SEATTLE – A very shiny, very red bull stands outside the doors of STK Steakhouse in Bellevue. While smaller than a life-size longhorn, this fiberglass mascot is plenty impressive for the sidewalk across from The Cheesecake Factory, and both patrons of STK and passersby stop to take selfies. Not everybody notices the prominence of the bull’s, well, bullness – prodigious enough to provide servings of Rocky Mountain oyster to much of the STK populace, were the statue to come to life.
With 20-plus locations from New York to Milan, Ibiza to Scottsdale, STK promises a high-end red-meat experience gone extreme. “Not Your Daddy’s Steakhouse,” the chain vows on its website to “Vibe Up Your Dinner Tonight” with “Award Winning Steaks” and live DJs. It is alarmingly easy to vibe up a $500-plus tab for dinner for two – I spent as much at STK Steakhouse as I did recently at Seattle’s storied Canlis for an immaculately presented, haute journey of a six-plus-course menu, accompanied by tinkling live piano.
STK does not want to be Canlis, and in this, it dramatically succeeds. On a recent Saturday night, the music achieves synesthesia, the bass so loud as to provide actual vibes in one’s chest. The aesthetic signals early 2000s Vegas: swoopy white panels affixed to the ceiling, glowing purple light, billowing arrangements of white flowers. On the main floor, close-set tables arguably create energy, while flatscreens showing sports above the bar are menaced by horn-shaped spikes embedded in a whitewashed faux-brick wall.
Another such wall, looking like unearthly cilia under a lavender-lit microscope, anchors one end of the upper dining area – which, with its capacious white pleather semicircular booths, is where the parties truly get started. Above one booth, a neon sign commands: “Dare to Be.” Concomitantly, friends’ nights out get rounds of celebratory shots and/or bottles of bubbles in silvery ice buckets, while a man at a business-casual table shouts about matters financial.
Candy-colored cocktails, at $21 each, get sugary or pie-crust rims; manly colored ones get names like “Jack Me,” for a Gentleman Jack and Fever-Tree cola. People have brought important dates, dozen-plus parties for birthdays or their entire families, children sometimes included. Black, white and Asian are represented in a way that’s unusual for Seattle-area restaurants. There’s some inevitable fleece in the house, but also fur; dressing up is de rigueur.
Vibing is happening! Strangers shout compliments on each others’ look or happy returns of the evening. Servers – unfailingly pleasant, clad all in black with bits of flair such as shiny “STK” pins and necktie rings – nimbly mount chairs to take group photos. Intermittently, parades of staff ferry birthday desserts from STK’s kitchen, waving fireworks up in the air near the ceiling-swoops, which, at all closely examined, are clearly joined by tape and possibly made of paperboard. Emergency fire equipment dangles among the swoops, which is, on balance, good. Less so: The big bouquets are of artificial flowers, and the faux crocodile trim around the booths is peeling.
All things considered, though, the set dressing is working. But when it comes to the food, those who Dare to Be at STK Steakhouse deserve more – much, much more. From beginning to end, the menu achieves mediocrity at best, setting the value proposition far askew. The very first item listed, a baby gem Caesar, is most definitely made of far less expensive romaine. Not at all re-imagined, deconstructed or otherwise nicetied – no draped boquerones, no Reggiano crisps – the STK Caesar looks a lot like the version found at The Cheesecake Factory. The wrong lettuce is notably crisp and fresh, however; so are the croutons, though they are curiously few and far between. In a heaping quantity at $23 – way more than enough to share – the Caesar turns out to be one of the more sensible choices at STK.
Less good: a dish called “Maple & Bourbon Nueske’s Bacon” for $26, which immediately wafts a strong liquid-smoke scent across the table, then tastes acridly more so, adding a honey-sweetness to the bacon-fire. The fat is chewy, the meat stratas of the pork even more so; it is accompanied by not particularly fresh, slightly sweet, grocery-store-deli caliber coleslaw. I spit my only bite of it promptly into my napkin.
Better, but still bad: a $37 crabcake, mushy in some places and dry in others, with muddy-tasting crab lumps and an intermittent, uncalled-for spicy heat. Its “cucumber mustard seeds salad” is eye-wateringly sour and topped with bristles of chili thread, also unpleasantly burny.
