By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Feb 20, 2006 at 5:44 AM

There may always be a place for the classic, supper club-style steakhouse in Milwaukee. You know, the kind you can picture your grandfather at -- like Coerper's 5 O'Clock Club or Butch's Old Casino Steakhouse.

But today's upscale steakhouse is finding that it must change with the times to attract a younger generation of red meat eaters, and build the type of restaurant that may not necessarily attract grandpa, but does pull in Milwaukee's new movers and shakers.

"Steakhouses are becoming more of a hip thing," says Omar Shaikh, who co-owns the new Carnevor, 724 N. Milwaukee St., with Tom Wackman and Demetri Dimidropolus. Chef Marc Bianchini runs the kitchen. "The old Frank Sinatra-type of places are still in abundance, but they are not the new wave."

Shaikh, who says his group sunk "seven figures" into building the steakhouse, thinks that its location and décor truly resonate with young Milwaukeeans.

"It's beautiful, jaw-dropping," says Shaikh. "With our décor and the music we play, we're going after the spending generation."

Johnny Vassallo, who owns Mo's -- A Place For Steaks, 720 N. Plankinton Ave., agrees that this generation is looking for something different.

"People are really looking for finishes, different items and nicer things," says Vassallo. "We have a rich feel. It's more action and a little more exciting. The place is bustling and it makes you think of New York or Chicago."

But neither Shaikh nor Vassallo say they went out of the way just to skew to the younger diner.

Says Shaikh, "We're getting that crowd, but we're also getting the wealthy North Shore crowd, too. We're culinary-driven and service-focused."

"I don't think we're trying to speak to a new generation," says Vassallo. "We've always been '8 to 80.' Steakhouses, like any other business, have to change with the market. In our market, the place you dine at is a reflection of who you are."

Milwaukee ChopHouse, 633 N. 5th St., faces a different challenge being situated inside the Milwaukee Hilton City Center hotel. To attract a younger clientele, spokesperson Lori Sunie says the restaurant recently started serving food at its bar -- at a lower price point.

"We did add ChopBar as an appetizer bar. We have a lot more unique appetizers and selections that are beyond the norm, like tempura asparagus and Kobe beef burgers," says Sunie.

At about $9-$11 per dish, Sunie says ChopBar is a nice alternative for single diners or people looking for a quick bite before a Bucks game.

"It's making the bar more of a destination point," says Sunie.

In terms of price, Shaikh says he knows Carnevor isn't cheap, but customers know what to expect for a high-end dinner.

Says Shaikh, "I've been hearing that we're expensive, but we're in line with other steakhouses in Milwaukee. I can guarantee that we pay 25-35 percent more for our meat than anyone else in our city.

"People are realizing that its not expensive, but it's the best value. We just ask that people come in and try it one time," he says.

Vassallo points out that dinner, itself, can be the date these days, and a great meal can make a lasting memory.

"We've positioned ourselves so that people know they are going to spend money. It's a conscious decision that is part of their entertainment budget. Dinner used to be coupled with something. Now, you might be out for four hours at the dinner, then at a bar for two hours," says Vassallo.

And though Shaikh says that Carnevor offers entrees as low as $17, he knows that his place isn't for everyone.

"College students, yeah, probably not," says Shaikh. "Cubanitias is probably a better fit. But you don't have to spend $75-$100 in our place."

ChopBar aside, Sunie says, "It's not a price point, it's where the energy is. If you're going to go, you're going to know (what it will cost). But we also have (less expensive) nice entrée salads."

No jacket required

Milwaukee's new wave steakhouses are somewhat more casual than their predecessors, too. And while their management sees everything from suits to sweatshirts, they seek to avoid any air of pretension.

"We're considered cool and casual, but a lot of people come in suits. We're not trying to be stuffy," says Shaikh.

"We don't have that issue," says Vassallo. "We set up an image. When people to come to Mo's, it's a place where people dress up."

And ChopHouse, which has to cater to the most casual of hotel guests and Milwaukeeans looking for a night out on the town, has its own solution.

"If we were independent (from the hotel), we would have a dress code," says Sunie. "But if the private dining room isn't being used, we do try to separate (casual and dressed-up diners) a little bit. People do come here for special occasions. And people dress to impress."

But Sunie, too, agrees that the steakhouses have trended more casual in the last five years. Other than a policy of no hats, "whatever makes you comfortable is fine," she says.

New trends for new diners

As Milwaukee's steakhouse landscape gets more crowded -- national chain The Capital Grille is on its way to Downtown -- every player must continue to innovate and differentiate itself.

For ChopHouse, that means the introduction of ChopChop, a curbside pickup option they'll unveil on Feb. 27.

"It's definitely on the cusp," says Sunie. "In Chicago, there are more places offering to-go than in-house dining."

But other than chains like Outback Steakhouse, Sunie says ChopHouse is the first high-end restaurant in Milwaukee to offer the option. She says diners will be able to fax in an order or place it on their Web site, with pickup in just 10 minutes.

ChopHouse also gets its name out by doing off-site catering for special events, which gives it an opportunity to impress potential future diners.

Carnevor prides itself on being the first steakhouse to offer "swarm service," in which there's just one main server, but several employees who bring out and clear a table's food at once, so everyone gets their dinner at the same time.

Mo's has the benefit of cross-promoting all of Vassallo's nearby properties. For example, the restaurant can point diners across the street to Mo's Irish Pub for a night cap.

ChopHouse can also cross-promote the other restaurants and bars in the Hilton, and Sunie says they try to direct guests to find "what's the smartest place for me to be."

And the owners of this new breed of steakhouses think Milwaukee has a way to go before it reaches its saturation point.

"I think Milwaukee can support it," says Shaikh. "We knew about Capital Grille before opening Carnevor. We are completely different, and that's why we're going to succeed."

Shaikh says Carnevor is the first Milwaukee steakhouse with an open-air concept, and this summer diners will be able to take advantage of the bustling Milwaukee Street.

"There's room for everyone," agrees Vassallo. "Yanni's, Carnevor, ChopHouse ... our sales continue to go up."

"We offer an extremely personalized friendly service, so anyone who comes in will feel comfortable," says Shaikh. "We are enormously happy with people who are coming in."

"But everyone's got to execute since the market is definitely growing. The more the merrier," says Vassallo.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.