If you’re young enough to associate phone calls with FaceTime and restaurants with mixologists and communal tables, you might find the Summit Steakhouse a bit of a living-history museum. Founded in Aurora in 1977, the sprawling 9,000-square-foot eatery recalls the days when fine restaurants showed off their fineness with white tablecloths, well-spaced tables and menus ceremoniously presented in heavy leather binders. But the restaurant changed hands in 2013 and brought on a new chef last year, so I wondered if a more contemporary steakhouse might quietly be taking shape.
From the outside, the Summit appeared the same as ever, with faded carpeting leading from the parking lot to the front door, past sculptures of cowboy boots and elk. Inside, it appeared the same as ever, too, despite a $300,000 remodel under the previous owner. Paneling and vaulted ceilings with wood beams set a masculine tone. French doors divided the space into separate dining rooms, some with fake ivy entwined around track lighting, others with wine bottles set on a shelf like a painter’s still life. When we walked in, a pianist was at work in the lounge, spinning out a fine Billy Joel rendition.
“Do you have a reservation?” the hostess inquired. My husband and I did not — I hadn’t thought one would be necessary early in the week — and she said she’d see what she could do. Returning from a tour of the packed dining rooms, she smiled and handed me a red rose. “I’ll show you to your table now,” she said. When we offered not to linger in case she was squeezing us in before a reservation, her smile grew even wider. “Once you have the table, it’s yours,” she promised, “as long as you stay and talk and hold hands.”
Turns out, her attitude was emblematic of the Summit: gracious, unhurried and charmingly old-fashioned. Unlike many steakhouses, this one isn’t about power dinners. Instead, it’s a place where gray-haired friends jump up and give each other hugs, where groups gather for retirement parties, where classic steakhouse fare becomes the reassuring currency for celebrating life’s special moments.
Tablecloths, tea lights and vases for ladies’ roses are still de rigueur here. Servers, both men and women, sport black shirts, black pants and ties. Bread arrives with an old-time wow factor, the alternating bands of dark rye and honey wheat speared horizontally by a steak knife. Entrees come with soup or salad, and steaks that in other steakhouses would be served à la carte come not just with that soup or salad, but also your choice of mashed, baked, twice-baked or au gratin.
Such touches are straight out of yesterday, which is precisely what appeals to longtime guests. But they might not appeal to diners more accustomed to Denver’s cutting-edge scene, where a food revolution or two has taken place in the intervening years, and where nationally known chefs now spur each other to new heights of creativity.
Executive chef Patrick Swetnam is aware of the dilemma. “We’re looking at the younger market,” says Swetnam, who graduated from Johnson & Wales and worked at the Broadmoor and the Cliff House at Pikes Peak before joining the Summit. “But we value our older clientele. They’re our bread and butter.” He estimates that he’s updated about 60 percent of the menu and is in the process of overhauling the rest, tweaking existing recipes, upgrading the sourcing of everything from the beef to the ham on the chicken cordon bleu, and evaluating whether items that are currently brought in — like salad dressing — could be made in-house instead. Practices that have become commonplace elsewhere, such as seasonal menu changes, are on their way, as are new items like sugar-cured quail, venison and wild-boar sausage. The goal, he says, is to “keep the concept of this old-school steakhouse with a new vibe.”
Not every dish is in need of a new vibe. French onion soup, offered in place of the dinner salad, is proof that oldies can be goodies. Made in a three-day process with roasted veal stock and tender onions, then capped with a crouton, melted provolone and a splash of sherry, the dark, rich soup was one of the best I’ve had all year. A wedge salad was gloriously crisp — texture being the reason for wedge salads, after all — and topped with Roquefort. And even though it’s been years since I’ve had a spinach salad with strawberries, goat cheese and pecans, I found the combination as winsome as ever, in part because of the copious amounts of goodies included.
Service, too, remains solid. Other than making a few minor slips, like not telling us that mixed greens could be had instead of iceberg, our servers were veterans, skilled in the big and little things that make a meal: refilling glasses, timing courses, crumbing tables and the like. They were also refreshingly honest in their opinions, not to mention capable of reading a table to see if small talk or privacy was wanted.
Other dishes, however, revealed why Swetnam has his hands full. The fried calamari on the Summit Sampler was oily, the spinach-artichoke dip thick and pasty. Bruschetta came topped with so little shaved prime rib and horseradish that the flavors never had a chance against the cold, balsamic-marinated tomatoes, which had turned mealy under refrigeration. And unlike those other salads, the dinner salads that came with the meal were the kind that turned a generation off of vegetables, with sweet dressings, iceberg lettuce and a few scattered vegetables.
The chicken cordon bleu was too rich from its double dose of blue cheese (in both the stuffing and the Mornay). Chive-and-pepper-flecked mashed potatoes were piped in a lovely rosette, but they must’ve been held too long, because they arrived crusty and dried out. Squash, carrots, zucchini and broccoli in the ubiquitous “vegetable medley” were significantly overcooked and puddled in butter. Strawberry cheesecake was cakey and covered not with fresh berries, but with an overly sweet purée that tasted ready-made (and was).
Knowing that Swetnam’s been on staff for nine months, I thought I might find a few elements of progressive steakhouses, such as dry-aged or grass-fed beef and smaller portions that lend themselves to the share-plate style of eating so popular today. But beef at the Summit is corn-fed and served in eight- to 22-ounce portions. What’s more, it’s choice, not prime. And so my New York strip and ribeye — though sizzling from stints under the 700-degree broiler — were underwhelming, lacking the level of marbling that comes with prime and without the concentrated meatiness of dry-aged beef. Swetnam says the beef will switch to prime on the new menu.
But with that menu still a work in progress, it’s hard to know just how far the kitchen will go. Will bone marrow be next? Deep-fried kale? Flights of grass-fed and dry-aged steak? And how much do the Summit’s loyal customers — the ones who fill the place on a Tuesday night — want it to change, if they want it to change at all? “You’ve got to stick with the times or you die,” acknowledges Swetnam. FaceTimer and communal-table lover that I am, I agree — though I’m not opposed to the occasional rose and open invitation to stay as long as I’d like, talking and holding hands.
2700 South Havana Street, Aurora
Select menu items at Summit Steakhouse:
Summit sampler $17
French onion soup $5/7
Baby spinach salad $9
Chicken cordon bleu $28
Ribeye, 12 oz. $36
Summit strip, 16 oz. $40
Strawberry cheesecake $8
Summit Steakhouse is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 3-11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at thesummitsteakhouse.com.