Great steakhouses have an aura about them. It isn't charm; it's a sort of power.
Walking into a great steakhouse says this is a place of special occasions, of important meetings, first dates of a lifetime and meals that are not just good, but always great.
They have a scent about them: Not grease but meat, onions, garlic and potatoes. It is more of a scent of anticipation, that this will be a satisfying repast of epic proportions.
Great steakhouses have regulars who are greeted by name by staff members who have worked the front, tables or the kitchen for years. The aura of a great steakhouse isn't made in the ambiance, the kitchen or the food - it's the perfect combination of all those factors.
Gallagher's, 2242 S. Sixth St., is that steakhouse, the great steakhouse.
It adheres to all those unwritten steakhouse rules.
The outside is neat but unassuming -- that means the owners and management are putting the bulk of their thoughts into maintaining the quality of the meal experience. No stopping and smelling the roses -- come in and eat the food.
The main item on the menu is meat -- oh sure, there are chicken, seafood and pasta offerings, but the predominant items on the menu are meat and sides that go with meat.
There is one spectacular vegetable offering. East Coast restaurants have creamed spinach; Midwest steakhouses find their own niche, and Gallagher's offers fresh asparagus, and in a bow to the Midwest delight with all things deep-fried -- battered and fried asparagus.
Gallagher's subscribes to the same theory that all other great steakhouses do: Blue cheese is a good thing. Gallagher's has pepper steak stuffed with blue cheese, pork loin with blue cheese, blue cheese sauce for steak topping and bacon-wrapped shrimp with blue cheese sauce. Which brings up another steakhouse rule: Bacon is also a good thing.
It's right there on the menu, the homage to bacon: loaded, twice-baked potato with bacon, onion, roasted red peppers, garlic and cheddar cheese. And anything can be ordered with a side of chopped bacon.
The steak toppings enhance rather than smother -- unless smothered style is requested. The offerings include hunter's sauce, blackened style, blue cheese and a spectacular creation called escoffier - a blend of sweet butter, garlic and blue cheese sauce.
The dessert menu is standard: cheesecake, tiramisu, ice cream and some sort of chocolate cake that has "molten," "decadence" or both in its name.
The steakhouse décor is special without being fussy. Nice booths, tables far enough away from each other that quiet conversation is possible and interest added with the lightpost lighting. The perfect romantic or Rat Pack vibe is supplied by the piano bar as well as background music, which includes Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
Gallagher's site has always been a steakhouse, but when Charles Robbins bought the place more than 10 years ago, the operation went upscale with Thad Rebbe as front house manager and Kevin Woodard as chef.
Great steakhouses forego modesty. So Rebbe is the perfect steakhouse manager.
"We have the best steaks in town. We use high-quality, hand-cut beef. We have a lot of repeat business from regulars, but we're also a special-occasion destination."
As for the perfect steak, Woodard said it has to have a good sear on it. "Some want more char, some want really rare. We can accommodate you."
Rebbe said though Woodard has added a few things to the menu, it's been mostly the same for years. "The top seller is the filet. We sell a lot of filets," Woodard said.
"We're all about a memorable dining experience," Rebbe said. The staff treats diners like every meal is a memorable occasion and that they're pleased that occasion is at Gallagher's.
"People come in and say, 'Oh yeah, I sat there for prom or for our anniversary,'" Rebbe said.
Another steakhouse rule: There must be a great bar. Kristen Schone is in charge of Gallagher's bar.
"We have a top-shelf bar," she said. "We have 50 types of martinis, and we make great after-dinner ice cream drinks like a brandy Alexander, a Golden Cadillac or a Pink Slipper."
Martini olives are hand-stuffed with either blue cheese or anchovies.
There are no sandwiches on the dining menu. At great steakhouses, sandwiches are bar food. But Gallagher's doesn't skimp on the bar food, either. Gallagher's burgers are 10 ounces of ground steak. Woodard said when he hand-trims and cuts his steaks, the smaller pieces get ground for burgers.
French fries are handmade as are the potato chips. The newest addition to the menu is for the bar - mini-sliders.
What's next for Gallagher's? Rebbe has to think about that question. "Well, we might put up a website, but we really aren't planning any big changes."
That's understandable. When the formula works, why change it?
2242 S. Sixth St.
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, open at 4:30 p.m.
Piano bar: Friday and Saturday, 7-11 p.m.
Story published Friday, July 2, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 4 )