Within a week of opening in December 2007, Donovans of Downtown had already proved its worth in the Gaslamp quarter. The younger sibling of the La Jolla institution seems to have inherited the best of Donovan's tradition—flawless service, a welcoming setting, and phenomenal steaks, yet with a more metropolitan feel. Just steps from the ballpark, the convention center, and the new array of condos, Donovans Downtown is modern, inviting, and warm, and seems right at home in the neighborhood.
Stepping through the double glass doors on K Street puts you in front of a towering mahogany wall, intricately crafted with inlaid wood. The wall's gentle curve invites you inside, where high ceilings, dark wood, and large windows create a space that is both grand and intimate. It is hard not to feel at ease as soon as you look around the warm, welcoming space.
The bar is the first thing visible past the hostess stand, and we decide to sit for a cocktail before moving to the dining room for our meal. We are immediately greeted by one of the most gracious bartenders I’ve encountered. We’re offered wine lists, friendly banter, and moments later, complimentary filet mignon sandwiches—Donovan’s specialty happy hour offering. Life is good, I think, as I relax with a glass of Kenwood Jack London Syrah and take in the new surroundings.
The layout of the restaurant affords seating options for a variety of occasions. The main dining room is the most formal, closed off from the rest of the space by a frosted glass wall. An elegant, curved, two-story wine case separates the dining room from the entrance, from which servers routinely pull bottles throughout the course of the evening. A second dining space on the other side of the bar offers a slightly more casual setting, if only because it is less intimate than the main dining room. A VIP room affords the most intimacy, and a second-level mezzanine, with glass, soundproof windows that can be opened or closed, is ideal for private parties or intimate affairs. The lone booth in the restaurant is located on the mezzanine—surrounded by mahogany and almost completely isolated, it is a table for only the most worthy of occasions.
The bar crowd is jovial and friendly, and we are tempted to order from the menu and spend our evening here. However, afraid we will fill up on steak sandwiches before the main event, we opt to move to a table. As soon as we meet our server, we know this is the right decision.
We are greeted by Domingos, an affable professional who will serve as our captain throughout our meal. Service at Donovan’s involves not just a waiter but a devoted service team, with the captain leading the helm. Domingos is friendly and entertaining, and offers the perfect balance of personality and reservation. He is quiet when it seems appropriate, but when we ask questions, he gladly opens up and is eager to share his knowledge. Our meal becomes an experience thanks to his tableside charm.
Donovan’s menu is simple and classic—a compact selection that prioritizes quality and perfection. While the restaurant is known for its USDA Prime Filet Mignon, the entire array of entrees is founded on quality—the lobster is Australian, the crab Alaskan, and every single steak is USDA Prime. We actually have trouble narrowing down the selection, and opt to start with a few appetizers while we debate the merits of ribeye vs. filet.
The Maryland Style Crab Cake is a phenomenal way to begin the meal. One oversized cake is densely packed with rich, flaky crab, peppered with specks of scallion and red pepper. Perfectly round, and easily the size of a hamburger, the plump cake rests atop a bed of shoestring onions and aside a sweep of béarnaise sauce. Pulling the cake apart, it is almost entirely crab, the rich, sweet meat, needing little accompaniment. However, a dip in the sauce and a squirt of lemon add welcome acidity and creaminess, and the crisp onions are gloriously addictive.
The Norwegian Smoked Salmon is a treat. Three thin pieces of salmon, each twirled into themselves so as to stand upright, arrive accompanied by a mixed green salad, and the traditional accompaniments: diced onion, capers, egg, and toast points. The salmon is the freshest I've tasted—the flavor is entirely of subtle smoke and not salty at all. With each bite the smokiness builds and then fades—it is a brief, escaping moment of pure flavor. The salty sweet capers give a welcome tang, while the buttery toast rounds out a bite. It is a classic dish executed to perfection.
