Food & Drink

Steve DeCastro's Next Big Thing

He’s done steak, he’s done fusion, he’s done his own beloved Cuban cuisine. Now, restaurateur Steve de Castro is ready to take on Baltimore’s most competitive market: seafood.

It’s shortly before Christmas, and the heat’s off in the vast space that once housed Red Coral, a shuttered Asian restaurant and dance club in the Power Plant Live! complex. But it’s not just the temperature that provokes a chill. The carpet is torn and stained; ceiling tiles are discolored and smudged; bare patches of white are visible on the red walls where large TV screens once hung. In the back, the 86 board—there to tell servers which menu items are out of stock—still hangs, and scrawled in green marker are just two words: THE RESTAURANT.

Into this wasteland steps Steve de Castro, owner of the neighboring Ruth’s Chris Steak House and three others, as well as Eurasian Harbor and Babalu Grill. Wearing black slacks and a white dress shirt opened to the third button, he doesn’t even see the 86 board as he strides through the place—his place now, the site of his newest restaurant, the Blue Sea Grill. Light catches and refracts off the diamonds in his ring as his hands gesture expansively. “It’s gonna be beautiful,” he says. “The best seafood in Maryland.”

Trust him: The place is gonna be hot.

“The best seafood in Maryland.” 

It’s a bold declaration in a state whose identity is largely defined by the bounty of its bay waters. But Steve de Castro has spent his life bucking the odds. When he was a 14-year-old kid newly fled from 1960s Cuba, washing dishes in a New Orleans restaurant, you’d have bet against him becoming the restaurant’s manager. And once he did so (at age 17), you’d have bet against him opening his own restaurant just six years later.

Well, okay, you’d have won that bet: The restaurant quickly failed. But that left him available to meet a tough little lady name Ruth Fertel, owner of Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses, who happened to be looking for a manager. De Castro proved to be a valuable asset for Fertel—so valuable that when she needed someone to take over her poorly performing Washington, D.C. steakhouse, she trusted him with the difficult task.

One problem: De Castro didn’t want to move, and neither did his wife, Darlene. So the two came up with a plan: Steve would tell Fertel that he was willing to go, but only if she agreed to a list of demands too preposterous for her to ever accept. He went to her office and handed her the list, confident that he’d just guaranteed himself permanent residency in Louisiana. 

Fertel looked at the list, then at him. “All right,” she said finally. “You have one week to be in Washington.”

“I didn’t believe it,” he says now. “I was sure she would never let me go with that list.”

De Castro moved East in 1985 and went right to work, cleaning house and firing most of the staff. “Within a year, we went from the worst-performing Ruth’s Chris to the best,” he says. 

In 1992, de Castro got the chance to open his own Ruth’s Chris in nearby Baltimore. That was followed by a host of other restaurants and clubs, all held by his Big Steaks Management, LLC, which is housed in his Pikesville Ruth’s Chris. Now, he says, “I am from Maryland. This is my home.”

And so now he’s gunning for one of the most competitive markets in the Maryland restaurant industry: seafood. This new concept, Blue Sea Grill, will feature raw oysters, fresh fish, and crab imperial, in an area already chockablock with high-end seafood restaurants, the Inner Harbor. Is it possible that de Castro has bitten off more than he can chew?

Marcia Harris, president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, chuckles at the question. “I wouldn’t bet against him,” she says.

The day before New Year’s Eve, the future Blue Sea smells like paint and sawdust. The carpeting has been pulled up, primer laid on some walls, and a single sky-blue patch of ceiling hints at the transformation to come. De Castro and architect Tim Kearney of Alliance Architecture are staring at what will be the entryway to the restaurant, now just a chest-high length of drywall that ends in a square column going up to the ceiling. The column’s the problem: It shoots up square in the middle of the view of the outside windows. De Castro wants it to line up with the outer window’s frames, which means moving the column a foot and a half to the right. Which means money. More money.

