Call me easy, but I’m a sucker for a gent in a tux who takes charge of my napkin by snapping it onto my lap.
This is a man who asks if he can fluff my baked potato with cheese sauce and chives, then doesn’t stint on the butter; a man who sets my brochette of tenderloin aflame and discreetly alerts me when I’m about to order an $18 glass of wine. Girlfriends, there are such gentlemen in the world. They all work at El Gaucho.
I walked by at least 10 of them as I threaded my way through the white-clothed tables of the elegant new Bellevue outpost of the local chain. There they stood, spit-combed and dashing, their hands clasped behind their backs, eyes catching every empty glass, every errant crumb. Along with the swells they’re serving, they’re like the players in a theater piece I imagine might be called How Large Was My Portfolio, or 1956!
The stage set for this piece is a vast room of buttery opulence, its main floor a sea of tables and booths arranged into alcoves or up half-levels to create pockets of intimacy. The semiprivate dining areas in its upstairs rooms hang above like loges, facing a wall of glass panes that soars two stories and overlooks a green courtyard. The design is pure midcentury swank, from red leather banquettes to a grand piano in the bar to stone walls that strike a clear reference to Seattle’s 1950 masterpiece, Canlis.
The whole sweep simply takes your breath away, particularly since you’ve just left your car in a gray underground garage and come up through the intestines of Microsoft’s new Bellevue office building, the City Center Plaza, so new it still wants for signage and lobby furniture. To emerge from this featureless wasteland into El Gaucho’s cosmopolitan twilight, where a beautiful hostess asks if she can hang your coat, a little dish of El Gaucho matchbooks nestles right next to a little dish of El Gaucho toothpicks, and the lounge pianist is tinkling out “Fly Me To the Moon”—well, it’s like walking into a dreamland of prosperity. In this room the dot-com boom never went bust. Banks are still merrily handing out money and everyone’s still living large and spending on credit and making bucks deluxe just living in their houses. I got a buzz before my martini even arrived.
We were led to a booth shaped like outstretched arms—conversational for friends; romantic for intimates—and discovered that in this particular dreamland of prosperity a surf and turf plate with Australian lobster costs $125. “GOOD GOD!” shrieked my companion, an El Gaucho virgin. Clearly she needed a little backstory. So I told her how the original opened in 1953 at Seventh and Olive; a swish steakhouse with an Argentinian cowboy theme and a penchant for setting food on fire. One young manager who worked there in the ’70s never forgot El Gaucho’s inimitable dash, even as it closed and his career ricocheted him through a Who’s Who of area dining rooms: the Metropolitan Grill downtown to Harry O’s in Issaquah; the Yarrow Bay Grill in Kirkland to Flying Fish in Belltown.
That manager was Paul MacKay, and in 1996 he realized his dream and opened a big Belltown replica of the Gaucho he never forgot. Counterparts in Portland and Tacoma followed, along with other creamy venues like Waterfront, and MacKay began to rack up appraisals as a front man’s front man. “There he is now,” I whispered, pointing to the debonair white-haired gentleman working the room, stopping here and there to chat up a regular.