You may have driven past Knight’s Steakhouse without realizing it. It’s a nondescript, low building with a big parking lot, and the only sign on the outside is a big picture of a chess knight. It doesn’t look shady, precisely, but it looks private. Like you have to know what it is, or be a member, to go there.
It isn’t a private club, though. It’s a restaurant, and everyone’s welcome. And, as you might expect, there’s a story – which probably won’t surprise anyone who lives in Ann Arbor – behind the lack of a sign. “Dad [Ray Knight] put a sign up for Knight’s Market, way back, and failed to go to the city for approval,” Don Knight, the current General Manager, told us. “So they made him take it down. He said ‘I don’t think I need a sign,’ and just kept running it without one.” When he opened the restaurant in 1984, he decided he’d stick with the iconic chess knight image. People found the place anyway, and there’s a certain insider thrill about the situation. (Their market, a couple miles away, could pass for the HQ of a biker gang. Gray, no windows, just more cutouts of chess knights. But again, people find it, and have since Ray Knight took it over in 1952.)
Visual obscurity has apparently worked out well for Knight’s. Paradoxically, it’s both one of Ann Arbor’s best-kept secrets, and one of its worst-kept ones. Even if you’ve been around for a few years, you’ve likely heard of it, but perhaps you haven’t been there and don’t know exactly where it is. We’d known about it for years, but we also understood it was really smokey, so we held off until the smoking ban passed before going. It’s a shame we had to wait this long, though, because it’s good. It’s a traditional, old-school American steakhouse, serving up meat cut by the family themselves, from their own meat market. The quality’s so high that they supply a number of restaurants in the area.
The experience you have at a restaurant depends a lot on how you approach dining there. With Knight’s, you have to remember that the meat is the focus. But it isn’t just about the steaks. The bread is excellent, baked in house, reminiscent of Chuck Muer’s, and served in generous quantities. Desserts are also made in house. The drinks are notoriously strong. And, oddly enough, the cooks do a great job with fish. Other things can be hit or miss, so stay traditional and you won’t be disappointed.
The star, for those willing to try such things, is the escargot in puff pastry. I mean, who does this any more? The escargots were shelled and tender under their blanket of golden puff pastry, and the garlic butter sauce was perfectly balanced with just the right amount of garlic – present, but not stealing the show. For those who have not eaten snails before, this is an excellent and non-threatening introduction to them.
Soups, Salads, and Sides
Unlike at high-end a la carte steakhouses, a typical Knight’s entrée (e.g. a steak) comes with soup or salad, a side and the vegetable of the day. The soups we tried (tomato and chicken vegetable) were both good, and the chicken vegetable was unusually flavorful. Salads were good as well, though basic. Sides are a mixed bag: the steak fries were perfect; others were nothing special. We’ve since heard a rumor that you can order tater tots as a side (they’re on the kids’ menu).
Knight’s is a steakhouse, created as an offshoot of a market known for its meat (Ray Knight hired an expert butcher back in the 60s for the then-princely sum of $20/hour to teach him). Therefore you would expect their meat to shine, and it doesn’t disappoint. Several of our crew felt the prime rib was the show stealer: thick and juicy, rare as ordered, and capable of giving Win Schuler’s (or anyone else) a serious run for their money.
Steaks were excellent too. The Delmonico, topped with delicious sauteed onions, was tasty. The giant 24oz porterhouse is several meals in one (for only a few dollars more than the next smaller option) and features two cuts of meat divided by the bone: a New York strip on one side and filet mignon on the other. All of the Black Angus beef was flavorful, perfectly cooked (we ordered across a range), and minimally seasoned.
The pork tenderloin schnitzel featured several thinly pounded slices of pork, pan-fried in a well-seasoned coating. A nod to the area’s German and Polish heritage, it’s served with sautéed red cabbage and cheese pierogi (which we didn’t get to try due to a mixup). We can’t comment on the pierogi, but the schnitzel were good.
On the seafood side, we enjoyed the Great Lakes perch. Slim filets were lightly dredged and pan-fried. It was delicate and fresh, and came accompanied by a homemade tartar sauce. They’ve got a great reputation for seafood in general, so non-steak eaters can have a great meal at Knight’s, too.
Desserts are also made in house. Of the ones we tried, we absolutely recommend the pumpkin bread pudding, which is dense and cake-like. Make sure it’s served warmed, which brings out the pumpkin and cinnamon flavors. The cherry crisp, made with tart cherries, was also good (again you’ll want it warmed), as was the Oreo cookie cream cake. Desserts rotate, so what’s available on a given night varies.
Incidentally, while there was a lot of concern about the effects of the smoking ban on bars and restaurants, Knight’s has come out of it busier than ever; after an initial four-month drop in bar business (which was offset by increased dining revenues) it’s been nothing but upward. In practical terms, this means that you’ll want to call ahead for reservations. If you do that, they guarantee you’ll be seated within 15 minutes of your arrival.
Lisa and Joe have been blogging about food in the Ann Arbor area (and points beyond) since 2004. Check them out at www.kitchenchick.com.