For seven decades, Portlanders have voted with their palates for the RingSide. Even the restaurant's name speaks to its tradition as the city's oldest sports bar, established in the greater Northwest Portland neighborhood that once included the Vaughn Street Ball Park, the Stadium, the downtown dog track and fights at the old Civic Auditorium. Wes Peterson, the longtime owner of the place, claimed: "We really were the ringside--the best seat in town."
Today, from the moment you pull on the leather handles of the sturdy door and step into a room as mole-dark as an English club, you'll see that tradition reflected in the reassuring tuxedos adorning the downtown RingSide's vaunted servers. The legendary crew of waiters is long on experience (a handful have served steaks for more than 25 years), short on women (just two), and widely considered the best in town: unobtrusive but responsive to a customer's every need.
Just as you'd expect, such well-established traditions also anchor the menu, especially in the RingSide's mythic onion rings ($5.25-$6.50), thought to be the longest-running dish on menus throughout Portland. Each month, more than five tons of onions roll into the restaurant's storage bins, enough to keep Walla Walla in the black for years.
What is the mystique that continues to draw Portlanders back to this place? In the '90s, competitors like Ruth's Chris, Morton's of Chicago and El Gaucho hit town, all worthy protein palaces in their way. But the first two are part of national chains, and both Morton's and El Gaucho are so pricey they're almost exclusively for the expense-account trade.
Steaks generally are better at Morton's and El Gaucho, their atmosphere similarly masculine with a coppery glow. But I've returned again and again to the RingSide because those venerable waiters lend a charm and authenticity newer places can't match.
On recent visits, however, I found not all is bliss in cowland. Essentials remain in place, but little has changed for the better--and a few things have gone downhill. For example, those prized onion rings taste more of batter these days, and they're no crispier than what you'd find at a booth on Coney Island; the accompanying ketchup in a silver boat is still just ketchup. The over-dressed Caesar ($6.50) is far too creamy. The New York cut ($31.25) is tasteless, and even the medium-rare slab is on the tough side. A side of creamed spinach ($5.50), the ideal vegetable with a steak, is over-salty and lacks freshness. And the mashed potatoes are utterly mediocre, lumpy and lukewarm.
Yet the succulent prime rib ($29.25) goes down like butter and is enhanced by a wonderful helping of fresh-grated horseradish, not the bottled creamy variety. The house rib-eye ($27.95) is deeply flavorful, almost as good as the larger bone-in rib-eye ($31.95), which, despite a greasy flavor and a bit too much gristle, is still worth the extra money, thanks to the tasty fat nestled between flesh and bone.
The seafood choices seem like an obligatory nod to diverse tastes (why would anyone go to the RingSide for fish?), though the the plump, lightly fried oysters ($8.95) are a worthy surrogate for the onion rings, especially given the banality of most of the appetizer choices. A few non-beef items, such as the floured and sautéed chicken livers ($17.75) and the fried chicken ($18.75), are also surprisingly good.
Desserts? You'll also want to skip these mostly uninspired versions of restaurant classics, such as crème brûlée, cheesecake, Bananas Foster, or a "fat-free sorbet" that's perhaps intended to eradicate your accumulated lipid-guilt ($4-$6).
A visit to this Portland classic can still pack a lot of pleasure. But it seems a bit more like hype than truth to consider the RingSide as one of the country's top 10 steakhouses, no matter what the scattering of plaques hanging just inside that sturdy door proclaim.
2165 W Burnside St., 223-1513.5 pm-midnight Monday-Saturday, 4-11:30 pm Sunday.
The RingSide East14021 NE Glisan St., 255-0750.11:30 am-2:30 pm Monday-Friday (lunch available in lounge at other times), 4-10 Sunday, 4:30-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 4:30-11 pm Friday-Saturday.
Credit cards accepted. Children seldom seen. $$$ Expensive.
Picks: Oyster fry, rib eye steaks, prime rib, chicken livers, fried chicken.
The cozy, glowy bar is a draw for night owls with its steak sandwiches and inviting ambience. It's also a fine spot for a cheap and ample happy hour.