De Castro also wants glass doors at the entrance. “It’s the entrance,” he says, waving a cigar in one hand. “It’s the first thing you see.”

“Hey, you don’t have to convince me that this looks better,” says Kearney, gesturing to his hastily sketched revision of the entryway. But there’s the money: not much more than $300 to move the column, but then the extra glass. . . . 

Steve stares at the entryway intently, takes a puff on the cigar. “Let’s do it,” he says.

Then it’s back to the architectural renderings spread across the bar, which wobbles from being cut in half in preparation for an expansion to make room for the raw bar. Suddenly, a loud salsa tune bursts out: de Castro’s cell. It’s someone from the Ravens—de Castro is a big football fan, regularly attending the Super Bowl (he even flew with the Ravens to Miami for their game there this past season).

“How about the field passes?” he asks. “I’d like to have six.”

Then back to the plans. De Castro has a woman from Ruth’s Chris come over to make copies of Kearney’s sketch.

“How many reservations do we have?” he asks her, meaning for New Year’s Eve. The answer: 797.

“We’ll probably get another 100,” he shoots back. “Another 103.”

For the last 11 years, de Castro has spent New Year’s Eve in Baltimore, dashing between his various restaurants, always winding up at the downtown Ruth’s Chris for midnight. But this year, he’ll spend it in Atlantic City, where his new Babalu Grill opened just the week before. That’s just the beginning—his goal is to open two new restaurants a year for the foreseeable future.

That Atlantic City job was a real teeth-clencher, right down the wire. “I didn’t get the liquor license till 6 p.m. the night I opened,” he says, laughing. “I’m surprised I still have hair.”

That’s not going to happen with Blue Sea, he says. This time, he’s going to—

That salsa tune again; this time, it’s someone from Big Steaks. “When does he need to know?” de Castro asks. The answer clearly displeases him. “No,” he snaps. “You tell him he’ll have to wait till tomorrow. I can’t make a $30,000 decision in one second.”

Time to check out the kitchen. De Castro’s questioning the location of the icemaker, and disgusted by the cracked cement floor. “It looks like caca,” he says.

Then he’s checking the vent hoods, and electrical outlets, and an automated system that regularly changes the oil in the fryers. De Castro’s worked pretty much every position a restaurant has, and it shows. Hearing of the oil system, he nods in approval as his nose wrinkles at the memory of an unpleasant chore. “Changing the oil, who likes to do that?” he says.

A week later, Blue Sea is filled with men: men climbing up scaffolding, men cutting boards with a power saw, men rolling paint onto walls. The spicy earth tones of Red Coral are gone; in their place is, indeed, a sea of blue: aqua, cobalt, indigo, sky . . . and, in one incongruous patch, lime green. 

De Castro is appalled. “This color has to go!” he all but shouts, pointing emphatically with one finger as his head swings around to look at Kearney, who doesn’t look exactly happy himself. 

“They must have made a mistake,” he says.

Normally, paint wouldn’t even be going up yet. But Blue Sea is operating on a compressed schedule—what usually would take five months is being done in three. There are reasons for this: De Castro wants time to prepare for the May opening of the new Raleigh Ruth’s Chris. But in truth, he probably would have done it this way, even if he didn’t have another opening coming up. “Normally, when I start a project and sign a deal, I like to get it done,” he says.

Another issue: The carpeting hasn’t shown up yet, and no one’s sure when it will. Ryan Clark, the project manager, has been calling the company to try to speed things along, but so far it’s not helping.

“I’m trying,” he tells de Castro.

De Castro shoots him a glance. “Apparently, you don’t have too much pull,” he says.

De Castro isn’t in the best mood, and you can see that the smiles on Kearney’s and Clark’s faces are a little strained. Originally, the goal was to open in late January; now, the hope is mid-February.

But two weeks later, at the Babalu Grill in Power Plant Live!, de Castro’s mood is upbeat. He’s been sick—a rarity for him—and is now feeling good enough for another tasting of the prospective Blue Sea menu. Today, they’re mostly doing entrées, not just tasting them, but seeing how they look on the plate.

