One of Minnesota’s top-grossing restaurants isn’t some trendy newcomer. It’s 29-year-old Manny’s Steakhouse.
Thirty years ago, co-owner Phil Roberts was criss-crossing the country on a steakhouse tour, gleaning ideas and inspiration for the next Parasole Restaurant Holdings venture. It turned out to be an enduring popularity contest winner.
At the time, Parasole operated Muffuletta in St. Paul, red-hot Figlio in Uptown Minneapolis, the Good Earth locations in Edina and Roseville and, most notably, Pronto Ristorante in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
Manny’s, in its glorious excess, moved in across the hall from Pronto. The doors opened on June 6, 1988, and the company — and the Twin Cities dining scene — entered a new era.
Q: What was the restaurant’s genesis?
A: I had been traveling to New York City. My clients felt sorry for me — being from flyover country — so they would frequently take me to the hottest places. They took me to the Palm. I’d never been to a New York steakhouse in my life, and
omigod, it was really, really great. I came back and talked to my partners at the time, and I said, “Minneapolis needs a New York steakhouse.”
And I remember the feedback that I got. It was always, “Murray’s has that Silver Butter Knife steak.” That’s a really good steak, and to this day, I love Murray’s Silver Butter Knife steak. But I remember saying, “Yeah, it’s the best steak in town, but Murray’s isn’t a steakhouse.” I wanted a man’s restaurant that women would love.
So I started out on our three-month tour. We just hit everything in the nation that was a real New York steakhouse: Peter Luger in Brooklyn, Grill 23 in Boston, Morton’s in Chicago, all over. Then we came back and approached the Hyatt, because the space was dark. There had been three prior restaurants in that space. It took another six months to design it, permit it, build it and open it.
Q: Manny’s took off like a rocket, didn’t it?
A: It was an immediate hit. We made a point of hiring outgoing, macho guys, guys that would have fun at the table. We hired for personality. Peter Luger does the same thing, but Peter Luger can be nasty, and not funny. We had some characters. Tim Rooney was with us for 15 years. He just died, I just went to his funeral. Tim’s thing was, he’d have a table of six — from 3M, or something — and he’d pick up a steak knife and wham! [jams it into the tabletop], and it would vibrate back and forth. He’d ruin a tablecloth, but he’d sell an extra bottle of Opus [wine].
Q: What did that success mean for your company, Parasole Restaurant Holdings?
A: It helped fund Buca, and Oceanaire, and Pittsburgh Blue. We had very little debt. We took over an existing restaurant, we put in $125,000 of borrowed money to open [that’s $253,000 in 2017 dollars], and we paid it back in six or eight months, something like that. Those deals don’t come along anymore.
Q: The restaurant famously — or infamously — had an all-male staff. When did that change?
A: I’m going to guess that it was probably the late ’90s. We didn’t have a policy; it’s just that no women applied. It was understood that this was a man’s joint.
Q: Was that an internal decision? Or were there pickets?
A: I’ve been picketed before; that’s good publicity. No, I think it was maybe Randy Stanley; he was general manager for us for many years. He’d taken a hiatus for a few years and went to Ruth’s Chris. They had a couple of female servers that Randy wanted to bring on board, and he did, and they were terrific.
Q: Manny’s has some seriously accomplished alumni. Does that make you proud?
A: If anyone is able to go out and do their own thing, well, I think that’s great. I wear that as a badge. Randy [now owner of 6Smith in Wayzata], for one. And look at Rooney. He went out and started Butcher & the Boar, and Barrio, and Bar La Grassa. That’s pretty good stuff. Everyone says it, but with Manny’s, it’s true: We’re blessed with very good people.
Q: Where did the show-and-tell-style cart come from?
A: Morton’s was doing that in Chicago, and there was one other place. It might have been out at Pacific Dining Car in Los Angeles. It’s a show at the table. It’s called “Show and Sell,” and it works.
Q: Why did you embrace a big-portions/big-doggie-bag format?
A: I’ve always felt that people react to scale. Bigger is better, and Manny’s was brawny from the start. Look, no one north of 40 is going to finish a 20-ounce New York strip. We spend a lot of money on our bag, and that bag goes home with half a steak in it, and it goes in the refrigerator. The next morning, you open the refrigerator and that Manny’s logo is staring at you, and you think, “lunch” and “steak sandwich.” So, yes, Manny’s is expensive, but it’s also a value.
