In 1994, I had my first dinner at Ringside, yet I remember the night like it was yesterday. It was a cool, crisp winter evening. I wanted to impress a date, and knowing nothing about the Portland food scene, was told it would be a safe bet. Going inside was like stepping into a steakhouse circa 1960. It was dark and clubby with deep padded booths. A large fireplace took up the center of the room, the fire pushing back the winter chill. Autographed photos of various celebrities lined the walls. I kept looking around, expecting to see the “Rat Pack” drinking it up in the next booth. Attentive tuxedo-clad waiters did their best to make us feel special. The food was good, the date went well, and when we walked back out into the night, it had snowed several inches – the first snowfall I’d ever seen.
I’ve never forgotten that night, and looking back, it reminds me how much an evening can be influenced by factors other than the food in leaving a lasting impression. Ever since, I’ve thought Ringside was a good restaurant, and going back for my steakhouse reviews, I was looking forward to the experience.
Ambiance: Fifteen years later, the place looks exactly the same, albeit a bit worse for wear. Same pictures, same kitschy lampshades at each table, same tuxedoed waiters. However, something wasn’t quite right. I noticed it before we even sat down, and my companion remarked on it immediately. “Do you smell something?”
I am told at times that I am over sensitive to odors, but this one was unmistakable. The entire place smelled like mildew. Most noticeable when we first walked in, less noticeable when the restaurant filled, but still a bit off-putting. Nothing else seemed to have changed over my 15 year absence. Grade C.
Service: We arrived at the restaurant not long after it opened. Though only a few tables were occupied, I was surprised that the service wasn’t better. It felt very dismissive, like they didn’t really want to serve us, even though we were dressed nicely and were polite. After we ordered, everything changed. Suddenly our server took on personality, cracking jokes, and going out of his way to make sure we were happy. It took me a few days to figure out what I think was the reason behind the change in attitude. We had arrived just after they opened, and I have a feeling they thought we were there for the $25.00 “supper menu”. Once they realized we were ordering a large dinner, service greatly improved. It’s just a theory, but the only one that makes sense to me.
Other than the rocky start, the rest of the service was just fine throughout the entire evening. It was almost equal to all the other steakhouses in this series of reviews. Grade B+
Salads: Once again, we each had a Caesar. It was, to put it simply, not very good. The salad was underdressed to the point where many leaves had no dressing at all. The anchovies were a sad dried out afterthought across the top. Even worse was the Parmesan cheese. We both likened it to plastic, as it was in shards, and had absolutely no taste. I take back the “not very good”; this salad was terrible ($8.50). Grade D
Steaks: Once again I was disappointed. My 14 ounce New York was cooked to the proper medium rare, but had a crust on the top that was just to the wrong side of charred, giving it a burnt taste ($37.95). The 24oz. Porterhouse was cooked properly ($46), but both steaks also had more gristle than at the other steakhouses in this survey. Out of all the restaurants I tried, the meat here was the least flavorful. Grade C-
Sides were also weak. Entrees come with “Choice of Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Baked Potato, French Fries, Jasmine Rice Pilaf or Cottage Cheese”, which brings down the overall price of a dinner. An order of their “famous” onion rings were perfectly cooked, but an accompanying blue cheese/Heinz ketchup sauce was so bad I recoiled and wondered if I would be feeling any after-effects of those few tastes. I went back and had them again in the bar a week later, and this time the sauce was ok, but the first version should never have been served ($6.50).
An accompanying baked potato seemed to have been cooked the night before. I can honestly say I’ve never seen one so dry; no amount of butter or sour cream was going to help it. An order of asparagus was the best of the sides I tried, though even it seemed a bit past its prime. Accompanying hollandaise was average ($8.95). Sides grade C-
Desserts: After having tried the El Gaucho bananas Foster, I was interested in trying the Ringside version. No tableside show here, just a sad little plate from the kitchen, some melted ice cream over the bananas. It was a grade lower than the one at El Gaucho ($7.50). The apple crisp wasn’t much better – overly sweet and not very crisp, the apples too soft ($7.50). Grade C
Miscellaneous factors: Drinks from the bar were fine; a Tanqueray tonic was $8.50. The list of wines by the glass was good, with a mostly west coast focus; lots of California wineries with a few Oregon and Washington wines thrown in. Prices ranged from $7 to $17 dollars a glass. Three white wine flights are also available for $15.
The bottle list is impressive, with a large selection from around the world. It has some very good choices. The list is kept up to date, and designates the proper vineyard and year. A random sampling of markup versus retail found it to be slightly higher than other steakhouses I have reviewed, depending on the bottle. Domestic wines seem to be a better deal.
Overall, I walked out disappointed. If this steakhouse is to survive, it will need a makeover in almost every facet of its operation. Air it out, scrub it down, take a good look at the meat supplier, and focus on the cooking. Otherwise I’m afraid it will fade gently into that dark night.
The total cost of an average meal for two, consisting of two cocktails, two Caesars, two steaks, two sides and two glasses of wine, priced in the center of the wine list, was $142.00. Note that many of the prices in the restaurant are higher than is reflected on their own website.
- Address: 838 SW Park Ave, Portland OR. 97210 (In the Fox Tower) Note there is a second location in NE Portland which I didn’t try.
- Phone: (503) 223-1513
- Hours: Mon-Sat 5pm-Midnight, Sun 4pm-11:30pm
- Website: RingsideSteakhouse.com