With him are Bill Irvin, Big Steaks’ director of food and beverage, and David Sadeghi, Big Steaks’ chief operating officer. A photographer is also on hand to shoot every dish; these will be posted on the kitchen wall so that every plate will look exactly as planned.

Sadeghi shows de Castro the silverware he wants to buy for Blue Sea—solid, curving, highly polished. And that’s the problem: The shiny finish shows every fingerprint and water spot, as de Castro points out by leaving his own print on a knife.

“They’re beautiful,” he says, “but you know it would drive me crazy to walk into a dining room and see that.”

“It’s too bad,” says Sadeghi. “They’re gorgeous.”

“Oh, gooorgeous,” de Castro agrees. “But it’s spotted.”

There are a few appetizers that have been tweaked that they’re trying out again: a cream of crab soup, oysters Rockefeller, clams casino. And then, at least half a dozen entrées. Every dish will go through at least three tastings. “Last time I did this with Babalu and Eurasian Harbor, I gained 40 pounds,” says de Castro.

Almost every dish still needs work: The mustard sauce is wrong for the crab cakes, the parsley pesto on a bronzini is too overpowering, and above all, they need to ditch the fillets. “What I’m really looking for is any fish prepared like this has to be that round and that fat,” de Castro says, his hands making the shape of a hefty steak. “And everything else has to be served whole.”

As the meal progresses—there will be another one tomorrow—de Castro, Sadeghi, and Irvin joke with each other, inflicting good-natured grief over the proper way to debone a fish or describe an oyster. Someone asks de Castro about his trip to Atlantic City for the new Babalu opening—did he try his luck at the casinos?

De Castro shakes his head. “I don’t gamble,” he says.

Sadeghi’s mouth quirks upward in a grin. “He gambles with himself,” he cracks.

Indeed, de Castro’s entire life story is one of calculated risks, each one upping the ante a little bit more. And with the exception of that one first failed restaurant, he’s won each time. He says (as do many people who know him) the reason is simple: hard work. De Castro regularly works from 9 a.m. until midnight. And to relax, he says, “I work.” 

He needed that drive when he opened his first Ruth’s Chris in Baltimore, a notoriously insular town. “Until I came to town, they never accepted anyone from out of town,” he says. “I broke the ice. . . . The first year, it was tough. But I was tough, too. I didn’t come here to quit; I came here to win. It took people a while, but then all of a sudden, they started coming.”

“This area was Death Valley back then, bankruptcy after bankruptcy,” says de Castro’s business partner, Washington lawyer Ely Hurwitz. “At least two other restaurants had gone bankrupt in that same spot before Ruth’s Chris. People thought we were crazy.”

These days, de Castro’s no interloper, and his judgement is rarely questioned. “In the industry, he’s a leader, certainly,” says the Restaurant Association of Maryland’s Harris, who has known de Castro for years. “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t want to be introduced to Steve de Castro. His name is known.”

His name isn’t just known, it’s engraved: While neither party will say exactly how much money de Castro gave RAM toward its new headquarters in Columbia, it was enough to merit having the $1.6 million building named after him. He estimates he donates and raises half a million dollars a year for local charities, with the help of his employees and vendors. He’s often asked to host charity events—partly because he has so many venues, but also because he has a reputation for doing them well.

“If Steve says he’s going to do it, I don’t have to call to check up on him,” says Harris. “I know it won’t just be done, but it’ll be done with a little something extra.”

Like many people who expect a lot from themselves, de Castro also tends to expect a lot from the people who work for him—this is a guy who, as a kid in his first restaurant, fired his own brother for goofing off.

“He was a tough one,” says Nathan Beveridge, who worked for de Castro for more than four years before starting his own Mr. Beveridge’s Midtown Yacht Club and Spy Club. “But if you did the work, you had a chance there. He hired within a lot.”

