Stark’s Steakhouse

If the shark has indeed jumped on retro-chic steak joints, nobody told Santa Rosa. Just a week after opening, Mark and Terri Stark’s Railroad Square steakhouse is packed with curious locals willing to pay top dollar for organic, dry aged, corn and grass-fed cuts of beef hand-picked by the city’s favorite chef.

You’ll get the Bogie-and-Bacall vibe right away. Manhattans, aged whiskies and absinthe are served by white-coated bar staff. The seats are leather. Wedge salad and creamed spinach are side staples. A baby grand sits in the corner waiting to tinkle out a tune or two.

Housed in the former Michele’s restaurant, Mark and Terri Stark (who also own the highly-rated Willi’s Wine Bar and Willi’s Seafood in Healdsburg) gutted the historic spot, pretty much starting from scratch.

It’s still a massive space, divided between white-tablecloth restaurant service (reservations recommended) and a come-as-you-are bistro/lounge (first come, first served).

If you’re up for a little wait and a lot of action, vulture for a lounge table on busy weekend nights. Service may get a bit harried when things really start jumping and you may end up with folks standing around your table eyeing your steak hungrily. Down another gin and tonic and soak in the atmosphere.

Not surprisingly, steaks are what you’re here for. Don’t be shy if you don’t know the difference between filet mignon, ribeye, New York Strip, grass-fed or corn-fed. Staff are happy to explain the cuts and preparation. Feel free to guild the lily with a topper of foie gras or ‘popcorn’ sweetbreads along with a side of Béarnaise, Boursin cheese (BiteClub’s personal fave) or truffle aioli. (We won’t tell.) If you’re not a steak and potatoes sort, there are a handful of other choices on the menu, from duck to sole. You just have to ask yourself why you’re eating at a steakhouse, if it ain’t the black and blue you’re after.

Sides are a Stark signature. They’ve trotted out old favorites (mac ‘n cheese among them) along with some killer additions you won’t want to miss: Chicken fried onion rings; yam fries sprinkled with sugar and salt; duck-fat fried frites, and creamed spinach. Indulge your every whim. We insist.

The wine list may have Willi’s devotees scratching their heads, however. Instead of the Stark’s usual heady list of by-the-glass pours, here they’ve focused efforts on half-bottles. It’s a bold move. The in-house sommelier, Paul, says it gives diners the flexibility of trying more than one style of wine (you’ll get about 2.5 glasses or so out of a half bottle) and assures a fresh pour. To that end, Paul’s collected scads of high-end (and more reasonably-priced) petite pours, along with impressive full bottles focused on robust reds. Don’t hesitate to ask for an assist. McNibs and I ended up with a $26 bottle of Mas de Gourgonnier that was just the ticket.

The dessert list is compact, but impressive. Best bet: The crème brulee with sea salt–a sweet, savory end that’s stout enough for sharing.

Drawbacks? Though the restaurant has been touted as a spot for young, urban-minded folks, the $30-plus price tag for most steaks (not including sides, drinks and desserts) may raise the pierced eyebrows of their former-Barcode demographic. You’ll easily drop two Benjamins on dinner and drinks for two. Not outlandish in steakhouse or expense account terms. Not exactly Outback, either.

But what’s it worth to be whisked back to a time when red meat, butter and whiskey were practically health food? A time when bartenders dressed in white coats. And going out for dinner was an event, not an excuse.

Stark’s Steakhouse, 521 Adams St., Santa Rosa, 707.546.5100.
The restaurant will open for weekday lunches Jan. 21, 11:30am to 2:30 pm; dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5pm to 9pm and Friday and Saturday dinners until 10pm.

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