Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Neighborhood Restaurant

After having spend so much time buried in the world of urban Bay Area fine dining I'd forgotten about what really makes the dining world turn: The Neighborhood Restaurant.

And I don't mean a neighborhood restaurant in the sense that the Chronicle defines it, where any restaurant that won't automatically get people to drive across a bridge is defined as a neighborhood restaurant. Nevermind that these would be among the best restaurants in town in virtually any other city in the country.

I'm talking about the neighborhood restaurant that provides a modest fine-dining experience with a decent wine list and good service for around $20-$30 a person instead of $40-$50.

Restaurants like this are the bastion of the sprawling suburbs. These are restaurants that cut corners in terms of ingredient quality in exchange for excellent prices. A place where the salmon might be wild, sure, but it's also frozen. Or a place that doesn't see the point in serving Niman Ranch pork if it means their sandwich is going to cost four dollars more.

And you know what? These restaurants are beautiful things.

They allow you to have an upscale night out without breaking the bank. I don't care to think about the number of nice dinners I've had wherein the bill for two people has been solidly over $100.

Shouldn't we be able to dine well for $50 or $60? We shouldn't have to go to TGIFriday's or Macaroni Grill (recently lambasted for the amount of sodium in their food, by the way) for an affordable meal out. We should still be able to patronize a quality, locally-owned, neighborhood establishment and not have it be so expensive we can't go back a few times a month.

Unfortunately I think the immediate Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Marin) is so ingredient-obsessed that we don't understand what this really means for prices. One trip to Yelp! will show you so many "overpriced" complaints that you'll shit your pants, or at least really want to.

The first restaurant I worked at in the "gourmet ghetto" area was excellent. We served excellently prepared, flawlessly presented cuisine for extraordinarily reasonable prices. Appetizers were almost all under $10, entrees hovered in the upper teens. The menu changed often and was somewhat exotic. I think at one point we had a dozen different species of animals on our menu, including ostrich and antelope. Unfortunately the chef just didn't "get it" for that community. We served tomatoes out of season. Our lauded french fries were from Smart & Final. Our burgers were premade and basically everything other than produce was frozen. Yet we garnered good reviews and had a busy first wave. But nobody came back, because nobody really cared. We weren't offering what everyone else was offering for only marginally more.

I've come to think that we don't actually think our restaurants are overpriced. It just becomes a kneejerk response to sticker shock. Because the moderately priced restaurants close down and the $50 a person restaurant succeeds.

Except for Maritime East.

But I don't WANT to be stuck with a choice between sub $10 ethnic food and $50 California Cuisine.

Can't I have a nice place to go on a date with a girl I'm not sure I really like yet? I mean, that's not worth $100, is it? I probably won't even get any at the end of that date anyway. I should've taken her to P.F. Chang's.

So that being said, as I kinda mentioned before I spiraled away on this tangent, I ate at two good moderately priced restaurants recently. Both were in suburbia. Well, one was in San Jose, but most of San Jose is a massive suburb.

Did you know the Santa Clara Valley was developed by the same planner who plotted most of Los Angeles' postwar expansion? Explains a lot, no?

First, we have Elements in San Jose's southern Almaden Valley. This place is neighborhood restaurant exemplified. Solid food, solid wine list, great prices. Nothing phenomenal and the service was amateurish (but that weird overly-trained amateurishness), but it was good. My papaya salad had a pile of nicely dressed green papaya topped with a pair of fried prawns. For like, $6. My entree of stuffed pork loin was inexpertly stuffed and slightly overcooked, but it was decent and the price was right (about $17).

Strangely the wine list wasn't quite in line with the food, being priced at a slightly more premium markup with surprisingly few wines in the sub $30 range given the price of the cuisine. Perhaps that plays a role in subsidizing food prices?

Second, I had lunch at Eddie Papa's American Hang-Out in Pleasanton. The elegant interior doesn't match the kitschy theme (American classics from all over the country), and the service is embarrassingly amateurish (but also in that overly trained sense). The food, however, was respectable. My pulled pork sandwich was quite good and decently priced at $9. The admittedly smaller and french fry-less pulled pork sandwich at T-Rex is a good step and a half better for only $2 more. My dad had the halibut fish & chips. Why we keep insisting on deep frying halibut I don't understand, given it's propensity to overcook. The fish was decently prepared but dry and the fries were undercooked and underseasoned.

Okay, so maybe Eddie Papa's wasn't all that great. Nor was it particularly cheap. But the food was okay and prices were okay and the service was okay, and the space was warm and home-y. I appreciated the effort.

I'm hoping that there'll be room for places like this in more "refined" food communities in the Bay Area.

Though first thing we have to do is want it, I suppose.

Elements Restaurant
6944 Almaden Expressway
San Jose, CA 95120
408-927- 8773

Eddie Papa's American Hangout
4889 Hopyard Drive
Pleasanton, Ca 94588

1 comment:

J. Song said...

I very thoroughly enjoyed your post on the neighborhood restaurant. Restaurants that offer a great meal for two--hell, even with a drink and an appetizer thrown in!--are so rare.

In my neighborhood, there are a few places that fit the bill. Two that come to mind are Bistro de la Gare, a French restaurant with terrific ambiance, and Saladang Song, a Thai place made up completely of wrought-iron, cool full-wall windows, and concrete. They both happen to offer decent food and very decent prices.

I especially liked your discussion on first dates. It's usually not advisable to pull out all the stops on first dates--using your definition, a "neighborhood restaurant" is in order. Maybe you could write another post on first date restaurants, relationship restaurants, and 12-year married-with-children restaurants!

(P.S. When were you at Mission Wines?)

Joon S.