A visit to the Butcher Shop transports diners to the glory days of the Rat Pack. The dim glow of candelabras and twinkling lights cloaks the dining room in the nostalgic magic of a bygone era, while the expansive red leather booths and banquet tables treat diners to the kind of pampering distinction associated with vintage clubs. Food is simple, satisfying, and never ending, adhering to the tradition of classic steakhouses. The result is a continuous onslaught of massive portions that challenge even the heartiest appetites. An evening at the Butcher Shop is a return to a time characterized by a warm, sophisticated crowd and a welcoming culture of excess.Read More ...
Along Broadway’s busy thoroughfare in Chula Vista and a short distance from the 5 South, the Butcher Shop’s red and black sign entices diners to take a nostalgic excursion of swanky sophistication. A Chula Vista institution for 40 years, the Butcher Shop has consistently satisfied diners with their gargantuan portions, expertly prepared steaks, and moody ambiance throughout their long history in San Diego. Settling into a meal at the Butcher Shop is as seductive and inviting as the sultry crooning of Frank Sinatra, with all of the satisfaction of club-like exclusivity, a Rat Pack air of illicit notoriety, and simultaneously the warmth and comfort of a family dinner.
Entering the restaurant, we are immediately cloaked in sensuous darkness. The dim glow of bar room televisions and candelabras causes metal to twinkle and the deep red ceiling to sparkle, immediately setting a mood of magical enchantment and 60’s era swank. To the far right, bar goers hunker down over the long, sleek bar amidst the multi-colored rainbow of various liquor bottles and muted televisions. A small stage promises musical entertainment, where local musician Ray Correa regularly serenades diners Wednesday through Saturday, playing a varied repertoire of Standards, Mexican corridos, and contemporary songs. To the left, the dining room gradually opens up to us like an establishing shot in a noir film, building anticipation for our meal.
The dining room embodies the masculine luxury of an old club, invitingly chummy with all of the privileged exclusivity of clannish coteries. Although there are no private rooms, the dining room’s layout allows for a variety of seating options, creating intimate nooks and sprawling banquets that frequently accommodate parties between 10 and 40 people. The room’s color theme is dominated by black and red: red-clothed tables of varying size are spread liberally throughout the space, while luscious red leather semi-circular booths stretch languidly against red velvet-papered walls. Even the waitresses coordinate with the decor, their short red skirts and black fishnets reminiscent of old cigarette girls. Iconic faces stare out at us from portraits lining the walls: Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, and many others, pictured along with the Butcher Shop’s owner, invite us to sit down and savor our Butcher Shop experience. We readily comply, settling into our expansive red leather booth.
The menu is as much of an homage to the traditional steakhouse as the décor. While the menu presents an extensive variety of selections, each dish emphasizes the freshness of its ingredients with simple, but masterful preparation. Steaks are cooked over mesquite and minimally seasoned to accent their natural flavors, while seafood is similarly prepared with a light, but expert hand. Pasta and Italian-style dishes like Chicken Parmesan and Chicken Piccata give options to diners whose predilections are less carnivorous. The no-frills menu is well paired with the Butcher Shop’s wine list, which is a California-dominant collection, with some European and South American highlights. The Butcher Shop emphasizes simple satisfaction, providing straightforward, unpretentious, yet skillfully refined dishes, and wave after wave of complimentary sides that overwhelm the diner by their quality as well as their colossal quantity. It is truly a bountiful feast.
Our feast begins appropriately with the staggeringly large Assorted Appetizer Platter. Mountains of panko-crusted Calamari Strips, golden Chicken Wings, crispy Fried Zucchini, and thick, gooey Potato Skins send the tantalizing odor of fried starches into the air and immediately put my salivary glands to work. Each appetizer is expertly prepared: the fried exterior is crispy and not overly greasy, while the interior remains moist and distinctive. The panko on the Calamari Strips is light and slightly buttery, a perfect complement to the subtly sweet, citrusy, and silken squid within. The vibrant red cocktail sauce that accompanies it is a well-suited companion, adding a pungent heat to the delicacy of the calamari.
