Swanky Days are Here Again

Or, at El Gaucho’s new Eastside steakhouse maybe they never left.

By Kathryn Robinson January 14, 2009 Published in the March 2009 issue of Seattle Met

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.

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El Gaucho’s stock in trade is meat.

Just then no fewer than four waiters sallied up to our table, one pushing a cart and the others setting down our appetizers, and I blushed to discover how luxurious it felt to be serviced by four gentlemen at once. Down came the crab cakes, a standard variant—light on the crab, too heavy on the salt. Down came clam chowder, lovely, wearing its bacon on its sleeve. Down came lobster-stuffed ravioli, tender and sweet, scattered on top with briny, brilliant orange roe. Down came tenderloin diablo, in which moist loin nuggets swam in a Stroganoff-like sauce, winningly electrified with a mild current of habañero pepper.

Monsieur Tableside sprang into action on our Caesar, adroitly smushing anchovies into mustard in a big stainless steel bowl, narrating as he worked. The spectacle transfixed us—El Gaucho, for all its adult pleasures, thrills children—and produced an admirable salad, nicely modulated, sharp with garlic. But I wondered about the “show” presentations—and not just because our neighbor’s Caesar put a waiter’s posterior indecorously close to my face. They have an ad hoc, little-of-this-little-of-that quality, which left me wondering, as I took a bite of the Salad 410 (an homage to Victor Rosellini’s first restaurant), if it was supposed to be this bland.

The vagaries of tableside prep come into keenest play when the preparation in question is on fire. El Gaucho’s stock in trade is meat, and in my two visits most of it was flawless—from a dry-aged New York, lushly marbled, to a hazelnut crusted rack of lamb whose flesh melted away in my mouth, to a seared half-chicken whose crisp skin yielded an interior of improbable tenderness. The flaming brochette of tenderloin made its ostentatious entrance, with M. Tableside splashing on the 100-proof and taking out a few arm hairs for Queen and country, but its resulting burnt spots compromised the finished product.

No fewer than four waiters sallied up to our table, and I blushed to discover how luxurious it felt to be serviced by four gentlemen at once.

So vivid are the theatrics, diners don’t think of El Gaucho as a plain meat-and-potatoes restaurant. But that’s what it is. At times, too plain. If I hadn’t put the forkful of skillet hash browns in my mouth myself, I might not have known they ever got there. (At El Gaucho you order shareable sides to go with the à la carte meat entrées. Stay with the nutty wild mushroom risotto if you like rich accompaniments, or the glorious mac and cheese, especially if you have a kid to please. Or the baked potato, if you think you might enjoy a handsome waiter asking if you would like his fluffing services. No shame there—as long as you don’t beg him to feed you.)

But in the end, El Gaucho is about food the way the QE2 is about transportation. When I asked later about opening a restaurant like this in times like these, MacKay shrugged philosophically: “Where better in the country than Bellevue?” Indeed, what this address scores for MacKay is a pool of relatively wealthy neighbors, in a less-recessed part of the country, with very few competitors, and Microsoft just up the stairs. Not bad.

What El Gaucho scores for MacKay’s customers turns out to be even better. For the diner, all the lavish excess, against the pinched prudence of our new economy, registers as more than a splurge—to me it felt almost healing. The painstaking service and historical rootedness anchor the opulence in authenticity, imparting instant gravitas to a city that could frankly use it. It’s swanky, yes, but heartwarmingly swanky. The restaurant where generations of Bellevue scions will squire their prom dates has more than good boyfriends for waiters. It has a soul.