Thursday, February 17, 2011

Unnecessary Roughness, err dining

5280’s annual Top of the Town guide to dining is typically a reliable and safe source for finding a great restaurant. Having found Root Down, Lola, and 9th Door through Top of the Town, I couldn’t be happier with the picks from the editors and Denverites. However, a few days after the meal, I still don’t understand why Elway’s is listed as the best steakhouse in Denver.

The name—Elway’s—sets an expectation because Elway is a god in Colorado. Maybe that’s the problem. Can anything branded with that name be second best, maybe even average? It seems that is the case, but, not surprisingly, some Coloradoans pass on critiquing the meal they are having because it is Elway’s. The name hypnotizes the diner into thinking this must be what a high-class steakhouse is supposed to be like.

There is no shortage of steak houses that refer to their interior as elegant, their clientele as sophisticated, and their steaks as the finest cuts available. Among these meat houses, it isn’t unusual to see a selection of steaks in the $40-50 range. It is no small commitment to put a fifty on the table for one steak. However, it is worth restating that there are plenty of restaurants that ask that of their clientele. At these places you are likely to get a good steak. It will be cooked to perfection and to your liking. The service will match the price. And the rest of the menu, from starters to desserts, will also pair well with the selection of cuts. For a steak house to stand out as “the best” or great, it needs to surpass these minimum qualifications. A restaurant that does this is extremely rare. Knowing this, I still expected Elway’s to wow me. It didn’t.

“Our interior is elegant.”

Upon entering Elway’s, one faces a huge, gaudy fountain prominently displaying the name. Aside from serving its purpose…ostentation, the fountain works as a divider for the main dining room and the bar. The interior touches at Elway’s were, actually, elegant. It was dark, although, not dark enough. Dimming the lights would add to the intimacy of each table, helping the diner hone in on their plate. No one wants distractions when they go all out on a dinner, but I thought the lighting was just one of a few encountered throughout the night.

Another distraction, and probably my biggest gripe about the interior, was that tables at Elway’s weren’t spread out anymore than they are at the Olive Garden. You know how much I love the Olive Garden, so this didn’t sit well with me. In fact, if you brought the house lights up, got some paint by number frescos of Italian scenery, and nailed up some shutters on either side of a window painted on the wall, this place could really hold its own against the Olive Garden. Spreading the seating out not only gives a restaurant a little more distinction, but it opens up the space in the restaurant, cuts down on noise, and I wouldn’t feel like I am in the middle of someone else’s conversation if I lean back in my chair.

“Our clientele is sophisticated.”

Elway’s dress code is listed as business casual. We dressed appropriately. I wore a dress shirt and sport coat. Part of the enjoyment of dining at a classy restaurant is dressing to par. It heightens expectations, excitement, and emphasizes the special occasion, whether it is a birthday or Valentine’s Day. So when you arrive at said restaurant, you don’t want to see baseball caps, un-tucked shirts, or long sleeve tees. I saw all of these upon entering the restaurant and I let my disappointment show. “Really, a Rockies hat?” I said to my wife.

C’mon. I know this is America and Americans like dressing like slobs. It’s not stylish, but it’s comfortable and easy. But if you are going to have a dress code, live up to it. Like in the movies, I know there are places that ask their patrons to don a sport coat or a collared shirt at minimum if they show up dressed for the football game. These places usually have a few sport coats on hand to give to the needy.

There is nothing wrong with saying your clientele is sophisticated. Just do a little more and make them look that way.

“Our steaks are the finest cuts available.”

Elway’s does serve a good steak. I won’t go as far as calling it great. My rib eye and the filet we had were average for the class of restaurant Elway’s is. While both of us ordered the béarnaise sauce, it was unnecessary. After a few dunks, the sauce sat unused for the rest of the night. That’s a good sign for Elway’s. A steak that doesn’t need a sauce is a solid foundation. But with the meat I was left wanting more. It wasn’t as lean a piece of meat as should have arrived at the table. A good third of it was riddled with gristle.

Sides at Elway’s are typically shared. We went with the standby starch, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Let me just preface this. When my wife and I go out to an expensive restaurant we expect to eat something we feel we couldn’t cook at home. Although they were delectable, we didn’t have this feeling about the mashed potatoes. If there were ever a next time (and there won’t be a next time) I would try something else.

As a starter, we shared the lobster cocktail, which was described as having “three large Canadian lobster tails.” We have had lobster enough to know that for $18, these lobster tails weren’t going to be “large”, but one would expect them to be bigger than prawn shrimp, which they weren’t, but they tasted exactly like that. What a pity. If I had known I would have been eating an expensive shrimp substitute I would have ordered the shrimp and saved a couple of bucks.

A quick word about the service: average. Elway’s is much too large to employ swarm service, but for how much you are paying, the restaurant should try their best to emulate this type of service. A few things that would help: hold the chair for the lady as she sits down. Attempt to wipe down the table in between courses. Obsessively top off water. Switch out silverware with every course. Keep an eye on the table like the quality of the whole dining experience rests on your ability to find needs at the table I didn’t know existed.

The consensus as we walked out of the restaurant was, “Well, we’ve been. We won’t be going back.” That consensus hasn’t changed. Inevitably, when one dines out, one draws comparisons to prior experiences at similarly priced restaurants. So, I started thinking about the city we left to come to Denver. It took me less than a minute to think of four steak houses in Milwaukee that I would rate better than Elway’s, not only when it comes to steak, but including atmosphere, clientele, and décor. I was hoping it wouldn’t have been that easy.

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