The steak, grilled to perfection, suggested culinary prowess.
But enough about me.
At Arthur Henry’s Supper Club & Ruby Room in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, steaks arrive raw, wrapped in butcher paper. The patron then leaves the table to cook the meat on a communal gas grill, after seasoning it as desired using a house rub or sauce.
Why in the world, one might ask, would you pay $23 to grill your own rib-eye? Because it’s great fun. Eating a steak cooked by a professional is dining out. Grilling one’s own steak, and especially doing it alongside pals, is a party.
At least that’s the case at Arthur Henry’s, where a limited, old-school menu (highlighted by steaks, bourbon and garlic bread) combines with permanent-midnight lighting, velvet floral wallpaper and a jukebox partial to Steve Miller and Conway Twitty to send one back in time – to that period, roughly between 1965 and 1981, when mustaches, Corvettes and smoke-filled barrooms were held in equal esteem.
Arthur Henry’s, still shy of 2 years old, does not allow smoking, of course. But it holds an empty cigarette machine near its front door, to complete its neighborhood-lounge motif. (Somebody’s) family photos share wall space with a glamor portrait of a topless woman who could be a minor Elvis girlfriend (not Priscilla or Linda Thompson).
The place smells new and clean as it evokes a gritty past. One could knock owner Chris Pendarvis (Orphan, Naked Lounge) for co-opting character from an earlier time. But Pendarvis renovated the long-moribund Primo’s Swiss Club, and the building that held it, investing in a stretch of Broadway that’s undergoing a revitalization effort but remains far from a nightlife destination area.
This counts toward dive-bar authenticity, as does a cash-only policy at Arthur Henry’s, which Pendarvis named after his grandfather.
Arthur Henry’s also lacks most markers of hipsterdom. Though elements of midcentury cool pepper its decor, its look skews more three-quarters-into-the-century down at the heels. As such, it’s likely to spark more fond memories in Generation X and boomer patrons, who recall the original establishments, than millennials. Nostalgia needs an audience, and this one’s past 40.
Part of the magic lies in what the place holds. The rest lies in what it lacks – signifiers of 2015. Though it serves craft beer (including Rope Swing Cream Ale from nearby Oak Park Brewing Co.), its tap handles carry no signage. Craft beer wasn’t a thing 40 years ago. But whiskey was, and Arthur Henry’s serves Bulleit Rye in its sweet-spicy Sazerac cocktail, and Woodford Reserve bourbon in its snappy yet complex Ninth Ward, which includes elderflower liqueur, lime juice and bitters. (A true dive tops out at Jack and Johnnie, but in this instance, progress is good).
Things lighten up slightly in the dining area, adjacent to the bar, though most light comes from flames licking meat on the grill – the room’s focal point even when musical acts take the stage at the rear of the room.
San Diego holds multiple retro bar-restaurants where one can grill one’s own steak. But the concept still feels like an invigorating novelty here. Or, as a friend commented on a recent sweltering evening as four of us returned to our table from the grill: “Here we are, barbecuing and having cocktails, on the hottest day of the year.”
Our server gave us the lowdown before we approached the grill, when he brought out plates holding salads, buttered bread and paper-wrapped steaks. The side of the grill closer to the kitchen gets hotter, he said. Rubs and sauces sit on a shelf near the grill.
During this visit, our party hogged much of the grill, using communal tongs to turn our steaks, bread and vegetable skewers. As we grilled, diners at another table waited patiently for their turn, although they could have joined us. Our grilling process took 10 to 15 minutes.
Arthur Henry’s offers a touch test for grilling steak: A rare steak’s firmness will equal that of one’s cheek, and medium rare one’s chin, the menu advises. On my three visits, I relied instead on appearance, and on advice from experienced grillers.
Two were guys I brought along, and a third a friendly man who happened to be the only other person in the bar the first evening I visited. We both ordered the $13 early bird special (available 5-7 p.m.), which consists of petite sirloin, salad, garlic bread and a draft beer. Though I seasoned my meat with the house “original” sauce, which tastes primarily of Worcestershire, and grilled it to the medium-rare state I wanted, it was a bit tough.