Q: The average Manny’s check is $100. How do you deal with the ever-rising costs of doing business?
A: As a restaurateur, you’re faced with three lousy choices. The first is, OK, we’ll cut the portion, and hope that no one will notice the difference. Well, people notice the difference. Or you cut the quality, and give people a sharper knife. That’s a terrible choice. Or you raise the price. That’s what we do. We raise the price. And industrywide, when you raise prices, guest counts go down. So far, Manny’s has been immune to that. We’ve been fortunate. The regular Manny’s customer is affluent. They’re already conditioned that they’re going to spend $100 or more, and all they care about is, don’t screw it up.
Q: How did Manny’s develop its reputation as a celebrity magnet?
A: Do you remember the old Pump Room in Chicago? There was that wall, lined with photos: Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle. That’s where I got the idea. At that time, the Hyatt was the nicest place in town, the go-to for visiting football teams, or whatever celebrities came to Orchestra Hall. So we just started taking pictures of celebrities. They liked to get their photo taken in front of the bull — women, especially.
Q: Yeah, the bull, that unforgettable painting in the lobby. Does he have a name?
A: No. He’s a generic bull. It’s the No. 1 selfie spot, without a doubt, from Vikings players to Mick Jagger.
Q: You’ve not jumped on the grass-fed-beef bandwagon. Why?
A: I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s very flavorful. It’s not as marbled. Let’s be honest, these politically incorrect steaks are not good for you. You’ll live longer if you eat grass-fed. But by god, you cut into that steak [from Meats by Linz in Calumet City, Ill.], it’s juicy; it’s just better. Fat is flavor. Now, at Libertine [Parasole’s Uptown Minneapolis meat-centric restaurant], we serve grass-fed. I’m not against it. But I’m against serving it here at Manny’s. Peter Luger doesn’t serve grass-fed.
Four or five years ago, we purchased a bull in conjunction with our meat supplier. His name is American Made. He’s produced enough cows that are producing enough kids to where we’re getting up to the point — maybe in May or June — that every steak served at Manny’s will have been sired by him.
Q: Are you still selling those distinctive, aged-forever steaks? I really appreciate the funky bite on that 85-day bone-in ribeye, but I imagine that it’s not for everyone.
A: I don’t like the 85, it’s too liver-y for me. Between the two, I prefer the 65-day, but I rarely order it. If I get the New York strip, I’ll order the one that’s right off the menu. It’s aged the standard 28 to 35 days; that’s pretty typical. It’s all dry-aged, not wet-aged.
Q: You moved the restaurant in 2008, to the W Hotel in the Foshay Tower. Why?
A: Business was always good at the Hyatt. When a good customer would die, of course I’d know about it, and that started happening a little too often. I remember thinking, “I wonder if Manny’s is becoming your father’s restaurant?” and thinking that maybe we needed to fill the pipeline with a younger group. Ralph Burnet was retrofitting the Foshay at the time, and I asked our real estate guy to give Ralph a call and ask about what’s going on at the W. Anyway, the restaurant was already built, and it had cost a fortune. We said, “Ralph, you’ve got to scrap the whole thing and start over.” Which he did, and it all worked out. When we moved here, I wanted to have a cattle drive down the Nicollet Mall. We couldn’t get it permitted.
Q: Back in the late ’80s, did you think that Manny’s would still be around in 2017?
A: No. Part of opening a steakhouse is I wanted a neat place to go on a Saturday night. I also thought it was a good business proposition, but I’m not a good businessman.
Q: You really don’t believe that, do you?
A: I don’t know a debit from a credit. I don’t get up in the morning and say, “Boy, I can hardly wait to check that balance sheet.” To me, it’s largely a labor of love, and we’ve been fortunate. My belief is we do more business here than Capital Grille, Ruth’s Chris and Burch, combined. That’s not a knock on them, they’re great. It’s just the way it is.
Q: Is part of Manny’s popularity the steakhouse’s enduring appeal?
A: We don’t do foam, don’t do molecular gastronomy. A steakhouse is timeless. It’s a formula that works. I don’t mean for it to sound arrogant — because we’ve been lucky, it’s not genius on our part — but Manny’s is on the cusp of that iconic restaurant world. It’s feeling like it’s in that place where it’s just going to be around forever. I think we’re entering a new, rarefied place, and I’m very proud of that.