Along with promotions, de Castro has been known to reward his employees with gifts and trips—Beveridge recalls de Castro taking him along on tours of Napa Valley and Cuba.

“He gives out Christmas bonuses,” says Beveridge. “That’s unheard of in this industry.”

“Where’s the carpet?” asks de Castro.

“It was supposed to be in yesterday,” answers Clark. 

This is bad. Until the carpeting goes in, they can’t set up the tables. And until the tables are set up, the fire inspector can’t come out, and the lighting can’t be finalized, and it’s two weeks before opening and the carpeting just needs to be in already. 

There are plenty of other things to pay attention to: De Castro is unhappy with the direction of the light in one alcove, and with the height of the lights in another, and he’s decided that the paint in the entryway needs to be changed.

“Steve, your name came up at a meeting with some people building this business park in Howard County,” says Clark offhand. “They wanted to call you about putting a restaurant in there.”

“No!” de Castro cries in mock-anguish. “No more restaurants!”

But of course there will be more restaurants. Even while planning the Blue Sea, he’s already got an idea for the next new gamble: taking one of his concepts national, and maybe start a franchise operation, a business Fertel helped teach him.

It will be the rare franchisee who has de Castro’s level of detail-orientation. This is a man who, before any of his restaurants opens, sits in every single chair of every single table, checking the view and comfort.

“I don’t want anyone in my place to have a bad seat,” he says.

The next day, another tasting, this one at The Crystal Room, the event venue connected to the Pikesville Ruth’s Chris. The menu’s really coming together at this point; de Castro’s found his executive chef, Martin Lackovic, and he’s turning out some beautiful dishes.

De Castro’s in a good mood again; the carpet came in last night. He was at Blue Sea until about midnight.

“I was having a dream about it last night,” begins Irvin.

“Oh my God, I thought it was just me!” shouts de Castro.

“Every night, from now on,” says Sadeghi, grinning. “All of us.”

“Welcome to the crazy world, Billy,” de Castro says.

It’s the last week of February, Thursday night. The lights are appropriately low for the dinner crowd, but still bright enough to make de Castro’s ring flash as his hands fly open to embrace yet another visitor. Last night, he had friends and family give the Blue Sea a trial run; tonight, it’s VIPs and folks who helped put the place together. Friday and Saturday, Blue Sea’s booked solid with yet more VIPs, tastemakers, and media members, all of whom will enjoy the restaurant’s food and wine on the house. Next week comes the grand opening to the public.

De Castro’s parents are here, flown in from New Orleans, and two of his four children are also on hand; family members warmly greet each other in a mixture of Spanish and English. Irvin glides by in a bow tie that matches the vibrant aqua of the entryway. Sadeghi ducks in before going back to Ruth’s Chris. Kearney stops by to drop off some plans, looking tired to the core but smiling as he gazes at the end product of his work.

Not that Blue Sea is finished: Even now, de Castro has his tape measure out, trying to determine a better height for the glass that separates the raw bar from the bar’s counter. And the sea-themed murals will take weeks to be finished. Still, as he takes a visitor on a quick tour of his latest endeavor, de Castro’s pride is evident as he walks around this sea of blue. Here is where the upstairs mural will go, and here’s the room for a private party of 20. Smooth saxophone music croons from the speakers, stemware glints like seafoam bubbles atop every table (de Castro pulls aside an employee to point out a missing setting), diners happily feast on steamed shellfish and silver-dollar sized lumps of crab (another pulling aside: “The judge would like eight crab cakes to take with him on his flight, so make sure they’re ready when he leaves”).

All is well in the crazy world. But one visitor can’t help asking, half-jokingly, when the next Blue Sea will open, and for just a second, Steve de Castro actually looks tired—weary, even.

“I’m really in no hurry,” he says. “I’m going to give myself a break. I got the new Ruth’s Chris in Raleigh, and then I got some projects on hold.

“I’m giving myself a break,” he repeats. “Three in one year is plenty.”