Donovan's Steak & Chop House
World Famous For A Reason
Donovan's La Jolla
4340 La Jolla Village Drive
Across from UTC
La Jolla, California
Donovan's San Diego
570 K Street
6th & K in the Gaslamp
San Diego, California
- Elin Jeffords, May 2004
In the five years since it opened, Donovan’s of La Jolla has become one of San Diego’s premier restaurant destinations. It is a magnet for locals and tourists alike, THE place to celebrate a special occasion, host a party or simply relax and enjoy a great meal. How did a relatively new establishment achieve such huge success in one of the country’s most competitive restaurant markets? The answer is simple, even if accomplishing it wasn’t. Donovan’s owners wanted the kind of place that they, personally, liked to hang out -- a traditional steak and chop house featuring a luxurious clubby ambiance, superb service, top-notch American fare starring prime beef and, a killer wine list. With incredible attention to detail, they nailed it all down, starting with a plum location in the booming Golden Triangle area of La Jolla.
It is immediately apparent why this is one of the most sought after dinner reservations in town. For starts, parking is never an issue. Valets whisk cars away, return them promptly, and the service is always complimentary.
Once inside, staff members greet guests warmly, and promptly usher them to a comfortable seat. (Donovan’s is one of the rare restaurants where there is no such thing as a bad table.) Note the brass nameplates above the banquettes; this is Donovan’s nod to frequent diners who have, literally, their own tables. There’s an immediate sense of well being and it only gets better.
In addition to the gracefully proportioned main dining room, there are smaller, more intimate spaces. They are all themed -- historic San Diego, famed San Diego sports figures, a homage to Del Mar racetrack -- and decorated with appropriate photographs and artifacts. These charmingly intimate rooms, as well as the wine cellar, are also used for private parties. Donovan’s can accommodate groups from twelve to 120.
Over all, the interior is a rich enclave of polished mahogany paneling with touches of deep hunter green and burgundy, eye-catching paintings and limited edition bronze statuary bathed in soft, flattering light. It is an amazingly quiet environment. Except for unobtrusive background music, there is only the low buzz of genial conversation and occasional clink of wine glasses.
Optimally positioned in the front of the restaurant, the bar, with a magnificent beveled mirror hung above, is an immensely popular gathering place. No surprise why, it is known for personable bartenders, generous pours, a perfectly proportioned, over-sized martini and delectable filet mignon mini-sandwiches with the house special horseradish sauce served during happy hour. A handful of small tables positioned there are a favored spot for an informal snack or full meal.
While the atmosphere is ultra-appealing, food is definitely the main event at Donovan’s. This is one of the few restaurants in the country that serves all aged USDA Midwestern corn fed prime beef. Those flavorful, juicy cuts are the stars of the menu, but everything else is also top-notch including center-cut veal and lamb chops, fresh Atlantic salmon, Australian rock lobster tail and Gulf shrimp. Vegetables are straight from the fields and potatoes always Idaho giants. The kitchen creates all stocks and sauces from scratch and desserts are made on the premises as well.
Attentive and cordial, the crisply garbed three-person service team insures that every table gets total, undivided attention from cocktails through to coffee. The captain, who is in charge, starts the proceedings with drink orders. In addition to cocktails, Donovan’s proudly presents a Wine Spectator Award-winning selection of wines both by the glass and the bottle. There is special emphasis on California vintages particularly Cabernets but the cellar has a broad selection of Italian super-Tuscans and Bordeaux with a major representation of Domaine Rominee Conti. Connoisseurs will appreciate the trophy wines from Washington state such as Leonetti as well as hard to find cult wines – Turley, Arajo, Harlan and Bryant. There are also values in Chilean, Spanish, Argentinean and South African wines. Want help pairing food and wine? Donovan’s on-going wine program means staff members are extremely knowledgeable and pleased to advise.
A round loaf of warm, crusty bread is served with sweet butter. That staves off hunger pangs while the captain explains the menu, describing preparations, making sure to mention the evening’s special offerings and answering any questions. Once the orders are taken, the meal is carefully paced and the eagle-eyed servers are instantly available for assistance be it another drink, more bread or extra anchovies for the Caesar salad. It is emblematic of Donovan’s high level of guest accommodation. Nor is there an extra charge for the private-label bottled water poured throughout the meal.
Choosing a starter is a challenge, with one option more enticing than the next. Each dish is presented simply and artfully and portions are extremely generous. The dramatic shrimp cocktail features spunky cocktail sauce that enhances the enormous, toothsome main event. Tender scallops wrapped in crisp bacon are an ideal flavor mesh of sweet and salty. Moist and seemingly filler-free Maryland-style crab cakes are baked rather than fried leaving them greaseless.
Baby lamb chops lightly dusted with cayenne and quick-seared are a heartier way to start the meal, and for a vegetarian treat there is a grilled portobello mushroom festooned with roasted red pepper strips and crumbled feta cheese.
The chronically undecided can order an appetizer sampler or a lavish seafood spread heaped on ice that includes crab claws, shrimp and lobster.
A different soup is offered each evening. It may be hearty corn chowder or wild mushroom or sophisticated shrimp bisque or potato-leek with a touch of roasted apple but it is always memorable. Salads range from a well balanced, crunchy Caesar and spinach with mushrooms, bacon and onion tossed in a subtle Dijon dressing to the all-American iceberg wedge drizzled with bleu cheese dressing.
Unlike the ala carte menu policy at many steak houses, Donovan’s entrees are all served with both seasonal vegetables and choice of potatoes. Silky garlic smashed potatoes take the usual mashed version to a new level. Huge, steaming bakers are served with sour cream, butter, chives and bacon bits presented tableside. Mushrooms sautéed in garlic butter and crunchy onion rings are available on the side and are fun for a group to share.
Steak aficionados each have their own favorite cut. Filet mignon with its buttery texture and subtle flavor is available in 10 and 14-ounce sizes. For a little extra zing, the 10-ounce filet and 12 and 16 ounce New York strip steaks can be ordered with a peppercorn crust. Those who appreciate a more textural, intense beefiness will gravitate to the 20 ounce Porterhouse and 16 ounce ribeye or T-bone. Donovan’s method of seasoning, searing and then letting the steaks rest before finishing them to order in the 1600 degree Montague oven insures utter consistency.
Donovan’s regulars flock to the restaurant on Friday’s for the succulent 24 ounce, bone-in prime rib served with Yorkshire pudding and creamed spinach. Words to the wise, THAT is the only night of the week the cut is available and it is always sold out by 7:30 p.m.
Man does not live by beef alone, so for those non-steak occasions there is tender veal chop, succulent pork chop and neatly trimmed Australian rack of lamb. Seafood options include spectacular, firm-fleshed Australian lobster tail skillfully detached at table and served with warm, clarified butter and lemon.
There is always room for dessert when the choices include a fudgey triple chocolate brownie or ethereally light chocolate mousse cake. New York-style cheesecake is napped in tangy strawberry sauce and the piece de resistance is a smooth custardy crème brulee with a crackly broiled sugar crust. Accompanied by a steaming fragrant cup of coffee and a glass of ten-year-old Tawny port, it’s the only way to go. At least until you come back to Donovan’s again
Donovan’s of La Jolla has received recognition and awards from the beginning. Highly ranked by the Zagat Guide which calls it the best steak house in San Diego, honored by Wine Spectator magazine for the last four years with the Best of Award of Excellence, presented with the Dirona Award and for three years in a row, named the best restaurant in San Diego by the California Restaurant Association.