Montreal is known for some iconic steakhouses, such as Moishes (soon to reopen), Rib ‘N Reef and Gibbys. On my most recent trip to Ottawa, I got to experience the legendary Al’s Steakhouse.
Located on Elgin Street, Al’s was established in 1967 by Halim “Al” Saikali and to this day remains in the same family, operated by his son Sam, daughters Jane, Gloria, and Barbara, and grandson Justin Merner. Al originally came to Canada as a Lebanese immigrant in the 50s. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Al’s has ample free parking, can host over 100 diners in private events, and features a menu that will satisfy all tastes.
Al passed away a few years ago, leaving quite a legacy. “Before he opened this restaurant my grandfather actually spent time as a dishwasher at some Montreal steakhouses such as Joe’s to really learn the business,” said Merner, who is one of the managers.
Al’s became the first and only restaurant in Ottawa to cook its beef on live charcoal, giving steaks their distinctive signature taste. Merner notes that when you use charcoal for cooking a steak, you can sear the meat with heat exceeding 1300° F, which will develop a natural crust on the meat and lock in all the flavor, then you move the steak to a cooler part of the grill until it’s cooked to your preferred doneness. “With the natural flavour of the charcoal, our salt blend we add to all steaks and a touch of drawn butter, there’s no better steak in the city, and our longevity can attest to that,” he says.
Make sure to sample Al’s garlic salad dressing, included on a starter salad with most meals. This is so popular that it is bottled and sold in-house and in grocery stores throughout the city. The dressing was created in 1970 by Al himself and their chef at the time. “Back in the day we’d send it home in wine or Perrier bottles,” Merner explained.
The restaurant seats 130 inside, 80 in a private banquet room and 80 on the beautiful outdoor patio overlooking a park, where we enjoyed our meal. “COVID was a blessing where that is concerned,” Merner says. “We never had a patio before that and it has become so popular.”
During the pandemic shutdowns, Al’s pivoted to take-out and delivery quite successfully and that format remains in place.
Let me just say that we enjoyed an extraordinary feast at Al’s, with Merner providing all of the recommendations necessary to make this the perfect meal. We began with some drinks, purple hazes for the ladies and a grapefruit & pineapple mule mocktail for myself.
The menu has a wide array of appetizers. I started off with a piping hot bowl of chicken noodle soup. Some freshly baked rolls, with soft butter, arrived at the table. Then the sharing began: Escargots au Gratin, with in-house garlic butter; a dozen outstanding P.E.I. oysters with different sauces (we liked the nice-sized container of mignonette, complete with a convenient dropper); a burrata salad for two, including heirloom tomatoes, EVOO, house balsamic, fresh basil, Maldon sea salt and crispy pieces of French bread; and tuna tartare, served with avocado, pickled radish, Asian dressing and crispy wontons.
Indeed, the meal could have been over at this point. However, the best was yet to come. After all, this is a steakhouse. The ladies shared a 14-inch rib steak, cooked to perfection and already sliced, with a side of mashed potatoes. I chose the 12-ounce New York strip, which was to die for. On the side, I ordered some garlic rice.
The meat at Al’s is butchered on-site, breaking down large slabs of ribs, tenderloins, porterhouse and striploin. Merner says the meat comes to the restaurant aged approximately 30 days, and after they break the slabs down into steaks, they will continue the aging process to where they feel it gives diners optimal taste and tenderness. No steak hits the grill before 40 days is aged.
Had we not enjoyed so many appetizers, we might have shared the 50-ounce tomahawk steak. Also for sharing, there is also the Butcher’s Board. It contains thick-cut bacon, a sliced 16-ounce New York striploin, lamb chops, bone marrow, chicken kabobs, house sausage, jumbo garlic shrimp, vegetable skewer and crispy smashed potatoes. Merner lists the 20 oz. bone-in rib steak and the 10 oz. filet mignon as house favorites. On the seafood side, you can order lobster tail, garlic shrimp, sea scallops, salmon filet, Chilean sea bass and Pacific cod.
And yes, we saved just enough room for some of their homemade desserts. The 24 k chocolate cake was sold out, but we had no complaints about sharing the lemon tart and the coconut cream pie
Not surprisingly, Al’s has attracted a lot of celebrities over the years. You just have to look at their Wall of Fame and see the likes of the legendary Colonel Sanders, Gene Simmons from the rock group KISS, and multiple politicians and players from the Ottawa Senators. “We will often stay open late just for them after a game,” Merner said.
Will Al’s ever expand? “We had a second location for over 40 years,” Merner said, “but this being a family business we decided to focus on our one on Elgin. Yes, we get approached by franchises all of the time. But I do not think that will ever happen.”
The rear entrance from the parking lot is fully handicapped accessible, as are the seasonal patio and the washrooms. Customers with mobility issues can enter the lot for curbside pickup, never getting out of their vehicle.