Our introduction to Sullivan's Steakhouse came courtesy of one of the most cheerful, buoyant hostesses we've ever experienced. Think squeaky, perky Kristin Chenoweth, most recently of the canceled TV show Pushing Daisies, but 10 times more energetic. Yep, that bouncy—and this ball of fire was in black fishnet stockings to boot.
Our server and his team were just as enthusiastic, only slightly more low-key. After introducing himself, our waiter solicitously asked if we had any time constraints. We didn't, but it was nice he inquired. Maybe that explains the astonishing popularity of the place.
Even the managers, who stopped by our table (a little too often), were just the most genial people around. "Would you like to check out a book?" one joked on a pass-by. He was referring to the huge wall of weathered tomes on the shelves next to us. We learned we were sitting in an elevated area appropriately dubbed "The Library."
In fact, the restaurant reminded us of the downtown Enoch Pratt. Dark wood, dim lighting, but hardly hushed. As the night grew, every table was filled, and the cacophony kept building. We were probably supposed to feel swank and cool amid the swirling buzz of conversation.
We did, but we also were amazed that this expense-account kind of place was packed in this economy. In addition to the open dining area, there are private, side rooms that can seat from six to eight people and more.
To Sullivan's credit, the menu also offers "The Contender" list with entrees like blue-cheese meatloaf and roasted chicken for $18. Of course, next to it are the restaurant's signature steaks with a 24-ounce porterhouse weighing in at $40.
Something else that struck us: Other steakhouses make a big deal about whether their beef is wet or dry aged, grass or grain fed, Angus or Waygu. But Sullivan's—named after a 19th century boxer who was called "the best of the best"—only describes its beef as "hand cut" and the "finest steaks."
We later called the Baltimore location's general manager, Tina Lavelle, to find out more about the meat. She told us the beef is 1855 Premium Black Angus (that's a brand, she says) and is wet aged for at least 21 days.
(Here's a short beef-aging lesson: Wet-aged beef is vacuum-sealed while dry-aged beef is hung; both are stored in refrigerated coolers. The number of days varies, but the processes increase tenderness. There are different views on which is "better.")
While Sullivan's has "steakhouse" attached to its name, it also promotes its seafood and even has a separate shellfish menu.
We found our appetizers from the sea to be stellar. The ahi tuna tartare was a mound of ruby pearls served with mandarin oranges and guacamole. One diner at our table declared it "like spicy sushi." The oysters Rockefeller were also delectable—four huge specimens, decadent with spinach and hollandaise-like sauce.
But our favorite, probably because it's so retro, was the shrimp cocktail in a classic presentation—a chilled, stemmed vessel with crushed ice and enormous shrimp with a kicky cocktail sauce.
When you order steak here, the server makes sure you understand the difference between rare (red and cool) and, say, medium rare (red and warm). We had to assure him a couple of times that we really did want the 12-ounce New York strip rare. And when it arrived, the juicy slab of beef was indeed cooked just the way we ordered it.
Entrees come with a wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue-cheese dressing. Ours were crisp and traditional. One of our party isn't partial to blue cheese, but our server was happy to make a substitution for the dressing.
Our Chilean sea bass Hong-Kong style was a lovely, fresh-from-the-dock fillet arranged on top of mild, sautéed bok choy. Unfortunately, the "Asian soy sauce" accompanying it was too sweet and overwhelmed the dish. We were really looking forward to delving into Alaskan king crab legs. The bright-orange, spindly legs and fat bodies were full of meat, but tasted just a second too cooked.
A lot of diners complain about the price of sides at steakhouses. True, $7-8 at Sullivan's may seem like a lot to pay for fried rice or onion rings (these are humongous rounds, which we watched enviously being delivered to another table), but, keep in mind, the dishes are served family style. We easily shared white cheddar au gratin potatoes and an excellent sautéed spinach with garlic among our foursome—with leftovers.
The time will come when your server will tempt you with dessert, after-dinner drinks, or a cigar (the restaurant has a well-stocked humidor and an outdoor lounge area) after your plates are cleared. Most steakhouses are known for their over-the-top desserts, and this one is no exception.
While the bananas Foster bread pudding and inches-high Key lime pie were indulgent, the warm chocolate brownie cake (for two) with vanilla ice cream is the wicked way to go.
As you leave, poke your head into the crush of people in the bar. Beautiful people of all ages, a baby grand piano, and waitresses in impossibly short skirts add a sophisticated air. You just want to linger with a cognac or single-malt scotch here.
While we waited for our valet-parked car (at $6, starting at 6:30 p.m, a fine deal), we wondered whether Baltimore needed another machismo steakhouse. There are several within a mile of each other. But judging from the crowd at Sullivan's, it appears there's room for one more at the beef trough.