Believe it or not, I'd rather have a great dinner and write a rave review than the opposite. Nobody ever goes out to try to find a bad meal. But when bad meals happen at hot new places, I'll sometimes return hoping for better, once the restaurant has had time to mend its ways. When Paul Reidinger reviewed the new Beach Chalet some 18 months ago, it was serving Hoppy Meals -- many dishes, he reported, were sauced to their detriment with the house-made brews. Hearing that the kitchen has since gone the 12-step route, and with forecasters predicting that beach weather will arrive any day now (yeah, sure), I thought the spot worth a revisit.
On a Friday night, Dave and TJ and I loitered before we went into the restaurant proper, studying the marvelous Depression Era murals on the Beach Chalet's first floor. We eventually ascended to the huge upstairs dining room -- and nearly got "pied" by a waitress laden with a trayful of gooey desserts bursting vigorously from the door of the cramped kitchen, which intersects with entering patrons' route to the reception desk. After the near-collision, we cautiously advanced toward the hostess, who handed us a beeper. Dave affixed it to his belt; some 12 minutes later, he jumped up exclaiming, "I'm vibrating!" and we were seated.
Our table afforded a great view of the Great Highway, but more riveting were the exotic sound effects produced by our near neighbors attempting conversation over the clatter of a zillion pieces of cutlery, loud ambient music, and the penetrating mating calls of the singles at the bar. A tall blonde was cawing like a crow, a female threesome were whooping goosily, and a slim, chic brunette arriving on her escort's arm communicated in sea-gull squawks.
"How foul! Circe turned men into pigs -- does Beach Chalet turn women into birds?" I shrieked. "Obviously the management wants it loud," Dave croaked, en route to laryngitis. "Look around -- nearly everyone is younger than 30, and the rest are over 60." While I can't judge the effectiveness of the bar's singles scene, it appears unlikely that Valencia or Lower Haight die-hards will encounter their counterparts there.
Our server (and the beverage prices) encouraged us to order one of the half-dozen house-made ales of various colors and compositions ($2.75/$3.50/$12.50). TJ tried a pale and a medium, and found both of them heavy-tasting and overpotent -- but then his tastes run to Pilsner Urquell, Kirin, and similar light quaffs. Hops-haters can settle for weak, sweet cocktails (like the icky margarita I tried) or marginal affordable wines by the glass or bottle (flaccid Clos de Bois chardonnay, harsh Vichon merlot, greasy kids' stuff white zin). Better choices are available by the bottle only, at a stag's leap in price ($34 to $40 will indeed buy a Stag's Leap chard, a Guenoc cab, a David Bruce pinot noir, etc.).
Half our appetizers made passable grazing. Superthin red-onion rings bore a light, slightly greasy buttermilk batter ($4.50) that we all enjoyed, feeling sinful. A rock shrimp quesadilla ($7.50) with fresh tomato salsa was pleasing, although the mushy black beans alongside were one-dimensionally dosed with cumin. Achiote chicken wings ($6) had skinless, spice-rubbed baked drumettes, simultaneously spicy-hot and piping-hot on a bed of wilting radicchio. Dave and TJ loved them, I found their flavors crude, but we all three shuddered at the accompanying dip, which resembled thin yogurt sweetened with melted lemon Life Savers. Steamed mussels in tomato-herb broth ($6.75) were wholly insipid. "I'm sure the mussels and sauce were cooked separately and only just met," said Dave. "There's no mussel juice in the sauce, no sauce flavor in the mussels." Carboniferous slabs of grill-blackened garlic toast came alongside for sopping the juices, if one dared.
For entrees, we skipped the likely safest choice, a huge half-pound Niman-Schell chuckburger ($8.95). Instead, we gambled on the lone brew-based dish remaining on the dinner menu, seafood mixed fry ($14.75). Its prawns, scallops, and mussels were tender but buried in heavy, bitter beer batter, as were their buddies, a heap of bagel-sized onion rings. Some sticky "housemade Creole mustard" thickened with honey served as dip. A tasteless sea bass fillet ($15) of a quality too mediocre for steaming was steamed anyway and emerged utterly flavor-free. It floated over firm thin strands of capellini in a reticent ginger broth garnished with julienned carrots and tough Asian greens, substituting for the pea shoots the menu promised. Our favorite entree was a double-thick pork chop ($16.50) cooked nicely pink with a baconlike smoky glaze, alongside moist pumpkin corn bread and sugar snap peas with all their snap cooked out.
When a live jazz band came on at the bar it made no dent in the din. All around us slim sylphs were eating like birds -- that is, gobbling scary-looking peanut-butter-brittle sundaes. Our shared banana cream pie ($6) proved a large, tasteless sub-Sara Lee concoction resembling some off-brand at the 7-Eleven. Our coffee and espresso were so remarkably wretched, it's lucky we were sober enough to abandon them after a sip.
A late weekday lunch found quite a different crowd. TJ and I arrived at 3 p.m., start of the happy hour, when pints run $2 and pitchers are $7. The bar was already well-populated, but replacing the nocturnal mating avians were small basking pods of mature subalpha bachelors, with physiques resembling albino elephant seals in gimme caps. In the absence of females of their species, no dominance scuffles occurred, but individuals would periodically rear up, face the dining room, and puff out chests and bellies in random masculine displays. The dining room itself, with a mere handful of tables occupied, was peaceful until a pair of bellowing silverbacks waddled over from the bar and flopped at the nearest table. A breathless young waitress mildly remonstrated that they should have gone to the hostess desk first, but they barked something in her ear (maybe, "We're too drunk to walk to our truck") and stayed put, evidently loath to experiment again with vertical locomotion.
I ordered a house-made boudin blanc sandwich ($7.50), hoping for sausage resembling the sloppy, irresistible Louisiana boudins (rice and spice) made by every mom and pop Cajun grocery south of Lafayette. Lacking that, I'd have been happy to settle for French-style boudin (firm, juicy, and herb-strewn). But the Chalet's sausage tasted only like sawdust -- juiceless, flavorless, faintly stale. It came on a long hard roll nicely dressed with roasted red pepper dice and crisp, tangy sauerkraut (more like coleslaw) made with the house porter.
TJ tried the roast pork loin sandwich ($8.50). It came on white peasant bread, which has a lot more character than po' white trash bread, but the dry pork had no character at all, and its glaze of house barbecue sauce proved wimpy and skimpy. There was a little melted fontina cheese on top, and a scattering of outmanned and outgunned green onion sprouts.
"They don't overuse their beers in their cooking sauces anymore," I said, "but most of what we've eaten here tasted like nothing at all." "It's something they really must have worked at," said TJ. "Like that computer-magazine editor you used to write for, the one who'd take out all your jokes -- the chef has probably spent years learning to remove all the flavor from the food." One can't help suspecting that the kitchen's serving savor-dead food for ale-deadened palates, mere bulk to go with the beers. The place is a mad success anyway, a full-out scene. People go to the Beach Chalet for many reasons -- to socialize, to celebrate, to kick back and vegetate -- but I doubt that fine cuisine is one of them.