BELLINGHAM - Dirty Dan's Steakhouse has been around forever, which means "since before I moved to Bellingham in 1980."
But as of 2012, the Fairhaven dining landmark has evolved far beyond the humdrum steak-potato-salad bar format that we old-timers remember with - well, what is the opposite of nostalgia?
The interior hasn't changed much over the years: Subdued lighting, warm wood paneling, red brick, and brass rails provide a reasonable approximation of 19th century elegance inside a real 19th century building.
The food on the plates can stand comparison with what you expect in other expensive Bellingham restaurants. In fact, the quality of the food may beat what I've had recently in some of our city's equally expensive eateries. Perhaps the kitchen staff at Dirty Dan's is trying a bit harder, since they can't rely on a view to attract repeat business.
Our meal got off to an auspicious start with an appetizer of crab cakes, $14.95, perfectly cooked with a golden crust and lovely herbal accents to complement the fresh, subtle flavor of the Dungeness crab. It came with a ginger lime aioli.
Then it was on to roasted beet salad, featuring warm, tender shredded beets on a bed of crispy baby greens, topped with a generous helping of crumbled bleu cheese and balsamic dressing. I'm not a salad person. To me, salad is something healthy that you can do while waiting for real food; but this was a delicious treat.
For main courses we chose fried Samish Bay oysters, $20.95, and baby back ribs, $26.95, with house-made bourbon barbecue sauce. Both lived up to the expectations raised by the introductory courses.
The oyster plate was a surprisingly generous serving of six big oysters. I know some squeamish folk prefer teensy-weensy oysters, but the big meaty ones can be wonderful when encased in golden, crispy panko-style crust, as these were. The accompanying sauce-a traditional tomato-and-horseradish approach-was also noteworthy for its fresh and intense flavor. Definitely not the stuff I'm used to getting from a bottle.
The ribs also were served in a hearty portion, with slow-cooked meat falling off the bones. The sauce on the ribs was also traditional but also first-rate, providing a sweet and lively complement to the smoky pork.
Both dishes were accompanied by a worthy scoop of garlic-mashed red potatoes - creamy and tasty. Well-executed side dishes are a welcome indication that a restaurant is not taking anything or anyone for granted.
Our dessert of blueberry-rhubarb-apple pie was a sweet coda to a delightful and indulgent evening at the table.
In my experience, Bellingham's restaurant industry has matured to the point where really bad meals are rare. At the same time, really good meals aren't nearly common enough, especially in this price range.
Dirty Dan's seems to be capable of delivering those really good meals and, as a result, the place was bustling on a weekday evening.
DIRTY DAN'S STEAKHOUSE
Address: 1211 11th St., Fairhaven
Hours: Opens 5 p.m. daily
Entrée price range: $20 to $40
Reach JOHN STARK at email@example.com or call 715-2274.