Cox: Stark's still going strong

''We've created a monster," says Terri Stark, co-owner with her husband, Mark, of Stark's Steak and Seafood restaurant in Santa Rosa.

She was referring to the restaurant's jam-packed bar area, full of adults young and old creating an ear-numbing din as they happily schmoozed and noshed their way through a recent Happy Hour.

Every chair was filled and there was hardly room to lift a cocktail glass in the standing-room-only crowd. Outside, you couldn't find a parking space for several blocks around the place. What accounts for such popularity?

The Starks opened the restaurant right in the teeth of the economic collapse of 2008. To say business was sluggish is an understatement. So the couple instituted a Happy Hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays that featured not only discounted drinks but really good food at really good prices, and announced that the policy would continue until the Dow Jones Industrial Average went back up to 10,000.

We're talking margaritas and martinis for $2.50 on certain days, oysters on the half shell for $1.75 each, prime meatloaf sliders for $1.75, prime rib banh mi for $3.75, and a cheddar-bacon hamburger for $5.

When the Dow hit 10,000 in late 2009, an onslaught of regulars called the restaurant, fearing the prices would rise — but by then it was too late for the Starks. There was no going back.

That's one phenomenal thing about Stark's Steak and Seafood. Another was the eight-ounce, bacon-wrapped Filet Mignon ($46, 4 stars) on a specials list, served back in the blissfully quiet main dining room, with its dark, men's club, fern-bar atmosphere.

This hunk of Certified Angus Beef — that's the meat's brand name — comes from a whole filet that's been dry-aged in-house for 28 days. The meat loses a lot of water during its hang time on the meat hook, so it's denser than fresh beef, but not less tender. Over those weeks, enzymes in the meat break down connective tissue, rendering the meat silky as well as tender. The aging also imparts a unique, nutty flavor.

It would be an insult to overcook such a gorgeous piece of beef. Medium-rare is about right. It will still emerge from the kitchen with a perfect black, charry, salty, peppery, meaty crust that makes this the premier steak in the county.

Our table also tried the 20-ounce bone-in Rib Eye ($41, 3-1/2 stars), also aged 28 days to give it that full flavor, and as good as it was, it couldn't compete with that crusty filet. A container of one of six house-made steak sauces comes with each steak. Our table ordered the house sauce on the side, but didn't use it on the meat (too sweet).

You need a red wine to go with the steak. The first two bottles you bring in are corkage-free ($15 a bottle thereafter), so you may want to raid your wine cellar. Nine reds by the glass include the 2010 Speedy Creek Cab from Knight's Valley for $13 — plus there's a long list of wines by the bottle.

The side dishes, soups and salads are all a la carte. Three tamarind barbecued Wild Prawns ($11, 3-1/2 stars), doused with a cilantro-pepita pesto and set on a tangle of shredded green papaya, make a brilliant flavor combination. Ditto with the six Dungeness crab "Tater Tots" ($13.50, 3-1/2 stars), golf-ball-sized crab fritters served with padron peppers and a ginger-mustard aioli.

Iceberg Lettuce Wedge Salad ($8, 2 stars) with blue cheese dressing and split cherry tomatoes was crunchy, cold mouth fun with a retro beat. But the Creamed Spinach ($7, 1-1/2 stars), usually so good here, was a full-on disappointment. It was so salty you could feel your blood pressure rising just thinking about eating it. Perfect texture, but just a mouthful of salt.

Some may like big, fat, bready Onion Rings ($6, 2 stars), in which case, you'll like these. The menu does warn you by calling them "jumbo." If you like the thin, crunchy-battered, squiggly kind, you'll be disappointed.

For dessert, a Butterscotch Creme Brulee ($8.50, 2-1/2 stars) was a treat, and came with caramel corn.

Be aware that this menu is packed with much else besides steak, including Maine lobster, salmon, ahi tuna, chicken under a brick, burgers, four kinds of mac and cheese, and more. You'll find something to love, for sure.

To sum up: Splurge on the steak, save on the corkage, and stay happy, Santa Rosa.

(Jeff Cox writes a weekly restaurant review column for the Sonoma Living section. You can reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net.)