At the tail end of a review-writing day, my drink of choice is usually a martini (Beefeater's, up, olives), but never have I drunk so many martinis in the course of reviewing as I did for this week's round-up of downtown steakhouse happy hours. Music critic Chris Kornelis and I surveyed all eight steakhouses, comparing sliders, assessing discounted wine lists and becoming extremely well-acquainted with pineapple-infused vodka and blue cheese, the current mainstays of chain steakhouse bars.
There isn't a vodka tank at McCormick & Schmick's: Our server there surmised the practice had jumped the shark a few years back, when her grandmother started marinating pineapple wedges in liquor. But if the pineapple vodka fad has faded, nobody's told the drinkers at steakhouses such as Sullivan's, where bartenders are constantly attending to the transparent holding vat.
It's unclear which steakhouse first thought to submerge fruit in vodka for a tabletop display, but The Roxbury in Los Angeles had a dispenser by 1991.
"One Saturday night mine was virtually the only table sporting wine glasses," then-Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl wrote in her review. "The drink of choice seems to be something called Pineapple Vodka, which sits marinating in a gigantic jar on the upstairs bar. It goes particularly well with Louisiana Popcorn-little fried crayfish that are easy to pop into your mouth in vast quantities."
While pineapple vodka is a less suitable dance partner for steaks, the other chain preoccupation - blue cheese - is a natural consort. Steakhouses can't serve up a great cut of red meat for $5, but they can persuade happy hour patrons that they're in the presence of high-caliber beef by treating them to blue cheese by the bucketful. The iconic accoutrement has become a staple of discounted steakhouse menus.
"Chefs across the U.S. just love having that blue cheese," says Ann Thibert, general manager of Sullivan's Steakhouse's Seattle location. According to Thibert, the cheese's saltiness is a natural complement for red meat and red wine, which explains the popularity of the classic iceberg wedge.
But steakhouses don't reserve blue cheese for their salads: They drip it on potatoes, crumble it on steaks and bake it into their meatloaves.
Unlike, say, bacon, blue cheese doesn't seem like an obvious candidate for mainstream acclaim. Although it's salty, it's also pungent - and, as detractors would point out, moldy. Yet Thibert says she was able to overcome her initial resistance to blue cheese.
"Before I came to this company, I never liked it," she says. "I'm a ranch dressing girl myself, but blue cheese is just that exquisite."