by Lauren McAllister

Americans are feeling nervous. There's our antsy president trying to muster national and international support for a war with Iraq, while the North Koreans vie for attention with some real firepower, not to mention the sinking economy and the rainbow of terror alerts. The advisory to gather duct tape and plastic sheeting was reminiscent of '50s-era "duck-and-cover" drills -- ridiculous rituals to create the illusion you'll be able to survive a nightmarish attack.

Still, these troubled times do require coping strategies, and eating heartily seems to be as good as any. There are occasions when complex, nouveau foods that engage all the senses are appropriate. And there are occasions when you just want to eat a lot of good, old-fashioned familiar food. If the latter is what will soothe your frazzled psyche, a trip to Spencer's is in order.

Located at the downtown Spokane Doubletree Hotel, the restaurant has the easygoing but elegant ambience of a private club -- with deep, comfortable booths lining the walls and soft light emanating from low-hung fixtures over the tables. Chef Chet Ortman says the restaurant has served famous patrons, including Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and LL Cool J. To their regular customers, the staff occasionally awards a steak knife -- these tributes are mounted on plaques bearing the customers' names and hung around the restaurant. On the night we visited, we didn't spot any superstars, but live musicians covering "soft hits" added to the friendly atmosphere in the intimate dining room.

We started out with a crab and shrimp cocktail ($10). Three pink prawns accompanied the sweet crabmeat in a big bowl of ice, with lemon, tartar and cocktail sauces. Like most of the food at Spencer's, these top-quality ingredients were on their own, with no fancy presentations or accompaniments. The tartar sauce seemed a bit heavy for the delicate shrimp and crab, but the cocktail sauce had a nice zip that was enhanced by a sprinkle of lemon on the shellfish. A happy take on a classic.

Next came salads. The menu lists a Greek salad ($6.50) and chopped tomato ($6) among others, but we opted for the house salad, which, along with bread, is included in the price of the entrees. The salad was rather underwhelming. Romaine lettuce was tossed with a tart balsamic vinaigrette and garnished with a bit of parmesan cheese. Nothing too exciting here.

The warm, half loaf of bread was a real treat, though. It was crispy on the outside and light and fluffy inside.

The entree menu at Spencer's relies on USDA prime beef, direct from the Chicago stockyards, and there are a number of cuts available. But don't look for fancy preparations and sauces here. The meat is served unadorned -- large slabs on white plates. We opted for the Spencer's steak ($27), a 14-ounce ribeye, and the prime rib (11-ounce, $21; 18-ounce, $27). Our server graciously offered to split each choice so that we could each try both. We ordered both entrees cooked medium, which on the menu was listed as "full bright, pink center." Normally, I order medium rare, but here that was described as "full red, warm center," more rare than I like. Both cuts were more accurately described as "medium well -- lightly pink through the center." The prime rib was somewhat unusual in that the side next to the plate was well done, while the side on top was pink.

At any rate, no matter how it was cooked, the meat was delicious. The salty prime rib was as tender as butter, while the steak showed off the intense flavor made possible by searing in the restaurant's 1,600-degree infra-red broiler. Ortman says the outside of the steak is seared in a minute or less, keeping all those juices inside. You just can't make a steak like that at home.

Beef is not the only option, however. A broiled chicken chop ($20) includes garlic smashed potatoes. There are also lamb ($27) and pork chops ($20) and grilled salmon ($23). If, for some reason, a vegetarian has wandered in, there's even a vegetable pasta ($17) on the menu. The restaurant's halibut parmesan, a special on the night we visited, won best entree at the 2001 Epicurean Delight. (Spencer's also won Epicurean Delight's People's Choice award in 2001 and 2002.)

Side dishes are a la carte at Spencer's, and these can really elevate the total cost of the meal. But they were darn tasty. We enjoyed the red skin Lyonnaise potatoes ($5.25). The red potatoes were quartered, deep fried lightly and sauteed with onions. The sauteed spinach and roasted cherry tomatoes ($5.25) were also delicious, with the fresh spinach sauteed in a bit of garlic just till it wilted, complemented by the warm, sweet tomatoes that exploded with flavor when popped in your mouth. Most of the other accompaniments are familiar -- garlic mashed potatoes, fried onion curls, green vegetables with Hollandaise and an Idaho baked potato. All will set you back $5-$6. The good news is that each dish provides at least two servings.

For dessert, we had to have the strawberry shortcake ($6.25). This has to be one of the best dessert values in town. It is huge -- your mom serves vegetables at Thanksgiving in a bowl this size. Lots of nice fresh, ripe strawberries are tossed in a strawberry syrup and surround a towering shortcake, filled with rich vanilla ice cream between the layers and topped with a mound of real whipped cream. The shortcake itself was a bit heavy and dry, but all in all, this dessert is a winner.

Service was pleasant and well-informed, although our water glasses were allowed to remain empty at times.

Spencer's menu is somewhat of a throwback to "simpler" times, with classics -- Hollandaise sauce! -- that sound as if they're out of a 1950s cookbook. But there are some things that don't need improving. These dishes are classics for a reason. So while you may not experience fusion cuisine, or sigh over complex blends of exotic flavors here, you will almost certainly find that for top-quality, straight-ahead food in no-nonsense preparations, you can't do better than Spencer's.

Publication date: 03/06/03

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