The Capital Grille has come to feel like a hometown restaurant.
Of course, it's not. When the Capital Grille opened on Pratt Street in 2005, is was part of a moderate-size regional chain. But since 2010, the steakhouse been wholly owned by the gigantic Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants, which also owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden.
Still, Baltimore's business community has made the Capital Grille into its executive dining room. And on a Saturday night, you'll see a few tourists scattered about the handsome dining rooms, but mostly you'll see your friends and neighbors.
There are more familiar faces. Heavy-framed portraits of prominent Baltimoreans such as Thurgood Marshall, Babe Ruth and John Franklin Goucher decorate the walls. And then there's the wait staff, several of whom have been at the Capital Grille since its opening. Even back then, some of them were familiar presences, veterans of restaurants such as Marconi's and Rudy's 2900, whose closings coincided with the Capital Grille's opening.
People like it here. The Capital Grille feels like an expensive steakhouse, but it's not stuffy. It's relaxing. Elbow room helps, and so does the good service, which is alert but not hovering, informed but not condescending.
The real key to the Capital Grille's popularity in Baltimore lies in the superb quality of its steaks. Steaks aren't the only thing to get, but they're the reason for going. Terms like USDA prime, which refers to a quality rating, and dry aging, which describes a process, show up on steakhouse menus frequently. At the Capital Grille, I believed them.
The two steaks we tried, a Delmonico and a 16-ounce sirloin, were among the best I've ever had in Baltimore.
"Delmonico" means different things in different regions, but at the Capital Grille, it's a USDA prime bone-in rib-eye. This is a steak for steak lovers, who can order it grilled plain or with a porcini rub, served with a balsamic vinaigrette. I know what you're thinking: Balsamic sounds so 1980s — and there's nothing worse than a cloying balsamic vinaigrette. But try it. This is a classic steak preparation, from the Veneto region of Italy, and when the balsamic quality is high — as it is here — the effect is woody, rich and mellow.
The au poivre preparation is sterling. The peppercorn coating is thorough without being too thick, the cognac cream sauce, which tastes like it's only seconds away from the sauce pan, is subtle, and the steak itself, a 16-ounce dry-aged sirloin porterhouse, is a beauty.
If you don't want steak, try the lamb chops, four double-cut ribs grilled simply and served without adornment. They're handled beautifully, with a pleasing charred surface and a warm, pink center.
After that, I think, the options diminish. The seafood and fish selections sound ho-hum, like options at a wedding — seared citrus-glazed Atlantic salmon, sesame-seared tuna.
I found a pervasive blahness to the selection and quality of appetizers and sides, too. My companions for the meal tried convincing me that a humdrum clam chowder, spinach salad and wedge salad are what steakhouse diners expect. But I thought the options were just tired. The sides we tried — roasted mushrooms, creamed corn with smoked bacon and a lobster macaroni and cheese — tasted like they had been developed at the corporate level, underseasoned and impersonal.
The dessert selection is the typical lineup of seasonal berries and creme brulee. The popular item, a cheesecake with a burnt-caramel topping, isn't as much fun as it sounds. The dessert to get, if you need one, is the terrific coconut cream pie, a cloud-light layering of whipped and coconut creams.
I was impressed when the Capital Grille recently offered, as a featured special, the Marconi salad, a memorable menu item from a bygone Baltimore restaurant. It came across as a particularly noncorporate gesture, one that suggested the management at Baltimore's Capital Grille not only enjoys some autonomy but knows how to use it.
I wasn't the only one who made tracks down to Pratt Street to try the salad. The salad sold in the hundreds, according to the James Kinney, the restaurant's managing partner.
And I think I wasn't the only one who liked what he saw at the Capital Grille and came back.
The Capital Grille
Where: 500 E. Pratt St., Inner Harbor
Contact: 443-703-4064, thecapitalgrille.com
Open: Dinner daily and lunch weekly.
Prices: Appetizers: $14-$18; entrees: $28-$50
Food: Dry-aged steaks and seafood
Service: Uniformly professional and courteous
Parking/accessibility: Complimentary valet parking at dinner
Children: There is not a printed children's menu but items like cheeseburgers and chicken fingers are available upon request.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in the main dining rooms. There are two silent televisions in the adjacent bar.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]