The Top Steak House, Still on Top at 60

Kristen Schmidt
Sonia Modes has played piano at The Top since 1965.

The Top, "your house for steaks," as the menu boasts, opened in April 1955 and has wisely resisted the onslaught of dining trends that have come and gone in the ensuing years. With the exception of prices and a couple of tweaks here and there (let this be my lobbying cry to resurrect relish trays), it is essentially and, truly, in essence, the same as it was when it opened. It is the last of the great restaurants of its era-the Kahiki, the Wine Cellar, the Clarmont-still standing.

And, boy, do they pack 'em in. On a recent weeknight, with pianist Sonia Modes' Cadillac parked in a spot marked "No Parking Reserved for Sonia," not a single table was available in the dining room. Diners squeezed into their seats, wiggling out of fur coats, slipping past servers' precarious stacks of plates, blinking to adjust to the near-darkness. New-fangled restaurants covet such a scene on a Saturday night, much less a Tuesday.

The smoke has cleared, and a filet mignon no longer costs $4.85. But time and history linger, nearly palpable. We tracked down some of the people who know The Top best and asked them to share their favorite stories from the old days. ?

Sonia Modes has held court at The Top's piano bar since 1965. Find her there on Tuesday and Saturday nights.

Don Buzzelli was the maître d' at The Top-he was a handsome, tall Italian man. I tell you, he was a legend. He was debonair. He was there 30 years. You ask anybody who's been a customer of The Top, and they'll tell you he was the man. He was very outgoing, and oh, did he have a voice. Many times, I would get him up to sing with me.

One night Bob Hope came in-this is way back. He stood in front of the piano, and he said, "You belong in Hollywood."

People tell me I'm a legend there. People?used to say, "You watch-Sonia's going to start playing my song." I had an index in my head of everyone's songs.

My favorite, favorite song in the whole world, "Two for the Road," is from an Audrey Hepburn movie, and, oh, I could just play it over and over.

The Top gets in your blood, and especially once you are in that kind of business, it gets in your blood and nothing else will do.

One time at The Top, this girl Jennifer came in. She liked to sing. She was tall. And a tall, handsome man was standing against the wall. He was with an older lady on one side and a younger lady on the other side. With my finger-you know how you say, "Come here?" He said, "I don't sing." And I said, "Are you married? Are you dating?" It was then or never, and it worked. They're happily married. I just have a sixth sense.

Carol Buzzelli Brann was married for 23 years to Don Buzzelli, The Top's late, legendary maître d'. They met during World War II-she was a USO entertainer, and he was in the Army-and married in 1947. She lives in Naples, Florida, now.

He was 91 when he passed away in 2007. After we left the funeral, we went over to The Top. He was quite a thing in Columbus.

The chef, Robert Cherry, was great. He lived a long time before he ever had any gray hair. I'd go in there with the kids, and he'd always make them something fancy. He treated us like royalty.

Red Skelton went in there one night. He put a napkin over his arm and was going around acting like a waiter. Anybody who was anybody went to The Top Steak House. I'll say to people, "Did you ever know Don Buzzelli?" "Oh, yeah. We knew Don," they'll say.

Monica Day, NBC4's traffic and entertainment reporter and a former Miss Ohio, is a granddaughter of Bill Sapp (he still lives in Columbus), who founded The Top with Lee Henry (who lives out of state). Day grew up going to the restaurant and got her first job there.

I spent so much time there growing up. On New Year's Eve, I would help pass out noisemakers. Every year, I got a new party dress. I just thought it was the coolest place, and I'm obsessed with my grandfather, so it was the greatest. I learned to sing at the piano bar. Sonia Modes used to say, "I'm going to find you a guy." She didn't matchmake my husband and me, but she'd approve.

Everybody knew my grandfather. A lot of people in Columbus had a lot of respect for him because he's a straight shooter. If Les Wexner came in, he's going to wait for a table. If Mayor Lashutka came in, he's going to wait for a table. People respected that in him. There would be nights when we'd be in there, and my grandfather would have some wine. They would be shutting down the restaurant, and they'd play "Yellow Bird," and he'd sing along with it.

Working coat check when you're a kid-that's the greatest job ever. They feed you. A lot of ladies would have fur coats-you'd get five bucks for those. I usually made $100 a night working the coat room as a 13-year-old. I worked there off and on until I was old enough to get a job somewhere else.

My grandfather loves Charo, and she was in the restaurant one night. Probably a lot of 11- or 12-year-olds don't know who Charo is, but because of my grandfather's love of her, I was totally awestruck.

People would want to see [chef Robert Cherry]. They knew what nights he was working. He was just as much a part of that place as anybody else. There were things that he would make special for people. He was a real gem, and he was the kind of person who anybody would want working for them and running their kitchen. People were so particular the way they cooked their steak, and he was flawless.

Doral Chenoweth, aka The Grumpy Gourmet, was the restaurant critic at The Columbus Dispatch for 20 years. His first and last reviews were of The Top, and both were glowing. He likes to quip second-hand smoke was invented at The Top, and he relishes telling stories about the Whitehall detective agency that would start investigations into possible straying spouses at the restaurant, which had a well-earned reputation as a spot for illicit rendezvous.

In 1986, John Mariani-he wrote for Playboy, Bloomberg, GQ, and he's still living-called me one day and said he was going to do a book-the name of it was "Mariani's Coast to Coast Dining Guide"-with America's best critics, 1,500 of the best meals you can get in 50 cities. He had been in all of these cities, and he had a favorite in each one, but he wanted to make a gingerly approach. He asked, "Would I consider The Top?" And I said, "Well, hell, if you want one of the top, top ones in the city." That was the first national publicity that The Top had.

It was always a filet and baker for me. They were famous, more famous, for their prime rib, which was thick and juicy. It was just excellent. By my standards, The Top was near perfect, and it still resonates in my memory. It was the ultimate steakhouse.

It's been 60 years for The Top, but the mere fact that it stayed 20-plus years … I just didn't know how to end [my run at The Dispatch] rather than to go back to The Top. Very few restaurant critics would have the opportunity to go back to their first restaurant.