FUSION IS A TERM you probably know: the practice of fusing two or more cuisines within a single preparation. Hybrid is a different thing: a restaurant whose concept is a blend of more than one concept. Ba Bar, for instance, is a hybrid—informal, authentic Vietnamese street food meets the swank and style of a late-night cocktail bar.
Manhattan Drugs is a hybrid, too: a steak house fashioned for the Pike/Pine district of Capitol Hill. Rigid and retrograde meets hipster youth; steak—that old-school comestible—for a neighborhood whose aesthetic is dominated by anemic teenage vegans and those who yearn to look like them.
Who came up with this? Laura Olson, whose novelty hot dog chain Po Dog has expanded into a network of watering holes (Auto Battery, Grim’s), a club (The Social), and an upcoming Scandinavian small-plate restaurant (Queen of Norway). And in fact, it was a sensational idea.
You enter off the block of 12th Avenue, with the vegan mac-and-cheese joint and the Tokyo-style noodle bar, to find yourself in a throwbacky universe of trompe l’oeil wallpapers and tufted upholsteries and long, executive-suite booths. It doesn’t take long to see that all this plummy opulence is winking at you. At the edge of the red-lit bar hangs a huge ram’s head with gilded guns for horns. (Is it now law that all new Capitol Hill establishments must feature at least one example of taxidermy?) The same way an 11-point buck trophy strikes an ironic note in a hipster joint, a mounted golden ram wielding an M16 is irony tailor-fitted for a steak house.
To be sure, when you add up the gun-totin’ sheep and the bare-filament bulbs and the vintage paraphernalia (from the old Normandy Park pharmacy called Manhattan Drugs) and the slideshow of vintage New York and Seattle photos projected along one wall—it’s a whole lot of trendy decorative elements crashing into one another. Taken together, however, those elements create a place to welcome both the sardonic poser and the earnest carnivore. Restaurant geeks will eat it up.
The menu is 100 percent earnest carnivore. Four cuts of steak, sides of baked potato or garlic mashers, entrees like seared sea bass with brown butter and pan-fried chicken with creamed polenta, a Caesar, an iceberg wedge—Capitol Hill hasn’t seen a list this straight-facedly straitlaced since Vito’s opened in 1953. The menu doesn’t even regularly change. That’s what’s sensational about it: There’s only one thing this trendy restaurant strip of Pike/Pine needed, and that was retro meat and potatoes. Olson originally envisioned Manhattan Drugs as a high-end burger bar, but became persuaded that on the Hill, steak was, uh…rarer.
So instead of high-end burgers, think low-end steaks. And only low-end when you compare them to the spendier specimens at places like Metropolitan Grill or John Howie Steakhouse. Manhattan Drugs steaks are lower-priced ($27–$39), made of Nebraska corn-fed prime beef, then dry-aged to up tenderness and deepen, even funkify, flavor. (At press time they announced a change from dry- to wet-aging, a less costly process.) Our prime filet was seriously tender, melting on the tongue, and beefy; our rib eye lavishly veined. Each was cooked ably and plated with a Mad Men arrangement of potato preparation and charry asparagus.
I might have preferred my baked potato be a little juicier with butter and sour cream, but its $3 price tag and regular-potato size genuinely moved me. At last: A steak house that knows I don’t want to pay twice that for a potato as big as a submarine. Still, garlic mashed potatoes were better. Crispy shoestring fries better yet.
Across the board, this kitchen respects a piece of beef. Though swamped in a criminally oversoyed ginger-garlic sauce, steak bites off the appetizer list were nibbles of fine, tender meat. Painted Hills beef sliders, tucked between firm golden buns with caramelized onions and white cheddar, were superior to the terrific pork belly ones decorated with apple slaw and barbecue sauce. Since my visits the beef source has been switched to Misty Isle on Vashon.
The burger is a $15 triumph: big without being impossible, and enriched with satisfying ratios of tart tomato jam, truffle aioli, white cheddar, and ruffles of sassy arugula. This burger forms the linchpin of the under-$35 way to eat at Manhattan Drugs—perhaps adding a fine wedge salad (iceberg lettuce, chewy bacon, cherry tomatoes, and Stilton dressing with big chunks of the cheese) or a shut-up-stunning Caesar. (An endive salad, with pears and pecans and an overly tart vinaigrette, was not noteworthy; too newfangled to succeed in this house?) Every dinner comes with a skillet of warm corn bread, dense and sweet, with honey-jalapeño butter. Even fiscally challenged hipsters can get fat and happy here.
The big problem at Manhattan Drugs became clear after our waiter set down a plate of pan-fried chicken over cheesy polenta. It was a large portion of a diminutive chicken, so I asked our very nice waiter if this golden bird was poussin, or baby chicken. He smiled blankly, said he didn’t know—then never brought my answer.
It was perfectly tasty, that chicken, whatever it was—but the waiter’s lack of follow-through was emblematic of a chronic inattention to detail that must issue from indifference at the top. Consistently sweet waiters just kept disappointing us—setting our brunch table with no coffee spoons, letting the sound system go silent for hour-long chunks at a time, not knowing the word “marbled” (in a steak house?!), announcing at every visit that several menu items would be unavailable that day. When I expressed disappointment that the cast-iron coffee cake at brunch was gone, Mr. Dearheart attempted comfort by confiding that it’s never been available. “We never got the equipment,” he said sympathetically.
Now I’m no restaurant manager…but might taking it off the (paper) menu be an idea?
This patina of unprofessionalism is Manhattan Drugs at its Pike/Piniest. “Thank you, Bill Gates!” screams its website, trading off a dinner the gajillionaire had there early on—and for just a moment it’s not so readily memorable how solid the filet and the burger were, or how unexpectedly satisfying it can be to find classics in the scenester enclave. For just a moment the hybrid presents a little more like a mutt.