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[Dining Out]

Frank's Steak House
The oldest steakhouse in Boston
is actually in Cambridge. And it's not
as crusty as you might think

BY STEPHEN HEUSER

dining out
Frank's Steak House
2310 Mass Ave, Cambridge; 661-0666
Open Sun, 10:30 a.m.
to 9:30 p.m.
Mon - Wed, 4 to 9:30 p.m.
Thurs - Sat, 3:30 to 10:30 p.m.
Full bar
AE, MC, Visa
Sidewalk-level access

Back in 1938, a steakhouse opened in North Cambridge, and within a couple of years it was officially named Frank's, perhaps after an old sot who had become a fixture at the end of the bar, perhaps not. Depends who you ask -- precision isn't all that important in steakhouse lore. In the ensuing decades, under the ownership of a local character called Red O'Connell, Frank's became the watering hole (and, presumably, feeding trough) for the North Cambridge political crowd whose most famous son, Tip O'Neill, ran the US House of Representatives for longer than anyone else in the nation's history.

Like that political crowd, Frank's evolved more or less in step with the century. The 19th century, that is. In the 1970s, its new owner had the bright idea of allowing women into what had been a men-only bar, and, later, the place even flirted with the idea of de-emphasizing meat. But no one was fooled, and even today it would be hard to mistake the modernized Frank's -- with its brightened-up interior and blushingly modest crop of celebrity photos in the foyer -- for anything but a stronghold of old-fashioned, prime-rib-and-baked-potato gut-stuffing.

Sure, Frank's retains some reminders of a more embarrassing era (that is, the '80s): blond wood, hammered-copper skyline reliefs of Boston and Cambridge, and the fact that it's possible to be served a vodka martini if you forget to specify gin. But it's fun to have a place like Frank's from which to watch the dining pendulum swing back toward red meat, scotch and water, baked potatoes. George Ravanis, who runs the place for his father, William (that new owner in the '70s), actually hates the blond wood. He wants to get all the celebrity photos in place again, and, if he knew about it, he'd probably be pretty upset about the vodka martini. I didn't actually bring up the décor when I spoke to him, but he promised me that Frank's will soon be losing its "HoJo's look" in favor of something darker and more steaky.

However dark and steaky it gets, Frank's still won't be the sort of place you'd go instead of the Capital Grille or Morton's. This is a family affair, not an oak-paneled expense-account fling. If you're careful, you can feed a family of three at Frank's for the price of a single dry-aged prime porterhouse in the Back Bay. You won't even find that aged porterhouse: the specialty here is sirloin, which, if hardly a meager cut of meat, also doesn't come in betcha-can't-eat-it-all-tonight portions. But it is presented memorably, at least if you order the first steak listed on the menu: Frank's Famous NY Sizzler Sirloin ($12.95). Yee-haw! The thing arrives at your table hissing like an angry snake, the pewter plate so hot that you can barely touch the Bakelite dish it's balanced on. We ordered our meat rare, and it was indeed pretty darn rare inside, but no worries. We just carved off a slice, mashed it down against the plate for a sec, and presto! Medium-rare, then medium a few seconds later.

The news in the steak business is that the price of top-quality, buttery-soft prime beef is off the charts, so what you're getting at a place like Frank's is beef graded "choice," which is the USDA's second (and most broadly inclusive) quality level. Frank's comes up with a pretty tender cut of choice meat, well-marbled, especially on the filet ($14.95, or $8.95 for a perfectly ample "petite filet"). If you find the flavor coming up a bit short, though, it might be worth ordering the "Bourbon Street Sirloin" ($13.95), which is marinated for four days in a mixture of beer, molasses, and something else. The flavor seems to infuse the meat very thoroughly, and gives it a sweet, mild, teriyakish flavor.

You get a similar sort of treatment, though slightly different flavor, with the maple-bourbon glazed pork chops ($10.95), seared on one side and very moist for pork.

Like any good family restaurant, Frank's offers a lot of side dishes; like any good steakhouse, it doesn't let them get in the way of the meat. You're served a vegetable, sure, or an iceberg-lettuce salad, or soup, but that all comes separately. You also get potato (baked, fried, or mashed -- all gratifyingly good), which is allowed on the same plate as the meat, or a plainish soft rice pilaf, which isn't.

Our ventures away from pure steak were a bit uneven; the "chicken supreme" ($8.95) was a huge breast, battered and fried, topped with a creamy sauce that harked back to the days of chicken à la king. And side orders were pretty standard family-restaurant fare: "fat Eddy's chili" ($4.95) had a lot of ground beef, a few kidney beans, and a pile of tortilla chips on the side; the hulking plate of potato skins ($4.25) had very nice crisp skin, enough to appetize four people or fill two up before dinner even begins. Opinion was divided about the sautéed mushrooms ($4.95), which were whole little button mushrooms stewed up in butter and sherry and "Served in a Crock!", which seemed as good a way as any to disguise some otherwise unremarkable fungi.

Our vote for finger food was the onion loaf ($4.95), a novelty item inspired (this is true) by the Hungry Heifer onion loaf Norm kept talking about on Cheers. The loaf here is a neat brick of tangled onion rings, fried in a really light and flaky batter.

Another concession Frank's has made to modernity is a wine list, up to about 25 selections from exactly three in the old days (American burgundy, chablis, and white zinfandel). Prices are moderate, the wineries are pretty well-known, and, hey, it's nice to be able to drink a glass of Gabbiano Chianti ($3.95) if you feel the need. As for desserts, of the three we tried -- mud pie, ice cream in a cut-open puff pastry, and Grape Nut custard -- none really stood out. Which is okay, because as you can guess, you're not really likely to have a lot of room left. In fact, if you're like us, you'll probably be having leftover steak for lunch tomorrow.

Issue Date: October 11 - 18, 2001