, so we did what we usually did when we went to a place a bit out of our price range: we ordered a burger.
More specifically, we ordered a burger ($13) with cheese ($1 extra) and a filet mignon steak sandwich ($18), and ate half of each. I'm always on the lookout for a good burger, and I judge a steakhouse more by its burgers than by its, well, lollipop lamb chops.
The service was still in its "we're trying to get our act together" stage. Two different waiters seemed to be assigned to our table. One took our order, but then another one dropped by to ask if we were ready to order. This wasn't really a problem at all; I'd rather deal with seven waiters than be ignored.
The food didn't take too long to arrive; that is, it never got to the point where I was muttering "WHERE THE HELL IS OUR FOOD?"
And how was the food? I'll note that I'm not a qualified restaurant reviewer, so I won't use critic-slang like "succulent" or raid the thesaurus for synonyms for "delicious" or "rancid," but I'll tell you this:
That was one hell of a burger.
There are a few individual things that can go wrong with a burger — tasteless meat, inaccurate cooking, inappropriate bun — that ruin the whole experience, and YES THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A BURGER EXPERIENCE AND IF YOU NEVER EXPERIENCED IT THEN YOU HAVE NOT LIVED. In the case of the 454 Grill burger, all the elements came together (the lettuce-tomato-red onion combo on the side wasn't perfect, but I'll give that a pass), including the fries (no charge for the fries, by the way).
The steak sandwich was also very good, and it's a cheaper way to sample the filet mignon. I was worried at first when I saw the steak sliced very thick, because that usually means you'll take a bite and yank out the whole piece from the roll like you're in a bobbing-for-meat contest, but the filet was too tender for that to happen.
My only (very) minor quibble: the bottle of Heinz we received was half empty. I haven't done a ton of research on the ketchup front, but those stubby grenade-sized jars are usually refilled (or are they new every time?) between seatings.
My Grill 454 experience was very limited, yes, but would I return? I'd definitely head back on a Saturday night with the wife (if I can convince my mom to put the kids to bed), slice through the teeming crowds, and squeeze up to the bar in order to have that burger again. I’d probably consider it for special occasions, like an anniversary (Mom? I need you to babysit again!) or if someone else is willing to pay for my meal (leave a message in the comment box if you're interested).
Knowing next to nothing about the economics of owning a restaurant, however, I'm wondering how well Grill 454 will fare. Commack’s dining experiences are mostly pizza, fast food, "ethnic" (Greek/Chinese/Italian/etc.), RubyChilisOutbackApplebees, and whatever they offer for room service at the Commack Motor Inn. The last interesting restaurant we had (as far as how I define a place as "interesting") was , and that place was replaced with…yet another Italian restaurant. (Not trying to put down , but I think you get the point.)
On one hand, Grill 454 is really the closet thing that resembles a real steakhouse ( calls itself a steakhouse, and serves steaks, but it is not a steakhouse) in our neck of the woods, but can such an upscale place (with upscale prices) pull in enough customers week in and week out at such a large venue? Maybe a place like Majors, the cheaper kid brother of Bryant & Cooper, might be a better idea.
If they start to run into trouble pushing that $42 porterhouse, they can always turn it into Burger Grill 454. Assuming there are more people like myself who'll shell out 13 bucks for a great burger.