The Chicken Wings are moist beneath their golden, crunchy crust and are well married with the sweet citrus sauce that is their complement, the sweet tanginess of the sauce playing off of the salty crunch. The Potato Skins closely resemble the slices of a frittata as their delectable fillings of sharp cheddar, crackling bacon, and soft, buttery potato are layered generously within their crisp, earthy skins. Each bite is an explosion of salty, savory flavor and the appetizer is almost a meal unto itself. The Fried Zucchini is a refreshing counterpoint to the dense Potato Skins, revitalizing the palate with a light bite of creamy squash couched in a delicate hint of fried batter. The juxtaposition of these fried treats is a surprisingly nuanced tasting experience, an exploration of the subtle differences that can be achieved by this prevalent and commonplace cooking technique.
The Shrimp Cocktail follows the precedent established by the Assorted Appetizer Platter: it is massive and elegantly presented. Enormous pink shrimp curl around a large crystal goblet filled with ice. The center almost glows with the intense red of the cocktail sauce. The shrimp is refreshingly cold, with a soft, succulent, sweet taste. The pungent, spicy cocktail sauce enlivens the palate as much as the coolness of the shrimp soothes it. It is the simple presentation of superbly fresh ingredients, conveyed to the table with refined minimalism.
As the entrees arrive I feel, for a moment, how the fabled Jack must have felt after climbing the beanstalk and encountering the giant’s smorgasbord. The Regular 16oz Prime Rib dwarfs its plate, its succulent juices pooling on its pinkish-red surface. Each tender bite is moist and buttery, virtually dissolving upon reaching my mouth and filling my taste buds with a concentrated essence of beef. A dip into a creamy, white horseradish sauce transforms the experience, infusing the meat with the earthy heat of this potent root. As a counterbalance, the dark, robust au jus returns the palate to the prime rib’s quintessential meatiness. The result is an education in the complexities and subtleties of beef, a most gratifying lesson. The Double Baked Potato selected as an accompaniment provides a rich, starchy pillow for the fleshy flavors of the Prime Rib. Presented with an enticing, golden crust, each mouthful of buttery whipped potato is a comforting return home for the taste buds.
The Princess Filet Mignon is not as dainty as it sounds. A two-inch-thick cut of filet with the circumference of a large grapefruit is nestled into a warm bed of Steak Fries, my companion’s chosen side. The Filet’s mesquite broiled exterior foreshadows the delights that lie beneath its surface. The knife cuts through to reveal a juicy, jewel-like ribbon of pinkish-red in the center, an inviting sight. The meat’s texture, though less buttery than the Prime Rib, is moist and tender, and epitomizes the simple, hearty pleasures of an expertly executed steak. With notes of salty satisfaction from the golden Steak Fries mingling with the beef, the experience is a marriage of privileged indulgence and homey comfort.
The enticing smell of garlic and butter precedes the Shrimp Scampi. Leaning over the plate, we are greeted by an inviting sight: a heaping mound of steaming linguine crowned by fleshy, pink shrimp, earthy brown mushrooms, and the vibrant green specks of scallions. The complex flavors dance on the tongue: the creamy richness of the butter blends with the salty sea essence of clam juice and shrimp and is well accented by the punchy pungency of the mushrooms and scallions. The result is a dish that radiates sublime gratification and warms the diner from head to toe.
Although my companion and I are approaching food coma, it is impossible to resist the temptations presented by the Butcher Shop’s dessert tray. Each confectionary creation from local patisserie Opera is like a unique jewel, dazzling the eye and enticing the palate. We select the Sapho, a dome of ivory coconut cream with a vivid yellow passionfruit marmalade nestled in its center. This dessert is a tropical oasis for the tongue, a refreshingly light and airy pastry that takes the taste buds on an exotic escapade. Layering the delicate coconut mousse with the fruity floral explosion of passionfruit, the dessert is the essence of paradise. After the weightiness of our substantial banquet, the Sapho is a delightful endnote.
As we exit our booths and prepare to leave the remnants of our gluttony behind, I glance around at my fellow diners. Although the Butcher Shop exudes a retro air of “old boy’s club” exclusivity, the restaurant’s crowd is very diverse. Business diners and groups of men share the space with couples and families, many with the sense of ownership and familiarity exhibited by regular clientele. While we come from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life, the Butcher Shop brings us together, attracting us all by the promise of being treated with the same nostalgically romantic notion of prestige, notoriety, and class associated with the glamorous swinging social scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Leftovers in tow, we spill out onto the street, squinting against the harshness of daylight and a return to reality.
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