Steakhouses, one of the few truly American culinary genres, maintain their appeal by being, in large part, the same the nation over. They typically sport dark wood and leather, a suited host, a wine list heavy on Napa Cabs, iconic starters and sides, melt-in-your-mouth steaks, and frightful prices. Testosterone-dripping man caves, the Scotch flows neat and big business deals are cut here between bites of sizzling meat.
Despite the ‘e’ on the end, I assumed that The Downtown Grille was no exception to this machismo paradigm. But since we all know what assumptions make out of you and me, last week I put on my high-heeled boots and met two girlfriends at the tinted-windowed spot that’s stood on the Downtown Mall for 13 years.
We watched four bemused lobsters work their way around a tank in the vestibule before walking in to find managing partner Robert Sawrey befittingly dressed in a suit. He took our coats and seated us in black leather chairs at a candlelit table set with tented starched napkins and handsome steak knives. It was all according to expectations and, from what we could see, the staff was entirely male. Yet, we felt remarkably comfortable. Our server, Tito, didn’t even flinch when we ordered champagne cocktails and started talking about makeup and relationships.
Turns out, this was no men’s club. We watched two young women come in after work to catch up over pomegranate martinis, burgers, and truffled fries at the angled bar. The banquettes and tables in the 110-seat dining room were filled with mixed company laughing loudly. And for every Gordon Gekko-type, there was a hipster in a hoodie or a prep wearing pink argyle.
The prices, while certainly higher than the average restaurant, didn’t even give us heart palpitations. The steaks cost between $30 (for the 8-ounce filet) and $40 (for the 24-ounce porterhouse). The Downtown Grille uses U.S. Choice beef (from grain-fed Harris Ranch cattle in Selma, California) for its steaks, rather than the pricey U.S. Prime, which costs more with every drought and ethanol fuel company. Not to mention that Prime only accounts for 2 to 3 percent of beef overall—and most of it goes to the New York steakhouses where there’s the clientele to afford it.
Of course, it’s a concession that few would notice in taste. The steaks that Executive Chef Sam Rochester sends out of the open kitchen are tender enough to render you weak in the knees and your steak knife redundant—unless you order a wedge salad (and you should). The steaks stand alone, as is the steakhouse norm, but with massively portioned sides all under $10, you only need to order one or two for the table. Even the baked potato—crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and best slathered with whipped butter and chived sour cream—can be cut into four to six pieces. Or, order the nest of onion strings—addictively savory renditions of what’s traditionally just garnish. Save the dressings from your wedge salad (roquefort or balsamic) for tastier dipping than just ketchup. And, if you are looking to prime your palate with something more than the smooth-as-a-baby’s-butt rolls, a range of appetizers—from shrimp cocktail to cornmeal-crusted fried oysters—all come in at $13 and under.
Bring a non-beef-eater for a cheap date—the asiago-crusted chicken and fruit-compote-topped pork chop are both under $20. Pescatarians will find their entrée choices all under $30—unless they go for a 2.5- to 3-pound lobster from the lobby.
Don’t go expecting much to change. Even the catch of the day (rockfish the evening we dined) comes with vegetables that pay no heed to the season, but few could argue over the indulgence of asparagus with hollandaise.
The Downtown Grille’s wine list, which boasts 20 wines by the glass, 125 by the bottle, and wins a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence every year, will seduce oenophiles especially fond of reds as meaty as their steaks. Single malt aficionados will get more than a dozen choices.
Our dinner had already been an exercise in sheer gluttony, so the thought of eating dessert—bananas foster, cheesecake, crème brulée, and key lime pie among them—was more than we could muster. As Tito tidied our table with a golden crumb scraper, we asked him if anyone orders dessert. “Definitely! Especially the ladies!” So, we ordered a slice of the espresso chocolate torte to share, reapplied our lip gloss, and then giggled our way down the Mall.