Off Montgomery St.
Between Jackson and Pacific
14, 2006 | SAN FRANCISCO
So where exactly do you go when you need to take your cool attorney
out for a nice thank you dinner, or you want to spoil your birthday
boy without going to some stuffy restaurant with chintz, or maybe
you just want to reminisce and get into a spendy IPO circa 1998
frame of mind? ~BIX~ will fit like a chanteuse's elbow-length
approaching the restaurant is an experience rich in atmosphere:
you walk down a narrow alley, which in Hollywood would have that
just rained-upon look and some guy in a fedora pulling on a cigarette
out front. Are you about to enter a club, a restaurant, a speakeasy?
It feels like all three. The space manages to strike an impressive
posture, even years after its 1988 opening. It's like a cross
between a cruise ship, a 30's-era jazz supperclub, and a set
from some smoky noir flick. The upstairs mezzanine with spacious
booths is what usually beckons, but for the full experience, you
gotta go a little early so you can park yourself at the long stately
ending up at Bix one night in the mid-90s. I managed to score one
of the plush stools at the packed bar, and in my multi-martini haze
I recall admiring the long, glistening top shelf, the silver urns
filled with expectantly chilling martini glasses atop a mound of
ice, and Armani-suited guys busy choosing cigars from a rather large
wooden box. I'll never forget my late-night indulgence in an order
of bananas Foster while nestled in at the bar. I was there by myself,
so it was my lone guilty drunken pleasure. We all have those perfect
(and sometimes boozy) "by myself moments," and my dessert
that night remains to be a titleholder in my book.
forward to a recent rainy Sunday night, 2006, sans IPO-hootenanny.
I was happy to see at least one gleaming ice-filled urn still sitting
proudly on the bar, and how the sharp service remains on point:
as soon as you sit down, an eagle-eye barkeep will speedily approach,
asking you for your poison of choice. Choose a complicated one,
or at least a classic; this place will do it justice, if not totally
elevate it. Bring on the Sazerac, succumb to a Manhattan, hop into
a Sidecar. Only once you've had a chance to let Bix's clubby atmosphere
sink in a little are you truly ready for your table.
I gotta hand it to the place, they are the masters of the up-sell.
First off, Bruce Hill's approachable menu makes it difficult
to pass up at least one of the hors d'oeuvres, which should
not be confused with a first course. Yup, you're about to
dive into and pay for at least a four-course dinner. Tonight, you
spend, remember? Our white-jacketed waiter was swiftly out of the
up-sell gates, asking if we wanted another cocktail (I was still
enmeshed with my first one), followed by everyone's favorite
question, the still or sparkling question. Hetch Hetchy Reserve
wasn't even offered. Cheeky, that waiter.
he firmly suggested the most popular yet expensive hors d'oeuvre
on the menu, the potato pillows ($14). It went on. Blatant up-sell
on the high-priced entrées, and then the kicker, the vegetable
side dishes. Anyway, sure, bring on the potato pillows. Four of
the little demons show up, topped with crème fraîche
and American sturgeon caviar. A touch greasy, but in a good "go
with your cocktail" kind of way.
first course time. You simply can't turn down the steak tartare
($12.50). Even if you're a vegetarian, be brave. (I'm
not kidding here.) A little cart is wheeled up, and you get some
full on tableside sideshow action. Hand-cut Creekstone Angus beef,
mixed up with the classic accouterments like Dijon mustard, capers,
shallots, and the untraditional interloper, some sriracha. Kicky.
Nice. But here's where the theater kicks in: while assembling
the tartare, the waiter mists it with a little cognac. Yes, with
a little mister. Like a little hair spray mister. And once it's
served it gets misted again. It's hilarious. I asked for some
behind my ears. Waiter was not amused. I mean, hell, he's
trying to uphold some semblance of aplomb here, and he's momentarily
reduced to busting out a little mister. Anyway, it's a nice
portion, good mustardy tang, silky beef—you'll pile
it on to your six crostini, poof, all gone.
note on our server: he was pulling some serious crisp attitude.
Which is fine, it works with the whole white-jacketed slightly-salty
waiter vibe of the place. But if you're going to be getting
all proper and precise with me, then you better back that 'tude
up with some serious service chops. Having to ask for silverware,
twice, not so slick. Forgetting our order of the up-sold creamed
spinach ($7.50) and then providing me with a lame cover-up excuse
after I asked about its whereabouts ("The kitchen wasn't
happy with the first preparation, so they decided to redo it."),
uh, so not slick. If he'd just been a little lighter in his
tableside manner, the missteps wouldn't have felt so glaring.
to the first courses. The trout salad with watercress ($10.50) had
a great balance of flavor: the whole grain mustard vinaigrette played
nicely against the (slightly too soft) beets, walnuts, and hunks
of house-smoked trout. Paired like a champ with a glass of the 2004
Lagar de Cervera Albariño from Rias Baixas, Spain ($9). My
only complaint about das salad is the watercress could benefit from
being served at a smaller size. It's too ungainly to eat at the
big leafy size it's served at. You'll feel like a cow if you don't
cut it all up. Chomp chomp.
now, the mains. Our attorney pal went for the beef-beef double play
and ordered the beef special that night. Here's where the
waiter was wicked: he never quoted us the price. But the receipt
sure did. (Try $42.) My pal's seared albacore tuna with chanterelles,
leeks, and a smattering of sunchoke chips on top ($24) was quite
tasty for those who want a lighter dish. That wouldn't be
me. I wanted to be in love with my short ribs ($26), but they just
didn't quite have the depth of flavor I expected. Really needed
some salt, for starters. I have a friend who swears by their "bavette"
steak, another loves the chicken hash a la Bix, and hey, doncha
wanna try the truffled cheeseburger, just to experience a $26 burger?
dessert. You didn't think I was going to pass up the bananas
Foster ($7.95), did you? Hell no. Nice little hunks of banana that
are topped off in a boozy dark rum bath. Sorry, no tableside flambé.
It sports a perfect bite of sugar you almost feel in your teeth,
which is enough to make most dentists cry. The warm chocolate brioche
bread pudding ($7.75) was a little too ooey-gooey with its dousing
of cloying chocolate sauce that couldn't quite hide the slightly
dry corners. It just felt too reheated to be sensuous.
despite the service bumps, the up-sellings, a few weird late '80s-meets-Deco
reproduction design elements, and a couple menu lowlights, the place
still holds it down for a classic and glamorous experience. Nothing
quite like it in town, really. Owner Doug "Bix" Biederbeck
was visionary with this timeless place. You'll see guys out on the
town happily drinking martinis and eating mini lamb burgers and
steaks, couples in corner booths sharing oysters and bubbles, and
older folks enjoying a swanky Brat Pack night on the town. Live
piano, jazz, and vocals warm it all up. Or is that the bourbon?