Retired football heroes don’t fade away; they open restaurants. Hey, why not turn goalpost cachet into cash, and enjoy a macho retreat to shoot the breeze with friends and fans to boot?
Mike Ditka’s has been the perennial champ at this game in Chicago. Now the beloved former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula and eighties Bears bad boy Jim McMahon are in play with their own personal sports museums where beef rules.
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At Shula’s Steak House, your menu is hand-painted on an NFL football signed by Shula. I was thankful our high-energy waiters didn’t bend over and hike it. The pigskins look out of place on well-spaced tables set with Royal Doulton china on white napery. But they are no more incongruous than the gilt-framed black-and-white game photographs lining the walls of the classy semicircular dining room. Shula owns a Florida-based restaurant empire; he has nailed down a steady business trade by attaching the group’s 15 steak houses to hotels. This one in the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers, like others, is loaded with memorabilia from the Dolphins’ perfect 1972 season.
Beef is the big draw, of course. Certified Angus Beef is mentioned so often it sounds like a mantra. Waiters bring a cart of cuts they also call the “menu” and recite the virtues of each, capping the performance by waving a monster live lobster. But the star of the show is the 48-ounce porterhouse. “If you finish that,” boast the servers, “you will become a member of the 48-Ounce Club and your name will be displayed proudly on a plaque at the entryway-and you can catch it on the Internet at donshula.com.” In fact, they charge an extra $10 to split it in the kitchen. We asked for an extra plate, cut it ourselves, and still couldn’t finish it; surprisingly, my friend’s name appeared on the Web site anyway. A juicy 24-ounce porterhouse or 22-ounce cowboy rib eye, at half the price, is all you need. Whatever you get, a server cuts into it and shines a flashlight to ensure it has been cooked to order. Ours were.
Despite all the beef bragging, the steaks are not in the same league with those at Chicago Chop House, Gibsons, or Morton’s. While I liked the sautéed mushrooms on the plate, I hated the sautéed peppers. They gave off a grassy, bitter flavor overwhelming the steaks, although I suspect the peppers and the mushrooms are an intentional distraction from the steak’s lack of mineral tang. On the other hand, the 32-ounce prime rib is about as good as it gets. The four-pound Maine lobsters steamed or broiled are succulent, but at the recent market price of $85, Shula ought to personally sign the claws on these bruisers.
Beefheads can start off with very good steak soup or steak tartare, but I preferred the barbecued shrimp stuffed with basil and wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon. And, yes, the best salad is that steak-house warhorse, beefsteak tomato and Gorgonzola. Shula’s revelry is due partly to the Mexican martinis, made with top shelf Patrón tequila, Mondavi Napa cabernet sauvignon, triple sec, and orange juice; they were invented by the bartender here and taste like a magic-realism version of sangría. An elegant 1997 Chapoutier Crozes Hermitage Les Meysonniers ($56) from the good wine list did the steaks proud. Finish with red velvet cake with walnut-dotted white frosting or a huge crème brûlée. Then choose a cigar from the humidor up front and work off that three-pound porterhouse with a stroll and a smoke along the Chicago River-with your very own $300 Shula-autographed football tucked under your arm.
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Over in Glenview, at the brand-new McMahon’s Arena Restaurant and Steakhouse, our waiter is telling us, “You shoulda seen it last Saturday when they showed the Tyson-Lewis fight here. Wall-to-wall packed. It was crazy.” From the outside, the $3-million restaurant is a replica of the old Chicago Stadium with its soaring curved gray roof and vast parking lot. Inside, Tiger Woods and Sammy Sosa are swinging away on huge side-by-side TV screens that dominate the sprawling main floor sports bar. The steak house upstairs is swankier (think black partitions, shutters, white tablecloths), but big windows along the interior wall allow you to keep your eye on the boob tubes-without a soundtrack.
There are all kinds of sports mementos, natch, particularly anything connected to the Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl victory; legendary Bears jerseys are mounted like orange-tinged butterflies under glass.
It’s a family affair: A casually dressed McMahon and his wife, Nancy, are often around, digging into “Jimmy’s mac & cheese” and shaking hands with customers. Daughter Ashley is the hostess and son Sean is a busboy.
A few entries on the steak-house menu surprised us. Lively mango salsa improves a workmanlike crab cake, and cucumber-cantaloupe relish out-zings the dull cocktail shrimp to which it’s supposed to play second fiddle. Even more unusual are hearty starters of sautéed veal sweetbreads served in sherry cream sauce and sautéed chicken livers and onions with thick brioche. There’s no hint from the waiters that entrées come with salad or soup (onion gratin) until after we’ve put in our appetizer order.
They do the regulation meat show-and-tell, bragging that they hand-cut and age their own prime steaks on the premises. If so, they have a ways to go. Our 24-ounce porterhouse didn’t look like the one on the platter: The filet side had been cut too thin, which meant that that part came medium, while the thicker strip side was medium rare. And none of the steaks we tried had a pronounced prime-aged flavor. Like Shula’s, these Kansas City strips and New York strips are good but not top-tier steer. An earthy 1999 Pepi “Two Heart Canopy” sangiovese from California ($30), one of the best values on the wine list, added needed punch to the beef. “They’re the size of my arm!” says the waiter about the excellent two-pound platter of Alaskan king crab legs (market value $75). The scary-large crab is excellent; the meat pulls easily away from the cracked limbs, and ponds of clarified butter are there for the dipping. And the terrific one- and two-pound South Australian lobster tails (market price $85 and $125) are obviously also aimed at big spenders.
Service upstairs was uneven-one meal felt endless, due apparently to what our exasperated waiter called “screwups in the kitchen.” Maybe McMahon should get his old coach Ditka back there to kick some butt. The sports bar downstairs, McMahon’s Arena, has a separate kitchen, and meals went more smoothly despite the din. Families watch games while downing respectable boutique pizzas, smoked chicken quesadillas, chipotle Buffalo chicken wings, fried Cajun frog legs, and husky burgers. The best entrée is the fried grouper sandwich with avocado and rémoulade, although the coconut-crusted shrimp with pineapple-jalapeño marmalade is close. Desserts are the same in both dining areas; my favorite is the white and dark chocolate brownie with coffee ice cream and hot fudge. As indulgent as the rest, but then again, I’m not in training.