By Lorie Hutson

When smoke choked Churchill’s Steakhouse and water drowned the downstairs bar in July 2008, many thought it was the end of the fine dining restaurant.

Even owner and executive chef William Alles mourned, telling a reporter that day he didn’t see how he could possibly rebuild. Calls of comfort came from across the country, as customers watched smoke pouring from the building on network news coverage of the fire.

“Maybe I’m just stubborn,” Alles says now. “But we believe in Spokane and we believe in this market and we believe that Spokane should have a destination steakhouse.”

It took 19 months to restore Churchill’s. The restaurant reopened in March.

Rebuilding gave Alles a chance to change things that had drawn criticism, while preserving those that had received praise.

Among the complaints were that the restaurant was too formal, the dining room grand piano too loud and prices too high. Alles took it all under advisement during the reconstruction.

“I think we rebuilt it with a little more casual feel. It’s still a place for special occasions and a nice dinner, without that East Coast formality,” he says.

He replaced the piano with a sound system, dressed down the dining room as well as the waiters, and lowered prices a bit – really.

In a previous review of the restaurant, steak prices were listed as ranging from $32 to $51. Now, the steaks are $24 for the lowest priced 10-ounce top sirloin up to $49 for a 28-ounce porterhouse or $48 for a 16-ounce bone-in filet mignon.

That’s not because Churchill’s is serving lower-quality meat. It is the same high-quality, prime beef that Alles set out to serve.

“I never heard anyone say that it wasn’t the best steak they’d ever had,” he says.

Simple supply and demand dropped the price of prime beef, Alles says, and he decided to pass along the savings.

The meat is still hand-cut and dry-aged in Churchill’s cooler to concentrate flavor, then seared on a broiler that reaches some 1,800 degrees.

I didn’t dine at Churchill’s before the fire at Dorian Photography Studios damaged the Joel building. Meals there since have been everything one expects for the price – delicious, expertly cooked and beautifully presented.

Bites of the 14-ounce ribeye ($36) were intensely flavored, beefy and luscious. Steaks are served topped with premium compound herbed butter and crispy onions. Garlic mashed potatoes and snap peas were simple, yet worthy accompaniments.

I angled to swipe my dining companion’s tender dinner roll – made locally by Great Harvest Bread Co. – but he wouldn’t relinquish it. Imported Belgian butter completed the unabashed decadence.

The Tournedos of Beef Oscar ($34) featured an incredible combination of tenderloin beef medallions, sweet snow-crab meat, asparagus and silky béarnaise sauce. (See where that extra bit of roll would have been handy?)

The creamed sweet corn gratinée ($7) was surprisingly memorable. We also shared a Caprese salad ($8) on the side, fresh mozzarella and sliced tomato served over tender greens. The aged balsamic syrup and olive oil dressing nearly made up for the not-quite-ripe tomatoes.

The Double Cut Colorado Lamb Chops ($45) are still there for those who are tempted to stray from the signature steaks. Served with a port currant reduction, they were well-received in Spokesman-Review writer Jim Kershner’s previous review.

There are also double cut Berkshire pork chops ($29) and free-range chicken with chevre and herbs de Provence ($26), although I’m not sure why you should stray from the cattle herd.

If you do consider a diversion to the beef, steer straight for the crab cakes ($15). A bit of egg is the only thing binding the sweet crab meat, rather than the traditional bread crumbs and other fillers. They were served with cocktail sauce and a delicious horseradish cream.

I almost forgot to mention dessert, perhaps because the signature Chocolate Sack ($12) left us nearly comatose after our meals.

The name leaves something to be desired, but our waiter’s description made it hard to resist. The sack is stuffed with chocolate and vanilla cake, chocolate mousse, blackberries and topped with whipped cream and a cookie.

Next time, I won’t be lured in by the sack. I’m trying the five layer coconut cake, made by the owner’s wife, Irena Alles.

Here’s the real secret to less expensive Churchill’s dining: the bar.

Head straight downstairs for a menu that has a nice selection of steamed clams, shrimp scampi and steak tips, prime burgers, and fish and chips that are well-priced for the quality of the food (especially if you catch one of the happy hour or Facebook specials).

Some dishes are whipped up by the bartenders on the induction burners on the bar.

A friend and I shared a half dozen Barron Point ($12) oysters on the half shell. They were cold, sweet and tasted like the ocean breeze smells. Don’t miss the house-infused vinegar, with a slightly spicy finish.

Burgers are made from the prime beef trimmings from upstairs. We shared a delicious Caprese burger that was cooked exactly as ordered. It was served on a substantial bun and topped with seared mozzarella, tomato, lettuce and a balsamic drizzle.

The beer-battered fish and chips were tender and served with an impossibly airy, tangy (and addictive) tartar sauce.

Alles says while the upstairs dining room is designed for destination and special occasion diners, he also hopes to attract more spur-of-the-moment eaters.

I know I’ll consider it when I see the $7 burger specials, $1 oysters, $2 braised barbecued beef ribs and $5 steak tips scrolling by on my social media news feed.

Happy hour drink prices – 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays – include beers from $3 to $6, well drinks for $5 and wines by the glass.

Alles says the return of the restaurant has been warmly received by old friends, many of them business travelers, doctors and professionals who make it a point to stop at Churchill’s when they’re in Spokane.

But the best part about reopening was something he didn’t expect – the respect of local diners.

He says many people from the area have come to dine and express their support for rebuilding the steakhouse.

“I think that’s the part that has most amazed me,” Alles says.

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