I set my glass of syrah aside during the appetizers, looking forward to paring the wine with my main course and not wanting to overpower the seafood. It proves to be an excellent decision. Donovan's house-filtered water pairs surprisingly well with food. The water is filtered five times, we learn, four times through a ceramic filter and a final time through charcoal. It is carried to the tables in reusable glass bottles and poured as elegantly as a bottle of Perrier. I can’t believe I’m devoting a paragraph to water—but it truly deserves praise.
We order our entrees based entirely on Domingo’s recommendations. In response to our inquiry, his face lights up and a grin the size of a short rib appears on his face. He leans in, our shoulders moved toward him, and we feel as if he is about to reveal a primal secret. "Well, I am Brazilian, you know. And we Brazilians, we love our meat." Go on, we urge him with grins of equal size. "And the ribeye…” he makes a kissing motion, tossing his hand from his lips into the air. “The marbling is unrivaled, and you must get the bone-in cut, because the bone gives the meat all of its flavor.” He continues, “the Filet is okay if you want softer meat, and the Porterhouse is great because it has both the sirloin and the tenderloin, but the Ribeye…that is the one."
We are sold. Ribeye Chop it is, all 24 ounces. When it arrives, our eyes light up just as Domingos’s had. The steak is a piece of art—a solid inch thick, and with the surface size of a DVD case, it absolutely commands the plate. It’s flavor is just as commanding as its presence—each time we slice through the blackened outer and pink inner meat, the steak lives up to its reputation. The only possible accompaniments for such a regal steak are the Giant Steak Fries—the thick russet potato wedges, each six-inches long and two-inches wide, are as oversized as the steak. Regardless of their size, the fries are outstanding. Slightly crisp on the outside, they give way to a creamy interior that offers the subtle hint of deep-fried flavor. Our plate appears as I imagine a literal giant’s serving of steak frites would look to Jack of Jack in the Beanstalk. I could not be happier.
The last time I dined at Donovan's La Jolla, one bite of the Seared Cajun Lamb Chop appetizer (also available downtown) made me regret I did not order the entree. This time, I have no regrets. The Australian Rack of Lamb arrives stunningly on a plate—six sizeable ribs held together by light brown, glistening meat that begs to be sliced apart and sampled. The interior is a perfect pale pink—cooked medium—and the meat is so tender a knife effortlessly slides through. The accompanying mint jelly is a surprise and a treat. Sweet, but with a subtle mint spice, the verdant jelly transforms an otherwise amazing piece of lamb into a flavor rainbow. For the second time I have to pat myself on the back regarding the potato choice—the Skillet Fried Potatoes are sublime. Thick rings of russet potato lay dominoed beneath an intoxicating combination of caramelized onions and peppercorn gravy. The potatoes hold a considerable crunch that manages to last throughout the meal even underneath the gravy. The gravy itself is addictive and sweet, with a resounding depth. The entire plate runs the gamut of flavors.
Buttery and crisp sugar snap peas and baby carrots accompany both entrees, offering a refreshing sweetness between bites. We don’t need too—all Donovan’s entrees come with complimentary potatoes and vegetables—but we also order a side of sautéed mushrooms. A sharing-sized portion of halved button mushrooms, sautéed in butter and resonating with pure mushroom flavor, is a flavorful addition. They are tender and burst with flavor, and prove phenomenal both with a bite of the steak and with a bit of the peppercorn gravy.
I must admit we can only put a dent in our entrees, and find they are graciously packaged in unassuming boxes for us to carry home. We do save room for dessert, and the oversized Vanilla Crème Brûlée is well worth the stomach room. It is exactly what a crème brûlée should be: a distinct blend of two flavors and textures—crisp, heady caramel that dissolves into almost chewy tenderness on the tongue, and always-smooth, creamy vanilla whose texture vanishes but whose flavor lingers. As we make our way through the dish, tiny specks of real vanilla reveal themselves—a last bit of evidence that at Donovans, quality is king.