I did not mind much, because I enjoyed the tangy, rich bleu-cheese dressing on the chilled salad, the fresh-tasting bread, and hanging with my new pal. He offered this vital tip: Grill the bread face-up, face-down and on both sides. That helps warm the thickly cut bread throughout.
The act of strategizing approaches gives Arthur Henry’s a party-game feel that enlivens the usual dining-out experience. It’s like Chuck E. Cheese’s for the 21-plus crowd.
Its prices, from $12 for a petite sirloin to $34 for a 22-ounce porterhouse, lean more toward Sizzler than Morton’s, and include sales tax. And when you think of it as a special-occasion spot – whether for a birthday, anniversary or when you consume steak and whiskey on the same night – where the experience counts as much as the food, it seems reasonable.
That food, for the most part, is pretty good. The rib-eye – the only steak Arthur Henry’s marinates beforehand – was my favorite, because I’m predisposed to fattier, marinated steaks, having grown up eating them and expecting beef to hold a flavor beyond just cow. Arthur Henry’s sweet-bright teriyaki-and-garlic marinade did the trick.
But the porterhouse, which I shared with a grill-master pal who used copious amounts of “blackened blend” house rub before grilling it, was tasty and exceptionally tender.
My other grill-master friend, who had handled many of the cooking duties on the four-person night, liked my rib-eye but found his top sirloin tough. The New York strip another friend ordered on that visit lived up to her description of it being “like butter” when I sampled it.
Arthur Henry’s also offers options for vegetarians who do not mind their food cooked on a grill where meat’s also cooked. But I cannot recommend the marinated portobello mushroom, the vinegar taste of which no grill can neutralize.
But Arthur Henry’s vegetable skewers, packed with crunchy slices of zucchini, red onion and other fresh ingredients, impressed. I wish they had come off the grill a little less crunchy, though. Both times I ordered them, I doused them with my favorite sauce – the earthy “Henry’s house” (it carries a strong cumin flavor) – and grilled them until there was visible char in some places.
Both times, some of the vegetables tasted undercooked.
And whose fault is that?
Arthur Henry’s Supper Club & Ruby Room
3406 Broadway, Sacramento, www.arthurhenrys.net, 916-737-5110
Hours: 5 p.m.-midnight Sunday-Wednesday. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Thursday-Saturday
Beverage options: Craft cocktails and high-end whiskeys; draft beers include selections from nearby Oak Park Brewing Company. Short list of red and white wines by the glass.
Vegetarian friendly: Not really. Portobello mushrooms and vegetable skewers are available for grilling, but on a grill where meat is cooked.
Gluten-free options: No
Noise level: Moderate
Ambiance: It’s always midnight inside this retro bar-restaurant that celebrates mid- to late-century dive-bar culture. The decor, a free jukebox filled with songs by Steve Miller and Aerosmith, and an old-school steak menu will return 40-plus patrons to their bar-going youths. The atmosphere is fun even before one gets to the grill, but the participatory nature of grilling one’s own food adds a welcome party vibe.
The ambiance counts for a lot, as does the fun grill-your-own experience. This is a wonderful special-occasion place, with terrific cocktails (try the Sazerac and the Ninth Ward) and pretty good food (though that last thing is partly up to you).
Food ☆☆ 1/2 The sirloins were tough when we tried them, but the rib-eye (the only marinated steak on the menu) hit the spot, and the porterhouse and New York strip were nice and tender. The house-baked bread is fresh and fluffy, and the side salad nicely chilled, though the tomatoes in it were pink and virtually flavorless – which, come to think of it, is authentic to the 1970s.
Though you grill your own steaks, dining at Arthur Henry’s still involves service. On one visit, our efficient server delivered plates with our salads, bread and raw steaks to our table, and checked back often. On two other visits, we sat at the bar, where the bartender mixed good drinks and happily answered questions about the place and the food.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
Though some people will be fundamentally opposed to paying $23 to cook their own rib-eye, when you think of Arthur Henry’s as a special-occasion place its prices seem reasonable enough, especially since the sales tax is built into the price.