CONTRARY TO POPULAR MISCONCEPTION, there is more to restaurant criticism than eating sumptuously in fine restaurants. There is, in the aftermath, actual work.
This is generally straightforward: The critic calls the restaurant and identifies herself by phone and asks the questions her critical visits left unanswered. What is a dry-aged steak? the critic might inquire, after she’s eaten a meal or three at the new Seattle outpost of the Capital Grille, which specializes in the process. Or perhaps, finding herself in a more investigative humor: How is it different from a wet-aged steak? Questions like these can typically be handled by any informed host—a good half-dozen of whom appeared to be roaring about during every one of my visits to Capital Grille. But not even our many servers could supply answers that actually satisfied the questions.
“Oh—for that you’ll need to speak with our manager,” chirped the cheerful young woman who picked up my call. “But the manager’s out.” So she bumped me up to the sales and marketing manager, and while I marveled that here was a restaurant with a sales and marketing manager, I learned that I needed to direct my inquiry to Capital Grille’s national director of field marketing in Atlanta.
I finally connected with this personage by phone—she had just deplaned in an East Coast airport—and my questions about the dry aging and the wet aging proved sufficiently top-security that the president of the company would need to address them himself. The president of the company!
Now, Capital Grille is a big operation, having burgeoned in its 18-year life from its first location in Providence, Rhode Island, to 33 outposts nationwide. The Seattle branch, which opened in February in the historic Cobb Building at Fourth and University, represents its first foray to the West Coast. That is if you don’t count San Francisco, which opened 10 years ago—then closed. Real estate misstep, Capital Grille president John Martin explained when I at last had him on the phone. Financial district before the new baseball park. Ahead of its time.
Or, I wondered…miscast in a city like San Francisco? A chain trying to make it in a land of beloved hometown steakhouses, like Harris’ and Alfred’s? In that respect, San Francisco isn’t far different from Seattle: foodie burgs spoiled by stunning independents, skeptical of any canned experience, and cynical about restaurants with sales and marketing managers. Indeed, I wondered as I pushed through the revolving door of the 30th iteration of Capital Grille: Would Seattle embrace the 30th iteration of anything?
Who knew the revolving door would deposit me smack in the middle of the Golden Era? The space is the sprawling entry level of the Cobb Building—the luxury apartment built 98 years ago as the first medical-dental office complex west of the Mississippi—and clad in lush carpet, uptown marble, and burnished mahogany. A mirrored bar stretched across one wall. Everywhere were poufy drapes, plantation shutters, oxblood banquettes, gilt-framed portraits. Behemoth amber light fixtures hung from the ceiling in an embarrassment of opulence. Taxidermy smiled pleasantly from the pillars.