Photographs by Rafael Tongol
You’ll see red at Christner’s: deep red, in cozy leather booths and expanses of plush carpeting. You’ll see brown, too, in the deliciously warm walls and furnishings. Black and white also complement the color scheme.
We’re referring to servers’ crisp white shirts with black vests and tidy bowties. Even before you get to the menu — a straightforward lineup of broiled steaks and cream-laden side dishes — dinner at Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster is an unapologetic blast from the past, when it seemed that most special-occasion restaurants were premium steakhouses.
And the family that runs Christner’s, located on Lee Road since 1994, won’t change a thing — except when they do.
“We have a proud heritage, and we aren’t slinking away from it, that’s for darn sure,” says Alice Christner, an upbeat mom of four who runs the restaurant with her husband, David.
Alice’s mother-in-law, Carole, is the owner. She spends three evenings a week as a special-occasions ambassador, cheerfully visiting tables at which guests are feasting in honor of birthdays, anniversaries, promotions and such.
Christner’s, then, is truly a local institution, and in many ways a throwback to the great steakhouses of yore. Trendsetting? Not so much, which is fine with its legions of fans. Over the years, though, evolutions — in most cases divinely subtle — have been part of the growth process.
First, some history. When the restaurant opened, it had a different name, Del Frisco’s Prime Steak & Lobster, and was the second unit of what grew to be a national chain.
Carole’s late husband, Russ, had worked for founder Dale Wamstad, and was granted permission to replicate the original Del Frisco’s in Winter Park. The restaurant quickly became Orlando’s go-to place for business dinners and personal milestones.
In fact, by 2000, Del Frisco’s, as it was then called, was so busy that it expanded into the former Straub’s Boathouse building next door.
Even as the Del Frisco’s chain evolved in its own way, the Christners ran their local outpost like an independent operation. The concept was — and is — built around corn-fed, Midwestern beef that’s cooked at 1,200 degrees, taken out of the oven to rest for three to five minutes, then reheated briefly. That keeps it juicy.
The beef is, by design, a bit underdone when it hits the dinner plate, where it cooks a wee bit more until it’s exactly as ordered. Tender? Oh, my, yes. The Christners place a butter knife, not a steak knife, at each place setting.
Christner’s is known for lobster, too. The crustaceans, from the cold waters of Australia’s western coast, are baked and then presented out of the shell with a side of warm melted butter.
If you’re not a porterhouse or shellfish aficionado, Christner’s still has you covered. Simple staples such as crabcakes and veal chops — and slightly fussier ones such as lobster mac-and-cheese — add appeal. The mandarin orange cake with a whipped cream pineapple frosting is locally legendary.
But it’s those simmering slabs of USDA Prime steak that keep the sprawling facility’s three main and nine private dining rooms full. Sure, a seafood item here, a fresh veggie there, have been quietly making their way onto the menu over time.
“Through it all, though, the quality of our steak has remained the same,” Alice insists. Once an eon or so, the chefs add an appetizer such as fried calamari or an entrée such as sesame-seared tuna with soy ginger glaze and wasabi cream.
Christner’s eventually left the Del Frisco’s fold with permission to keep all the recipes. The Del Frisco’s chain, from which Christner’s was spawned, entered the Orlando market in 2015 with a new restaurant on International Drive.
This situation has, of course, led to some confusion. Mention Christner’s in conversation and locals will ask, “Is that the place that was Del Frisco’s, and is sort of still the same?” However, the Christner family welcomes any conversation about the restaurant with a smile.
“It’s like the Hillstone-Houston’s thing,” Alice says with a chuckle, referring to the long-time chain restaurant on Orlando Avenue that changed names, and slightly altered its concept, in recent years. “We all still call it Houston’s. We’re creatures of habit.”
The source of the Christner’s meat changed in 2009, but only because the restaurant’s forever-supplier, a small private company, sold out to a much larger national company and, according to the family, quality slipped.
These days, David works with a broker who sources the beef from “the only five slaughterhouses we’ll accept,” Alice says. The restaurant now receives whole loins, which the chefs age in house, rather than using the pre-aged, pre-cut product of the prior vendor.
Dinner at Christner’s is a formal affair, and the prices are what you’d expect considering the rarified (or medium-rarified) ambiance and the top-tier cuisine. But the side dishes are oversized, and meant to be shared, as are the mammoth desserts.
The wine list boasts dozens upon dozens of choices, with an emphasis on the hearty reds that complement the beef-laden bill of fare. “Rare/cult” vintages” are also offered, and guests can rent their own wine lockers.
Although the Christners admire successful restaurants that are more adventurous, they’re happy with the old-school niche they occupy. Notes Alice: “If our restaurant started following whatever trend is newest this week, I wouldn’t be delivering what my customers want.”
That said, a little freshening up keeps things from getting stale. In 2008, the family added a bright new lobby, enabling guests to wait in a rustic-looking common area instead of along the hallways and walls of the restaurant.
The following year, the restaurant started hosting reservations-only “magic dinners” in a private dining room, where illusionist Kostya Kimlat or one of his peers entertains onlookers. Now, most Saturday nights, magicians also work the main dining rooms, discretely visiting table after table to wow visitors with some sleight of hand.
Like the trendier eateries in town, Christner’s also hosts tasting dinners. About once a month, the chefs will team up with a vintner or spirits producer and host a four-course meal with paired beverages.
The experiences, referred to as both Sip & Savor and the Cutting Board Dinner Series, are generally intimate affairs with about 20 guests. “It’s like a class,” Alice says. A winery representative visits to discuss each selection, while Dan Colagan, the restaurant’s sommelier, adds his own often-colorful commentary.
“If you like steak, you’ll never have a better steak than what you’ll have here,” Alice boasts, not without justification. “If you like seafood, you’ll be very pleased — but the steak is ridiculously good.”
Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster
729 Lee Road, Orlando, FL 32810