For any fan of Corked, the February Morning Call article about the high-end steakhouse’s transition to high-end sports bar leaves more questions than answers.

Corked has been known as one of the Lehigh Valley’s top steakhouses and eateries for years. For the many of us not privy to the restaurant’s financials, it’s apparent popularity seemed to point toward a healthy status.

So, what’s behind the transition? And why a “high-end sports bar” theme?

If the restaurant was doing well enough under the current concept, the abrupt transition after only 3 years is confusing.

On the flip side, if the transition derives from the need to jumpstart a struggling restaurant, why… WHY a sports bar?

Before delving too far, we need to step back and take a 40,000 foot view of the situation.

Flash back to late 2014 when Shula’s – arguably the area’s swankiest and most expensive steakhouse – announced it would be moving from it’s otherwise comfortable digs at the Promenade Shops to the bourgeoning Hamilton Street district in downtown Allentown.

At the time, Shula’s ownership spun the move as taking advantage of an new and exciting urban area. The stickers had barely worn off the tires when Shula’s announced its abrupt closing in early 2016 – they had lasted a mere 6 months at their new location.

In hindsight, we now know Shula’s move from the Promenade to Center City Allentown was a last-ditch effort to save the failing restaurant, and it’s struggles had nothing to do with location.

It turns out, there weren’t enough diners willing to fork over $75 per head to keep it afloat. Shula’s became a special occasion destination, and clearly, there weren’t enough birthdays and anniversaries to go around (that’s not even factoring in the Allentown Stigma, but let’s save that for another article).

Across the nation, the restaurant industry is currently in flux, there’s a restaurant bubble that’s about to burst (which I’ve been predicting for years), and we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of the Golden Era of American Fine Dining. Restaurant goers habits and expectations are changing. People want smaller portions that are lower in price that are sharable between 2 people or the entire table.

So, the Lehigh Valley’s troubles of sustaining high-end cuisine coupled with the nation’s changing dining habits, all signs begin to point in one unfortunate direction for expensive Lehigh Valley eateries: it’s time to scale back.

If things at Corked aren’t going so well, my guess is that it’s likely not in spite of the food. In an area rife with subpar and average “high end” cuisine, Corked stands out as a gem that could hold it’s own in almost any market. Their steaks, seafood, wine list, beer offerings, cocktails, etc. are all wonderful. We reviewed their Truffle Burger and found it to be quite phenomenal, and consider it one of the best burgers in the Lehigh Valley.

I can only surmise that the transition is due to one of two things: either Corked is not doing well and needs to pivot to a new concept to bring in new clientele, or the restaurant’s ownership isn’t satisfied with it’s image and wants to fix what’s not broken… for whatever reason.

Or, maybe it’s a combination of both. Either way, regardless of motive, “high end steakhouse” feels wrong for an area such as Historic Downtown Bethlehem.

With the majority of the Lehigh Valley being generally suburban or rural, our “cool” urban areas and eateries are ver far and few between. Granted, I can’t think of another true “high end sports bar” in the Lehigh Valley that could compete with Corked’s culinary offerings. On the other hand, the LAST thing we needed was another sports bar – high end or not.

Corked currently turns into a nightclub on weekend nights. How many high-end steakhouses that you know of turn into nightclubs after regular hours? Is this transformation linked to an effort to expand its appeal and audience? Or did Corked ownership drive them to desire not only the hottest steakhouse in Bethlehem, but the most popular nightclub as well?

In the Morning Call article, Corked Chef Joe Grisafi says “Our new slogan’s going to be ‘everyone welcome’ – not that everyone isn’t already welcome, but it’s going to be more affordable for the average person.”

Really? “Everybody Welcome” is your new slogan? To me, what Chef Grisafi really said was “Everybody’s Welcome Now (because before, our prices were way to high, and only a select few could afford to dine with us on a regular basis).”

Grisai continued, “But even the price of the steaks are going to be coming down. Everything will be more affordable for the average person — $10-$20 a person price points rather than $25-$40.”

That’s nearly a 50% reduction. Also, while they currently open at 4:30pm daily, they’ll soon be offering brunch, DAILY, from 11am – 3pm.

All of these moves smack of financial distress. I just wish they would have decided upon a different concept… or no different concept at all. It seems only a menu change was in order.

Outside of sullying their pristine image with the “sports bar” moniker, I wish Corked the best of luck with their transition. If the food remains as good as it is today, they deserve to succeed.

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