We’ve watched Sonny Williams mature over the past seven years, from trying to find its feet as a prime steakhouse in the River Market district to today offering a high-quality dining experience one would expect in the biggest cities.
Sonny has hit his stride, you could say. A dining experience at Sonny Williams’ Steak House shouldn’t just be for the corporate set with the company card; it’s one simply not to be missed if you’re out for a great steak in Little Rock. That was the case the recent Saturday night we visited, where prom dates, three-generation families, couples, and large groups packed the place.
The interior has changed in the past couple of years; a side porch is now enclosed, the room painted red and more bright than the rest of the restaurant, which has subtle lighting and a wood-and-dark-leather feel. The tables and chairs, as well as the bar, are representative now of a Vegas-style steakhouse.
We’ve examined the full array of menu items in the early days, and we revisited Sonny’s a couple of years ago bent on trying some of the seafood, which we found had taken a huge leap forward. This time we focused solely on red meat. After all, “Steak House” is in the name. It’s about steaks. Eight of us on a recent night were in the mood for red meat, and Sonny’s is where we headed.
One of our sources had recommended the bone-in Cowboy rib-eye steak, and our attentive and well-versed waiter did not shy from that suggestion as well. Rare is the steakhouse in this area that a rib-eye is going to outmuscle the filet in demand, but at Sonny’s you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you only go with the filet when you’re wanting great texture and taste.
The bone-in and the aging of the Omaha Angus beef, of course, are the tricks here, as you get a rib-eye with marbling more like a filet; you’re not going to leave a lot of fat cut away from the meat with this baby. Plus, it takes up most of your plate. You’re paying $38 for steak, so you’re going to get more than a few forkfuls.
Now, while we sampled a bite of the filet from a plate next to us — being eaten by a filet-loving diner who proclaimed it “magnificent” — it marked the first time we could recall that a piece of filet didn’t make us swoon. That’s because the rib-eye we were eating was simply that good. Rest assured, though, that the filet eaters at the table were quite happy too.
Around our table, we had rib-eyes blackened (an extra $1.95), and filets of various weight served plain — even one cooked medium well (oh, the horror) and others done medium-rare to medium and presented Oscar style, with crabmeat on top (an additional $8.95 added to the $24.95 petite, the $33.95 10-ounce and $37.95 12-ounce filets).
When Sonny’s first opened, side dishes were ordered separately, a la Ruth’s Chris and those types of places. Now, your $35 or so gets you a large hunk of meat, a variety of potato, and the chef’s vegetable choice of the night, which this busy evening at Sonny’s was grilled green beans.
The garlic mashed potatoes were good, not to-die-for great, but complemented our rib-eye and the plateful of juices nicely. Some in our party found the au gratin potatoes very good, while others rated them average. We could have eaten a plateful of the grilled greens if only we’d had the appetite left.
We’d started mostly with salads around the table, though one diner was tempted by the crab bisque and found it sensational, with a plenty of crab and flavor and a thick broth.
As for salads, Sonny’s may have the best Caesar in Little Rock. The dressing is the perfect Caesar Cardini mixture, lightly bathing the romaine, and the salad takes up a huge bowl, with liberal topping of parmesan cheese and a few bite-size croutons. The dressing, where so many try and fail around here, is where this salad succeeds, and the size of the serving is enough for a meal when salad is your only goal.
The spinach salad with a vinaigrette was flavored nicely with bacon and was not too oily.
Fresh bread starts the meal, and your wait staff is generally quick to have drinks to the table. Don’t consider it unfortunate, though, if you have to wait for a table; a few minutes at the cozy bar, a drink or glass of wine in hand and with a good piano player offering up favorites in the corner closest to the street, helps the time pass quickly.
Sonny’s wine list was recognized by Wine Spectator in 2005 for its selections. There are lower-priced favorites on a short list by the glass and half-bottles, and then there’s the “I’ve got the company charge card, guys, let’s drink” bottles and proprietor’s selections, including the Grand Vin de Chateau Latour, Pauillac ’96 (it’s $650; no, we didn’t order that one).
When we asked our waiter for a cabernet selection to complement the rib-eye, he immediately suggested the Alexander Valley Vineyards ’03 ($7.50 a glass) when he could have as easily dropped an $11 cab number on us. The Alexander, as it turned out, was the perfect match.
Some of these major steak houses brag on their desserts. Sonny’s menu selections didn’t bowl us over, but we decided to send around our table a slice of Key Lime cheesecake and a white chocolate brownie with Oreo pecan crust and strawberry ice cream. They were excellent.
Sonny Williams’ Steak Room
500 President Clinton Ave., Suite 100
When you order a salad, expect a serious salad, enough for nearly a meal itself. And don’t miss the crab bisque.
5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Piano bar hours: 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7 p.m. to close Friday and Saturday.
Expensive. Free valet parking. Reservations accepted for parties of five or more. All major credit cards and local business checks accepted. Full bar with piano music.