Now Playing

The wedge salad

Palm, Perfected

by John DeMers | Photography by Debora Smail | Houston magazine | September 26, 2013

When you have a landmark like the Houston Palm—with the same man greeting you as you enter, the same dishes on the menu, the same caricatures of notables on the wall and, quite possibly, the same people in the bar for 35 years—the last word you expect to hear in describing the steakhouse is “prototype.” But, with their concept-tweaking redesign of the institution, the Italian families who gave the world the original Palm Manhattan in 1926, later spinning one off here, have indeed made Houston a prototype.

Happily for me, the same tall man, Executive Director Jimmy Martin, originally of Brooklyn, is still at the entrance, ready to shake your hand or kiss your cheek and tell you about that great night Sinatra showed up after a concert in 1980 and stayed into the wee hours of the morning.

“We talked about doing a new version of the Palm, and some of us said, ‘What are you talkin about? It’s worked since 1926,’” he says, clipped and proper in his suit and tie, his delivery taking you back to the ol’ neighborhood. “We decided we needed something newer and more upbeat.”

If the crush of diners on this weekday night—still tending toward an older crowd—is any indication, the Palm’s fourth-generation Bozzi and Ganzi clans seem to have freshened up their scheme with younger patrons in mind, without driving away the people who’ve kept the lights on here since 1978. Unlike Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, which spun off an entirely new restaurant for this new generation—Del Frisco’s Grille—the Houston Palm has morphed from within. It’s as though a million little changes have been made, without making a single big one. (Those million little changes, a model for upcoming redo’s of Palms in other cities, cost the owners about $5 each.)

Despite preparations for a new crowd, Old Houston still thrives here, with boisterous groups of family, friends and associates, surrounded by a blur of waiters in tan jackets and black ties. And those cartoons filling the walls emphasize oil derricks and interstate highways—not the iconography of the much-sought younger generation. The local personalities chosen for caricature (a tradition in every Palm, including Mexico City’s, where I remember bullfighters) skew to the established, not the up-and-coming: George and Barbara Bush, Jack Rains, Shelby Hodge, Becca Cason Thrash. Not a Beyoncé in sight.

Perhaps the youth revolution is starting in the expanded bar. Remember the cramped and, at one time, smoke-filled space that could barely fit a dozen people? Well, it now handles close to 70. And the crowd on this night is a good 10 to 20 years younger than the group in the dining room. It’s a bar with an arched tin ceiling, comfy upholstered booths, cocktail tables for casual dining and no shortage of flat-screen TVs.

The formerly shadowy dining room, which you enter via a dramatic tower of a foyer, has become an open space lit by chandeliers and sconces that homage street lamps. It’s outfitted with tufted red booths set beneath those sepia-washed caricatures. The corner table is graced with Zachary Bird’s mural of oil derricks right out of Giant—precisely the tribute to life in Houston you might expect from an artist based in Philadelphia. The Chicago architecture firm of Dacre & Younquist introduced contemporary touches throughout—warmer colors, plush seating and decorative lighting. New private dining areas have also been added.

The menu has been reworked, too. There’s a section of Little Italy classics like veal Marsala and linguine with clam sauce, a doff of the hat to the Palm’s ethnic beginnings. There are also old-school steakhouse must-haves, from steak and lobster to sides like potatoes au gratin and creamed spinach. (You can tell the classics at a glance: They are invariably deep-fried, creamed, buttered or all three.) And then, tucked in with no special fanfare, are updated dishes like ahi tuna with the fixin’s you’d get at a sushi bar, and Chilean sea bass with a perky corn relish.

A lot of the bar’s younger crowd orders a parade of appetizers. The beef carpaccio is the one of the best—and most traditional, a la Harry’s Bar in Venice—I’ve ever tasted, while the baked clams casino might, for all the world, have been the same recipe Sinatra enjoyed here in 1980 (though most of his refreshment, as Martin recalls it, was of the liquid variety). Newer options include bacon-wrapped scallops with basil and balsamic reduction.

Without a doubt, temperature-perfect steaks and lobster rule the dining room, with considerable theatrics devoted to the latter. Live lobsters are brought to tables and usually handed to the most squeamish-looking lady for a paparazzi attack of phone pictures. (If you order a lobster, by the way, be prepared to get a server tying a white bib under your chin. Some things about the Palm are timeless.) For dessert, I’d skip the very clever Bag of Warm Doughnuts and the especially intense flourless chocolate cake in favor of the airy and delicious cheesecake, riding in atop a classic graham cracker crust with a bright red raspberry sauce spooned about.

The classics, in my view, remain among the best bets at the Palm, even as plans are made to accommodate new tastes. “Jim has his customers who’ve been coming in forever; they’ll come in because they love what we do, and, of course, they love to see him,” explains young new GM Scott Sieck. “Now it’s my generation’s turn, people in their 30s and 40s, to get in here and have a great time with great food. After all, we have 85 years of recipes.”

Palm Restaurant
6100 Westheimer Rd.
713.977.2544

Appetizers, $13-$24; salads, $8-$16; entrees, $29-$57; desserts, $8-$15
Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-11pm; Sat.-Sun., 5-10pm

Why Go
A redo carries the old-Manhattan-style steak-and-lobster watering hole into the 21st century, with a fresh new look, a younger bar scene and savvy new menu items sprinkled among the classics.

Dressing Down
As part of its pitch to younger adults (often in family settings with two or three generations), the Palm welcomes more casual dress. Perhaps sadly to some, jackets on men are rare.

Well Done!
The kitchen is more adept than most at delivering USDA prime steaks at the desired temperature, from the 9-ounce filet mignon all the way to the 36-ounce double-cut strip, described as serving 2-3.

On the Vine
The wine list has been trimmed from the bigger-is-better days, ending up with about 150 excellent bottles. (The other wines, your server may whisper, are still available from the cellar.)

Doing Lunch
There’s a three-course “power lunch”—when was the last time anybody called it that?—plus salads divided into Big and Not-So-Big. Don’t miss the Nova Scotia lobster BLT sandwich.