Al's Steakhouse - Justin Merner
Your grandfather started Al's Steakhouse in 1967 and your family has run it ever since. What is it like to work in a family legacy?
It’s a surreal feeling, one I’m defiantly proud of. My late grandfather opened the business in 1967 in the location we’re in today, 327 Elgin Street, and we’ve been here ever since. On July 24th we’ll be open 52 years which makes Al’s the longest standing restaurant on Elgin Street, and one of the longest standing restaurants in the city of Ottawa.
I think if you would have asked any of my family members if they could of imagined being in business over 50 years back in the 60’s, they would have thought you were crazy. Especially with my grandfather coming to this country with such humble beginnings as a Lebanese immigrant in the 50’s, to having the success he did with the restaurant is nothing short of amazing.
I’ve learned so much from my grandfather and my Uncle Sam, who now runs the business, and I can only hope as the 3rd generation of family to work in restaurant that I can keep it going as long as I can, with the help of my family of course. But to think that in this day and age with all the restaurants in the city, especially the chains and corporately owned restaurants, that a small family like my own, is not only able to keep the doors open for so long, but remain consistent with the products we put out and have line ups after 52 years in business fills me a lot of pride. And to do it with my uncle, mom and aunts makes it even more special and we’re proud to continue with the business and continue to build grandfather’s legacy.
Your steaks are cooked on charcoal - tell us a little bit about the process.
Personally, there’s only one way to cook a steak and that’s with charcoal, the flavour is incomparable. We’ve been cooking with charcoal since day one and we were the only restaurant in Ottawa to do so for 50 years, and one of the few restaurant in the city to use it to this day. When you use charcoal to cook 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 city, and our longevity can attest to that.
“ Our butcher, John, has been with us for over 25 years, he knows his way around a steak. But what’s eye-opening is that our head grill-man, George, has been working for us for over 42 years! “
Most people don't know that your meat is butchered and aged on site. How does this play into providing a quality and consistency?
We take pride that we’ve always butchered our meat on site, which allows us to quality control what is coming in, and what we’re putting out. We breakdown large slabs of ribs, tenderloins, porterhouse and striploins in our butchery, located below the restaurant, and cut, weigh, clean and age everthing on site. It’s an old-school practise that not many restaurant are doing anymore in an ever-changing industry where convenience seems to be more important than quality. And by doing this we think it gives us an advantage over our competitors. The meat comes to the restaurant aged approximately 30 days, and after we break the slabs down into steaks, we’ll continue the aging process to where we feel it gives our diners optimal taste and tenderness. The different cuts we carry have a different sweet spot in the aging process, but no steak hits the grill before 40 days aged. Some steaks we carry will reach a maturity of 60 days aged.
How long has your butcher worked for Al's?
Our butcher, John, has been with us for over 25 years, he knows his way around a steak. But what’s eye-opening is that our head grill-man, George, has been working for us for over 42 years! And if you combine the years of our four main cooks, they have over 110 years combine experience at Al’s. On a busy night with over 50 steaks on the grill at one time, experience is what you need.
What is your favourite steak on the menu?
Without a doubt it would be the 20 oz. bone-in rib steak. That steak is the heart of our reputation, and with the flavor coming off the bone and its high fat content, the steak just melts away in your mouth. If you’re not a fan of fat on your steak, the 10 oz. filet mignon with a side of creamed spinach is a close second.
That garlic sauce is amazing! Where can we get more?
We are known for 3 main things at Al’s; our steaks, our homemade desserts and our famous garlic salad dressing. The dressing was created in 1970 by my grandfather and our chef at the time and it’s been a huge hit ever since, to say the least. Most of our dishes come with a salad included in the price and our customers seem to look forward to their starter salad just as much as their main course- it’s that good. The dressing has often been duplicated, but never replicated. People online have claimed to know the recipe, but they couldn’t be more off, but we applaud the effort. Only 3 people know the recipe and we don’t allow them to fly together (kidding…sort of). We have regulars who stop by the restaurant weekly to pick some up, and out-of-towners who make sure to stop by Al’s to grab a bottle before their flight, train or drive home. We’ve had pictures sent to us of our dressing bottles all over Canada and the United States, it’s pretty neat, especially since you can only purchase it in Ottawa. Up until the mid-90’s, you use to only be able to take some of the dressing home in a glass ketchup or wine bottles, but we’ve come a long way since then. We still bottle and sell the dressing in the restaurant in 1L and 500ml bottles, but it can also be purchased in grocery stores across Ottawa. We have a full list of grocery stores that carry our product on our website. If you haven’t tried it and are a fan of garlic, you need to get your hands on some ASAP.
“My favourite photo on the wall is of my grandfather with Colonel Sanders. Yes, Colonel Sanders from KFC “
You just became a dad and I hear you and your wife have a very large dog. How do you balance all this with work?
Strong coffee, a patient wife, and putting up with a hyper, overweight dog who could use a couple extra walks.
Al's Steakhouse is a destination when celebrities are in Ottawa and you have a wall of photos to prove it. What has been the most exciting visit for you?
My favourite photo on the wall is of my grandfather with Colonel Sanders. Yes, Colonel Sanders from KFC. A lot of people didn’t think the Colonel was a real person so they get a kick out of the picture when they see it. He ate at Al’s in the early 70’s for a week straight when he was opening his KFC chains in the area. The most exciting visit for me personally would have to be a toss-up between Gene Simmons from KISS and Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live. Gene Simmons was just a larger than life personality, he rented out the entire restaurant with wife Shannon Tweed when they were in town a couple years back. I got to sit down with him, have a quick chat and he signed a couple vinyls for me. He was sarcastic, super dry sense of humor but very funny. When asked how he wanted his steak cooked, he said “extra well-done, like the soul of my shoe,” as he pointed to his big black boots. As for Lorne Michaels, I was just a massive Saturday Night Live fan back in the day, and to have the mastermind behind all those famous sketches come into our family’s restaurant and get to meet him was beyond amazing to me.
Elgin Street is a special spot in Ottawa with so many unique businesses. What is your favourite part of being part of the Elgin Street community?
I absolutely love everything about Elgin Street. Not only the restaurants, bars and unique shops you’ll find, but the vibe of the street. It isn’t a hectic, tourist packed area like the Market, which can be fun, but if you’re wise and step away from the hustle and bustle, Elgin is where it’s at. I also love the sense of community amongst the business owners and staff. Everyone knows one another and are happy for other businesses’ doing well for the success of the street. Our staff is usually on Elgin St. on their days off or after their shift, and we have a lot staff from other restaurants along the street that dine with us regularly. Most restaurants, bars and shops on the street are independently owned, so it’s great to support local businesses, especially with the street being under construction for the next little while. As soon as construction is finished, the street will be absolutely beautiful and even more of a destination that it already was for locals and tourists alike.
This question is for the Instagram post, and is the shorter question of #9 - What do you dig about Elgin?
I can say with confidence that within an 850m distance along the street, you have some of the best restaurants, bars, parks and unique shops in the city. I dig the vibe of the street, which will be even more amazing post-construction, and the sense of community amongst the staff and business owners of Elgin.