On the Saturday night visit, our steaks arrive precipitously with $63 worth of starters still on the table. “We’re not ready!” I shout at the very nice server, who shouts back that they had to bring them now, lest they get overcooked. Shouting more about it – well, it seems best to just Dare to Be. Mine is a 6-ounce filet with a lobster tail for $79. The steak is still rosy at asked-for medium rare, tasty though lacking any amazing, must-eat quality; the lobster is hard-grilled on one side, barely on the other, and raw to gelatinous in the middle. A 16-ounce cowgirl rib-eye still looks pink but tastes very dry, chewy and largely flavorless; for $92, one sauce comes free, but a watery, weak horseradish fails to ameliorate. For $2 extra, blue-cheese butter is better, but needs more blue cheese.
Except for three cuts of “Japanese Wagyu,” the menu is silent on the subject of the steaks’ provenance, and again, the volume of the music prohibits much information gathering. But deep in the STK website, there are details of a sort, calling it “a one-of-a-kind, curated experience” of “USDA beef … primarily from farms in Iowa & Nebraska.” Further, “Our Black Angus cattle are certified,” STK asserts, all meaning it’s as good as the beef you can get at almost any grocery store.
The server stops by to shout about whether I’m enjoying my wine, a glass of Justin Isosceles, a red blend from California that she’s recommended to go with the filet. I shout that it’s great, though truthfully, it lacks structure. STK’s wine list runs toward Napa classics, with lots of recognizable big cabernets that expense accounts absorb; bubbles go from marked-up supermarket prosecco to baller large-format Moët; and wines by the glass, oddly, are more expensive than their by-the-bottle price. She shouts that she’s not really a wine person, and that when she has to drink red wine, she mixes cranberry juice into it so it tastes better, and no one ever knows. Again, she is incredibly nice. My glass of wine, come to find out, costs $35.
Mashed potatoes are the star of the show – Yukon golds whipped until very creamy and buttery-rich – and I eat all of the browned Parmesan crust off the top. Sweet corn pudding is very sweet. Macaroni under a blanket of melted cheese has a sauce that has separated into oil and white clots. Sides cost $18 each.
STK Steakhouse’s desserts may as well come from The Cheesecake Factory, though then they’d be bigger. Our slice of apple pie sags, the crumpled tip covered up with what’s billed as maple crème fraîche but resembles aerosol whipped cream; the crust is gritty, the filling gelatinous, the caramel sauce depthless and sticky sweet.
Hard, underripe strawberries are conscripted to accompany it and the cheesecake, which has a bland creaminess that rings an immediate, if distant, bell: It’s like cheesecake from a Jell-O mix. On another visit, the warm chocolate chip cookie calls to mind the kind made with store-bought refrigerated dough, though at the sleepover, it never got served in a cute little cast-iron pan.
Desserts cost $13 each at STK, which, at this point, seems negligible. Our server, taking note of my fascination with the pyrotechnics, brings my cheesecake with a firework stuck in it, which prompts a pretty much all-encompassing, childlike glee in me. She’s also somehow arrived at the idea that it is our anniversary, for which she shouts her enthusiastic congratulations, which we enthusiastically shout-thank her for, though it is not our anniversary. The thumping of the bass has, surprisingly, had a lulling rather than head-aching effect, creating a vibe like being inside an over-the-top purple womb. Tables that have clearly dropped thousands of dollars shove their own leftovers into boxes; servers offer to do it, but diners decline, and in the spirit of the thing, it somehow makes sense.
We’re having fun, incontrovertibly, all dressed up and happy to Dare to Be here.
And the fun of being at STK Steakhouse in Bellevue is hard to find in these parts – an absurdly celebratory kind that rewards going big, while staying anti-intimidating. It’s fun that’s fully called for, especially after what we’ve all been through these last few years – we deserve fireworks, shots, bubbles, getting all high-style and shouting about it. When Canlis isn’t quite right, we shouldn’t have to fly to Vegas (though at these prices, you might be able to go there, too).
Having any Daring to Be done subtracted by your expense account is one thing. But witness, as I did, a tableful of three women too young to order bubbly – one wearing a banner reading “BIRTHDAY BITCH,” all dressed way, way up – who each got just one dish, shared a birthday dessert, did a photo shoot under the Dare to Be neon, then paid in a small pile of collective, wrinkled cash.
At these prices, we all deserve really, really good cheesecake. Dare to Be actually great, STK Steakhouse.