It was a sad day for lovers of the Monte Cristo sandwich when the parent company of Bennigan's, Metromedia Restaurant Group, announced that it would be filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2008. Suddenly, those who craved a fried ham and cheese sandwich made on french toast would be forced to google "Monte Cristo [city name]" whenever the craving struck them, instead of visiting one of the nearly three hundred Bennigan's locations around the country, which had made the sandwich "World Famous," according to its menu description.
The Plano-based restaurant management company took with it not just Bennigan's 150 corporate-owned locations (and the vast majority of its 138 franchisees, in the months that would follow), but also the casual dining chain's sister restaurant, Steak & Ale, which once littered this great land of ours before competition like Outback Steakhouse and Ponderosa crowded it out of the title of Casual Steakhouse Supreme. Steak & Ale's decline was more steady than that of Bennigan's, but the struggling brand met its demise in the fall of 2008 alongside its Irish pub-themed sister-chain when Metromedia's bankruptcy wiped every Steak & Ale restaurant off the map entirely.
That's the sad history of these two once-proud Texas chains: The future, as they say, is unwritten. But the Bennigan's and Steak & Ale assets were purchased shortly after Metromedia's bankruptcy by a NY-based management company, which placed former Salsarita's head Paul Mangiamele in charge of the Dallas-based Bennigan's Franchising Company. He began a revival of the Bennigan's brand in 2012, and took to the airwaves last week on Dallas' KTXD to explain his plans for the return of Steak & Ale.
You'll have to click the above link to watch the video, but if you do, you'll hear Mangiamele and the ladies of KTXD's The Broadcast gush about their positive memories of Steak & Ale, and the vision Mangiamele has for the company.
“When I saw that overwhelming emotional connection [to Bennigan’s], I thought, ‘We’ve got to bring back Steak & Ale now, because Bennigan’s has been so widely received around the world. We’re opening at a clip of about one restaurant per month on the Bennigan’s side. So Steak & Ale, we’ve been working on it for the last year and a half, two years. […]
"It’s going to be very hip, very cool, and we’re going to take the vestiges of the original Steak and Ale, because I still think that history is very important. Buttoned-up, but not stuffy — that’s what was great about it. It was one of the first casual dining steak restaurants that had a salad bar. And we’re bringing that back, but we’re also bringing back table service. Remember the old Caesar salad that was done table side? There was a little bit of flair, a little bit of entertainment, great service, which unfortunately is an anomaly today.”
Mangiamele's plans for the chain aren't exactly groundbreaking, but there's no denying that people do have an emotional connection to the restaurant chains they grew up with, which means that many a Texan whose childhood birthdays included the words, "A happy happy birthday / from Steak & Ale to you" will probably be tempted to that salad bar at least once.
Of course, tempering those ambitions for how bright Steak & Ale's future might be isn't a bad idea, either. The Bennigan's revival has been a relatively measured rollout, but it's also seen some fits and starts, with the first of the chain's new Houston locations already closed. The fact is, casual dining chains are struggling across the board, which makes these big plans a big question mark.
Still, out of reverance for a ham sandwich that comes served coated in powdered sugar, and fond memories of a prime rib meal served alongside an unlimited-visit salad bar, we'll hold out hope that Bennigan's and Steak & Ale manage to buck the trend.
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