Don’t like gambling but love a great steak? You might finally visit SugarHouse.
Hugo’s Frog Bar & Chop House, which will anchor the casino’s $164 million expansion set to launch in January, is an offshoot of Chicago’s famous Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse. Gibsons Restaurant Group is the only one in the country to have its own USDA certification for beef, and that Gibson Prime Black Angus gets treated with respect.
It comes from corn-fed steer raised to specification on carefully chosen farms in the upper Midwest (the best steak I ever ate was at a restaurant surrounded by a Wisconsin cattle ranch, so this makes sense). It’s aged for 45 to 50 days before being cut, to enhance and develop flavor. To order, the cut steaks are brushed with oil, seasoned with a special blend, and seared in 1,800-degree broiler. Based on a tasting held at the casino this week, they end up juicy, tender and superbly savory.
In other words, these are steaks worth seeking out. That they’ll only be available at a casino — you’ll have to walk through the gaming floor to enter the restaurant — could be considered a drawback, especially if you find gambling distasteful.
Even so, the Frog Bar’s forthcoming launch is reason to cheer: It means there will be other reasons to visit Philly’s casino besides just slots and tables.
Of the approximately 150,000 square feet being added, only 20 percent will be dedicated to gaming, said SugarHouse general manager Wendy Hamilton during a press conference announcing Gibsons involvement.
“The market has been pretty clear in sending signals that the demand for slots and tables is tapped out,” she said.
Before this week, I had only ever stepped foot inside SugarHouse once. It was for a Philly Beer Week general assembly meeting, and even the buoyant atmosphere of a beer industry conclave couldn’t dispel the chill I got on my way there — something about seeing rows of dowdily-dressed people spending a gorgeous sunny day locked in front of slot machines was profoundly depressing. It’s cliché to say it, but the place smelled like smoke mixed with broken dreams.
But the thing about casinos is, once they’re approved and built, it’s pretty much impossible to get rid of them (as long as they’re still making money).
Consider the Johnstown Flood Tax. Originally enacted as a temporary patch to help victims of a 1936 flood in western Pa., the 18 percent levy on wine and liquor has become a relied-on revenue stream the state cannot do without. The same goes for the funds generated by casinos, which in Pennsylvania are taxed at a lofty 55 percent. No one crafting government budgets wants to give up that money. Last year SugarHouse paid around $7 million into city coffers, and it claims to have generated nearly $580 million in tax revenue since its September 2010 opening.
If SugarHouse is a permanent part of the Philadelphia waterfront, the best we can hope for is that it enhances, and not detracts from, the quickly improving landscape.
It’s definitely moving in that direction. The original structure, which has 50,000 square feet of mostly-slot-machine gaming floor, a separate, tent-like card parlor, and one small eatery with a lamentably under-used patio, was only ever intended as an interim facility.
When the expansion is completed this December (with an official grand opening targeted for January 2016), the complex will house seven different food and beverage concepts, plus a giant event space on the second floor. The 30,000-square-foot venue will have floor-to-ceiling windows that offer panoramic views of the Delaware River and the Ben Franklin Bridge. Planners that choose to host functions there will be treated to amenities like free parking and catering from the entire slate of Gibsons Restaurant Group menus.
Set in the northwest corner of the first floor, Hugo’s Frog Bar & Chop House itself will not be just for high rollers, even though steaks will likely be priced at $40 and up.
“We’re just as happy to have you come in and have a burger or salad as a filet mignon,” insisted corporate general manager Phil Siudak, who helps oversee all 12 of Gibsons’ current establishments. “Our philosophy is all about value. We don’t train our staff to upsell to boost the check average — we’d rather have guests be happy about what they spend. Then they’ll come back.”
Still, if you do wind your way through the slots to arrive at Hugo’s, it will be tough to avoid the temptation of those signature steaks. In addition to a supple filet mignon, a well-marbled New York sirloin and a giant, bone-in rib eye called the W.R.’s Chicago Cut, the menu will include something only available here: the “Philly Cut.”
Made from the rib eye cap — an underlooked cut that’s long been a favorite of butchers and chefs — the steak is served beneath a smoked provolone sauce, crispy shallots and fried herbs. It is, yes, the restaurant’s cutesy high-end twist on a cheesesteak. But it’s also delicious.
Gibsons corporate chef Randy Waidner, on hand to work the grill at the tasting event, noted that the W.R.’s Chicago Cut was named after Chicago Tribune scribe William Rice, a Gibsons regular whose writings helped the restaurant’s beef gain renown.
“Any Philly food writers want to say great things about this one?” Waidner joked. “You could get a steak named after you.”