There is a fine line between retro chic and outdated.
At some restaurants, worn surroundings and a bit of a grungy feel are embraced as part of the experience, especially when the food strikes the right chord. But if the food is way past its prime, the dated furniture and the warped paneling seem vile instead of vintage.
Don Halls Factory Steakhouse was old school in every way from the burgundy, brass-studded vinyl chairs to the bacon-wrapped chicken livers appetizer. Both were probably on the menu back in August 1972, the date of an article on the back of the menu describing how the restaurants Coldwater Road neighborhood was back then.
What I found at the Factory was a glimpse into the past – a warm, friendly glimpse that I would call classic. I scoffed at the steaks behind the window and dated butchers guide posters out front, the paisley burgundy carpet and dark wood paneling, but I loved the neatly framed photos of extinct Summit City landmarks like Gardners Restaurant and Baber Jewelry.
And those chicken livers were sensational. Coated in a flaky, heavy, chicken-fried-steak sort of batter, the bacon inside was not too done, so it was still chewy. The livers were moist, tender and added just a hint of irony flavor to the salty nuggets, which were perfectly flanked by a dish of plain ol yellow mustard for dipping. Another simple but perfectly executed classic starter was the Caesar salad. Clean, crunchy romaine was perfectly coated with a creamy dressing and each piece had plenty of salty shredded parmesan hanging all over it. Fresh toasty sourdough croutons were prevalent and appreciated. The bleu cheese wedge also impressed with so many cheese crumbles in the dressing that the fresh, crunchy iceberg wedge looked like it was topped with cottage cheese.
The house salad was just OK by comparison.
The French onion soup – another classic – was rich in beef flavor, had some of those sourdough croutons soaking up the broth and Swiss cheese nicely browned on top. But what really gave it an edge was a sprinkling of oregano, thyme and basil on top that basically blackened under the broiler, providing an intense punch of charred herb flavor.
My New York strip could have used some of those herbs or a little more salt and pepper because, although tender, juicy and of good quality, it was a little flat. The garlic-parmesan risotto also was not a good side choice with that steak. Although the rice was cooked properly, the consistency was way too thick and pasty and it reminded me of the cheese sauce that enrobes scalloped potatoes rather than a smooth, creamy, properly executed risotto.
The andouille potato cake was perfectly executed and a fitting side for the Makers porterhouse pork chop. The cake was brown and crisp outside and soft and moist inside. The sausage added zip to each bite as did the creamy Dijon mustard sauce and corn and pepper relish on top. The chop was thick and juicy throughout, and the Makers Mark bourbon barbecue glaze imparted the perfect mix of sweet and spicy flavor.
There is nothing more old-school on the Factorys menu than the house specialty prime rib. The 12-ounce slab of fatty beef arrives in a pool of au jus that is just a little salty, its outer ring of fat flecked with bits of black pepper and other seasonings. It was tender and perfectly medium-rare, and, more importantly, it passed my personal prime rib test. You are always going to have some fat and sinewy, chewy bits of connective tissue in the highly marbled meat, but the better the cut, the less of this you end up with on your plate when all is said and done.
When I was finished, the only things remaining were two dime-sized bits in a pool of leftover jus.
If a huge slab of beef isnt in order, you may want to arrive between 4 and 6 p.m. to take advantage of some of the lighter offerings on the fixed-price menu, which includes fresh bread, that classic Caesar salad, the vegetable du jour, mashed potatoes and dessert for $11.95. The almond-crusted haddock was delicious with a dark brown breadcrumb crust that became wonderfully crunchy in the pan. The almonds provided the perfect sweet, nutty flavor to the mild, flaky fish. The mashed potatoes were also hearty and intensely flavorful.
The mini crème brulée with the fixed-price meal was OK, but there were more scrumptious endings starting with the DeBrands raspberry torte. Two layers of white sponge cake had raspberry gel and fudge icing sandwiched between them and were topped by a thick layer of white icing and another thin layer of fudge. Resting on top was a DeBrands raspberry-filled dark chocolate, and the whole thing was drizzled with raspberry syrup. It was rich and decadent, and I loved that there was more raspberry than chocolate, which is usually never the case with such creations.
Then, to get back to the classics, I couldnt go wrong with the legendary Don Halls German chocolate cake. The light, moist, cocoa-colored cake coated in a sweet coconut-packed pecan frosting takes a back seat to no other.
The service at the Factory did the same. My two servers were opposites but equal in terms of excellence. One was a veteran who knew what old-school service was all about, right down to a wonderful show while shaking and serving one of the restaurants regionally named martinis. The other was more of a newbie who seemed genuinely happy and energetic about everything.
Restaurant: Don Halls Factory Steakhouse
Address: 5811 Coldwater Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Cuisine: Steaks and seafood
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol served: Full bar
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Menu: Bacon-wrapped chicken livers ($4.95), Caesar salad ($5.50), French onion soup ($3.45 cup; $4.50 bowl), New York strip ($16.95), 14-ounce prime rib ($15.95), Makers porterhouse pork chop ($13.95), DeBrands raspberry torte ($4.95), German chocolate cake ($3.25), raspberry mocha chill ($6)
atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).