RENTON — We walked up to Renton’s Melrose Grill at about 4:55 p.m. on a Wednesday and found ourselves at the end of a line nearly a dozen people long. “What is it with neighborhood steakhouses?” my husband asked with a bit of a laugh.
Unlike when we hopped into the back of the line at West Seattle’s JaK’s, the people aren’t at Melrose to grab a coveted seat in the tiny bar for happy hour.
Mostly that’s because Melrose Grill doesn’t have a happy hour. And it’s not just the 10-seat bar that’s tiny, the entire restaurant is small, due to it being housed in a former hotel saloon turned pool hall, card room, soda parlor-turned-steakhouse that’s been around since 1901. The (beautifully tiled) restrooms are single stall. The kitchen is so small there aren’t appetizers listed on the menu because there’s just no room for extraneous menu items.
The size of the restaurant is also why they don’t take a ton of reservations, and if you’ve got one, your party won’t be seated until you’re all present.
The reason for the line is to get one of those coveted seats. There are cozy booths and tiny tables that have you possibly cozying up next to your neighbors, but don’t get me wrong — there is an air of conviviality that’s apparent no matter where you’re sitting.
Once you’re seated, it’s almost as if a clock starts. I wouldn’t say you’re getting rushed at Melrose — but there is a casual vibe that your evening has an expiration date and it’s in two hours or less. Service is kind but efficient. It’s like a really fun ride, just strap in and get taken along.
By 5:30 p.m., the entire dining room was filled. I can’t tell you what music was playing because it played much lower than the sounds of laughter, clinking glasses and that general restaurant din.
The penny tile on the floor looks just worn enough to be original, vintage photographs dot the walls, and the massive mirror-backed wooden bar is the only thing left from the original 1901 saloon — a survivor of a fire in 1928 that claimed the original top two stories of the old hotel. Those floors were never rebuilt, rendering the outside of Melrose Grill a single-story nondescript building easy to overlook.
The menu is small, but you’re here for the steak. True, there is a pasta dish — even chicken, pork and prawns — but you’re coming to Melrose for the beef. The cuts of 28-day dry-aged beef are limited: top sirloin, New York, filet, rib-eye, porterhouse and Delmonico. Sizes vary by cut — from nine to 21 ounces — and each is served with a choice of potato or rice, sautéed vegetables and a salad.
There’s also a board featuring a handful of additional specials: larger cuts of beef, a bison steak and a few seafood items. The Melrose stroganoff is nearly always on the specials board.
We ordered — a New York ($32) for me, with crispy Parmesan potatoes and a Caesar salad upgrade ($3), and the stroganoff ($29) for my husband. Drinks were nicely priced; $11 for a Bombay Sapphire martini and $11 for a glass of Sonoma red wine. Monday nights are half-price bottle night.
Hot, housemade sourdough rolls were dropped off almost immediately after we ordered, salads shortly after that. The Caesar dressing was a perfect emulsion of anchovy, garlic and lemon.
Servers whiz by carrying plates laden with lobster tails and steaks; all around us people are celebrating birthdays or just catching up. The table next to us was a young couple out for the first time since the birth of their 7-week-old daughter, and they looked a lot less frazzled than I did.
Before I knew it, salads gave way to main courses.
When it comes to steak, there are those made for beef lovers, and those made for butter lovers. JaK’s Grill is a butter-lovers steak, and until now I thought I was firmly in the butter camp. But the steak at Melrose has caused my defection. It’s the former; pure, unadulterated except for salt, pepper and the kiss of the grill. No pool of butter languishing on top, just a perfect seared crust. It was cooked medium-rare, just as I ordered, and was wonderfully tender.
I asked for fries (don’t come at me) but was informed they don’t have a fryer. The crispy Parmesan potatoes were recommended; cheesy, crunchy little home fries that served as the perfect remedy for my French-fry craving. The vegetables here don’t seem like a total afterthought, a mix that night of broccoli, squash, carrots and red peppers. Each sautéed until crisp tender and simply dressed.
However, if you’ve got strong feelings about stroganoff, get the one here at Melrose. The generous dish features egg noodles tossed in a rich, umami-packed sauce studded with cremini mushrooms and hunks of beef. There’s a squiggle of sour cream on top and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. It comes with a couple slices of garlic toast, but they’re superfluous. The whole dish is rich, warming and head-scratching in that no one ever expects to fall in love with something like stroganoff, but here we are.
If you’re a dessert person don’t skip the wonderfully wobbly vanilla crème brûlée ($6.50), topped with a tiny handful of walnuts, adding another welcome texture to the crackle-crisp burnt sugar.
And just like that, hardly an hour after being seated, our time at Melrose was over. Wineglass drained, the rest of my steak boxed up and that last spoonful of crème brûlée scraped out of the dish. It was a great ride, and even though I wonder if it’s slower paced at say, 8 p.m., I’m more than happy to come back for the fun again at 5 — if not for the steak, definitely for the stroganoff.
Melrose Grill: 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday, 4-10 p.m. Saturday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday; 819 Houser Way S., Renton; 425-254-0759, melrosegrill.com