The happy hour at JaK’s Grill is legendary. It runs for just one hour each day — 4:30-5:30 p.m. — and only in the bar, and when I pulled up at JaK’s West Seattle location last week at 4:15 p.m., there was already a line 13 people deep, anxiously waiting for the doors to open.
I wasn’t worried though, because I wasn’t there for happy hour. I was there for steak. And I was there at 4:30 p.m. because I’ve got an 18-month-old kid along for the ride and I figured that time was when we’d disturb the fewest number of people.
In hindsight, I needn’t have worried. As far as steakhouses go, JaK’s has such a friendly neighborhood vibe that you can enjoy a steak in peace while tucked into a comfy booth with your kid munching happily on oyster crackers.
Friends Jeff Page and Ken Hughes — the “J” and “K” in “JaK’s” — started JaK’s in West Seattle in 1996. (Page has since given up his ownership stake to a mutual friend, John Dotson, whose first name also conveniently begins with “J.”)
That first location was so popular that the friends opened a second location in Issaquah in 1997, and a third in Laurelhurst in 2003. Since then, they’ve added several other restaurants to their portfolio: Sunset Alehouse (2010) and El 42 (2014), both in Issaquah, and JaK’s Alehouse, which opened in Green Lake in 2015.
Hughes says JaK’s was modeled after a tiny neighborhood steakhouse named “Jack’s” where Page is from in Redding, California.
Hughes calls it a place that does “old-school steaks, really well-seasoned.” He says they started JaK’s to do “downtown quality steaks [at] neighborhood prices where everything comes with it, so you don’t get a la cart-ed to death.”
The description is apt.
As I found out, it wouldn’t have mattered what time I showed up at the West Seattle JaK’s, because you feel totally secluded regardless of where you’re seated in the dining room. The dark wood booths are tall and cozy. (The JaK’s in Laurelhurst and Issaquah also have these booths, but their dining rooms there are a bit more modern; large, open rooms where you can see the entire restaurant when you walk in.)
“West Seattle has these balconies and that crazy mirror in the back; it’s a long, skinny restaurant,” says Hughes.
Add in evergreen garlands strung throughout, copious twinkle lights, and you’re not mad anymore that it’s only 4:30 p.m. and it’s pitch dark outside.
It’s December, so there’s a mix of vintage holiday songs playing alongside Rat Pack hits and other “Mad Men”-era tunes.
When my colleague Tan Vinh wrote about the happy hour at Green Lake’s JaK’s Alehouse, he said the steakhouse chain “seems staid and getting a dad-jeans rep,” but I had my mom jeans on and I was loving it.
Did it tap into some weird nostalgia for a time that I never personally experienced? Yes. But did it remind me of all the “fancy”-but-a-little-dated restaurants I worked at throughout college? Definitely yes, and that’s also why I loved it. There are no dinner jackets here, and no one cares.
They serve Nebraska-raised cornfed beef, aged in-house for at least 28 days. Steaks come in popular cuts; top sirloin, New York strip, filet, rib-eye, porterhouse. Most also come in two sizes: the Petite (9 ounces) or the JaK’s (15 ounces). The porterhouse is either 24 or 36 ounces, clocking in at $58 or $71. The $31 petite top sirloin is the least expensive steak available, and nothing on the menu cracks $75. Each steak comes with a green salad, potato and vegetable. Add bearnaise or béchamel for four bucks, or an Oscar preparation with crab and asparagus for $13.
“The only thing that’s changed from day one is the prices and the variety. It’s not fancy, but it is that classic style. People have really embraced it,” Hughes says.
As for the Nebraska beef, he says they’ve tried many products over the years, but if he closed his eyes and taste-tested it, the Nebraska beef has always beat anything “on flavor, quality and consistency.”
With a glass of cabernet in my hand, my child alternating between munching the oyster crackers graciously delivered to our table and pulling on my or my husband’s hands asking to be taken to the back stairs to make eyes at the waitstaff folding napkins, I decide to bypass the regular steaks and get the beef Wellington ($47).
A filet brushed with Dijon, rolled in prosciutto, cheese and mushrooms before being wrapped in puff pastry and baked, a Wellington feels celebratory. Hughes says they only prep a dozen each day and often sell out well before closing. It’s served sliced in half atop a puddle of rich green peppercorn sauce with asparagus. I pick mashed potatoes over French fries, potato pancakes or baked options. My husband orders the petite New York ($36) with fries.
Nice-sized iceberg salads arrive with a hot loaf of sourdough and whipped butter. Service is casual but attentive. No one is crumbing your tablecloth (there isn’t even a tablecloth), but we never ran out of water.
The steaks (and the ubiquitous kids grilled cheese) arrive within good time. The Wellington is on the rare side and incredibly tender. It’s a tough dish to pull off; there’s no way to know whether the steak is properly cooked and the pastry is done until it’s out of the oven and sliced. JaK’s nails it. It’s rich — but that’s not all because of the beef. The peppery sauce presents over-the-top flavor, the Gruyère oozes slightly and the prosciutto kicks up the salt factor.
One bite of the New York, however, and I’m ready to switch plates. The two are like apples and oranges. While the Wellington hits you over the head, the New York is like a firm handshake. Truly with steak, there’s nowhere to hide if the beef is bad.
Each steak is seasoned with kosher salt, coarse ground pepper, granulated garlic and granulated onion. It’s a blend you can buy at JaK’s and was developed by the chef when the restaurant first opened in 1996. The kicker, though, is JaK’s version of Mâitre d’Hôtel Butter, a compound butter with parsley melted atop meat or fish. The version here also has parmesan and Worcestershire sauce.
“It has about a dozen ingredients. Everybody has a Mâitre d butter, but we wanted to do something with a bit more pizazz,” Hughes says.
If I worked here, I’d be swiping spoonfuls of this butter to slather over the fresh bread and we’d all be in trouble.
The steak is flavorful and tender, enhanced by that amazing butter. The vegetables are carrots and green beans — but they’re properly seasoned and soft without being mushy. Fries are always amazing.
Is JaK’s ideal with an 18-month-old? No. But it’s only because you want to be there in that cozy booth, thoughtfully chewing your steak — they’ve got pork chops, too! And seafood, chicken and even grilled vegetable skewers — or savoring that rich Wellington with creamy mashed potatoes, sipping a second gin martini. Or sharing a burger and a beer with a pal, talking about whatever. Remember, this is a neighborhood joint.
“If you go to a fancy restaurant and you go with your buddy and you split a steak and you’re not drinking that night, your server is going to rush you. We just go with the flow. We get a table eating burgers next to a table eating filets. We’re not trendy, but we’re pretty accessible,” Hughes says.
JaK’s: 4:30-9 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-9 p.m. Tuesday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-10 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-11 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-11 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-2 p.m., 4-9 p.m. Sunday; 4548 California Ave. S.W., Seattle; 206-937-7809, jaksgrill.com