Daniel Davison's mantra: "Keep it subtle, keep it sweet, make it swing." So it has been for a decade at Belltown's El Gaucho, where Davison's played the piano since day one, providing background music for the consumption of top-quality steaks and the pomp of tableside salad tossing and bananas Foster igniting. Davison loves his job. He "seeks to be ambiance"; if you want to actually listen, great. "It's not the Dan Davison show," he says. "It's a restaurant."
At El Gaucho's 10th-anniversary party, a stolid crowd lets Davison's music do its work; the syncopated-coconut beat of a rendition of "Beyond the Sea," courtesy of Davison's additional Ensoniq synthesizer ("my little band, my color"), goes unremarked upon. ("Sometimes people don't even realize I'm here," he says without the slightest hint of rue.) The enjoyment level is calm, modulated; those who're accustomed to dropping a Grant for dry-aged Natural Prime Certified Angus Beef® don't get all wound up about an open bar nor a complimentary buffet. Said buffet is underlit, rendering the contents of its trays mere shapes; the candlelight at a table reveals that most of these mysterious morsels are delicious meat. One anomalous, ambitious gentleman—younger than the rest and, in a stroke of fashion forwardness unequalled on the premises, outfitted in white-rimmed eyeglasses—loads up a plate no less than three separate times.
The low visibility at the buffet is par for the course; besides Davison's tickling of the ivories, the primary feature of El Gaucho's ambiance is darkness. You don't so much enter the vast room as you are plunged into it. Waitstaff float about, borne on the currents of patrons' every need; there's the pleasant muffle of a suffusion of wealth, the perfectly maintained temperature, the wave-patterned carpeting. The cumulative effect is like swimming under the cover of a balmy, moonless night, or maybe dreaming about swimming under the cover of a balmy, moonless night.
While the attire of celebrants is marked by, if anything, prosperous uniformity, the ladies' handbags are notable for their ostentation. One is crisscrossed with unmistakably fine leather straps in a sort of oblique S&M manner. Another is encrusted around its buckles and elsewhere with a large quantity of rhinestones (or, possibly, diamonds). The best wears a fluffy, bountiful crown of feather tendrils, which waft back and forth beautifully at the slightest movement of the air; it rests atop the bar exerting its feelers, at least as sentient as a sea anemone.
Some minor additions have been made in observation of the anniversary: mirrors above the bar and the open kitchen (for "dimension"), the lining of the back of a long banquette with the fur of real minks (for irrefutably splendid texture). The art—semi-impressionistic, really rather odd representations of the regulars, owners, barkeeps, chefs, and, notably, Davison in action—remains the same, spotlit tableaux in the luxuriant dim.