The New York Strip Sirloin at Lewnes Steakhouse in Annapolis. (Gabe Dinsmoor, Baltimore…)
How old-fashioned is Lewnes' Steakhouse? The best appetizers are shrimp scampi and clams casino, the most desirable side dish is potatoes Lyonnaise, and the bar still makes a Manhattan with two parts whiskey to one part vermouth, and no one does that anymore.
Without any drama, Lewnes' serves its regulars a plain and proper dinner of exquisite steak. Imagine the Prime Rib mixed with the old Burke's, and you'll have a rough picture of Lewnes', a corner landmark in the cozy Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis.
Picture narrow rooms of painted pine, dark upholstery, white tablecloths and black-shaded steakhouse lamps. Lewnes' has the lived-in feel of an old favorite. It's not shabby, but you could understand someone's remembering Lewnes' Steakhouse that way, and fondly.
A better-known steakhouse is a block away, and even a staff member at Lewnes' Steakhouse conceded that the other place has things Lewnes' doesn't, like a more extensive selection of sides and the kind of theatrical service that some diners associate with expensive dining.
But local residents love Lewnes' and are loyal to it. Some of this loyalty is mingled with affection for the Lewnes family, generations of whom have been fattening up Annapolitans for over a century in a succession of lunchrooms, concessions and restaurants. The restaurant's utter lack of pretense is big draw in a sailing town. Don't be fooled, though. Ask to see the intricately designed first-floor wine room, something a villain would try to impress James Bond with.
The menu is brief and to the point. I don't remember the last time I've seen a smaller selection of appetizers than Lewnes' offers. There are five of them — a jumbo lump crabmeat cocktail, clams casino, shrimp cocktail, jumbo lump crab balls and black bean soup. In season, oysters on the half shell would be a sixth.
The entree listing isn't much bigger — six steaks, ranging from a petite filet mignon to a porterhouse, lamb and veal chops, crab cakes, a fish or two, and a dish called Garides Scortholemono, a Greek version of shrimp scampi.
Dinner at Lewnes' gets better as it goes along.
The appeal of clams casino and shrimp cocktail is surely nostalgic, so why not present them as classics? But a table's appetizer orders are all ganged together, meaning that a single central plate arrives with, say, jumbo crab balls, clams casino and shrimp cocktail. That's no fun, and is it even a shrimp cocktail when the shrimp are laid out flat on a plate? These things were all well-prepared, though, especially the fatty and buttery clams, served piping hot.
The appetizer course isn't lackluster, just less compelling than the entree course, when Lewnes' sends out its big and juicy prime steaks and expertly prepared side dishes. Broiled in butter, the steaks are otherwise prepared and served unadorned, and only by thinking to ask will you learn that there is an optional bearnaise or peppercorn sauce. The idea, unspoken, is that a good steak needs not so much creativity as expert handling — a prime steak should speak for itself.
They do at Lewnes', where the steaks arrive with ribbons of fat left intact, a reassuring sign from the kitchen to steak lovers that they are in good hands. Each to his own: The New York strip was luxuriously, almost thrillingly tender, and a rib-eye was full of robust steak flavor.
Three big handsome and flavorful lamb chops — almost odd to see in these days of baby everythings — are prepared and likewise served as plain as can be. A warm mint sauce is an optional accompaniment, but the entree is designed for people who want the real taste of lamb.
Sides are served family-style and ordered a la carte. The exception at our table was the Garides Scortholemono, which was served with rice. Presumably a favorite dish from an earlier Lewnes-operated restaurant, this was a marvelously zesty variation on the classic scampi, featuring beautifully butterflied shrimp browned gently in olive oil.
Highly recommended among these are the sauteed spinach a la George, a creamy and intensely oniony preparation, and the Lyonnaise potatoes. Those we hadn't seen those on a menu for years, which is a shame, because what could be nicer than parslied and buttered pan-fried potatoes?
Desserts are made elsewhere, except for a homemade brownie served with ice cream and whipped cream that sounds old hat — and is — but was still delicious.
A meal at Lewnes' will run you about as much as one at the steakhouses that serve more sizzle with the steak. But I found Lewnes' subdued and straightforward approach to steakhouse dining very appealing.
Where:401 Fourth St., Annapolis
Contact: 410-263-1617, http://www.lewnessteakhouse.com
Hours: Open daily for dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $8.95-$11.95, entrees, $18.95-$40.95
Food: ✭✭✭ 1/2
Service: ✭✭✭ 1/2
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭ ; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]