The 19th hole
Fairway to heaven: When you're through at the Mission Bay Golf Center, sit down to a salmon sandwich at the Back Burner Roadhouse (no relation).
IF YOU'RE A golfer, just thumb over to Cheap Eats, or perhaps a film review, as there is nothing surprising for you to learn in this month's column of culinary discovery. Back Burner would like to share with you news of the Back Burner Roadhouse (no relation, but you can see why I was curious, right?). For owners of a nine iron, however, this watering hole and lunch locale adjoining the Mission Bay Golf Center is as familiar as spikes and plaid pants. Ditto for the handful of UCSF employees who pop in for their to-go sandwich in that no-man's-land between Potrero Hill and South of Market. For the rest of us, the truth about one of SF's most unusual and underrated diner experiences has yet to be unveiled, cloaked as it is in an expansive mesh of green and screen.
At the intersection of Nowhere and Nothing, amid construction equipment and a freeway overpass, is a restful and surprising oasis that's just a 12-minute walk from civilization. Imagine a fine, relaxing place for a beer or lunch with plentiful parking out front, a mammoth, sunny, 40-plus-person patio where you can always find a seat, and genuine charm that is rare during the lunchtime bustle – kind staff and prompt service serving good food at a fair price.
If you love the kitsch notion of dining in, say, a five-and-dime, then you'll be impressed by the corrugated roof ("It's loud when it rains," the manager assures me) and the crummy mismatched linoleum tile. Between these horizontal planes hangs, from every surface, a cluttered array of the instruments of athletic endeavor – not just the requisite baseball bats and framed images of athletic gods, but also the stuff that T.G.I. Friday's wishes it had the insurance to cover, such as more than one canoe, a rusty classic Schwinn, a giant stuffed fish, stolen road signs, and, in every corner, a TV showing – you guessed it – sports! I am not a sports fan, and I've never golfed anywhere that didn't have a clown's mouth at the end. Yet somehow when these maximalist elements all come together, softened by a large spray of sunlight pouring in through the transparent roof and full, open patio, I am awed. Couple the look with better-than-average burgers, salads, and the like for about eight bucks, and even a sporting ignoramus like myself is ready for a home run or a hole in one. Or something.
Or at least another Cobb salad – which is delicious and ginormous, with enough leaves of fresh spinach to let you pretend you're eating something healthy, succulent chicken, more crisp bacon than anyone should eat at one time, fresh avocado, and the place's own flavorful house-made balsamic dressing. Chez Panisse this ain't – the manager and chef had that deer-in-the-headlights look when I uttered the word "sustainable." But everything is fresh and delivered daily. The burgers are made from ground chuck. The french fries are hand cut, as are the chicken fingers, which are battered and fried in-house. Even the pico de gallo is made in their own tiny kitchen.
But it wasn't always this way. Formerly the Stix Roadhouse from the time it opened about seven years ago until this past March, the space used to be owned by the proprietors of Dos Pinas on Rhode Island Street and the new Café 24 in Mission Bay. Larry Smith and Keith Luce took it over earlier this year, but Luce quickly departed to open his own restaurant in St. Helena. Since Smith, a CPA in San Rafael, assumed full control, little has changed in the look. But under the direction of manager Crista Travaglio, the menu has been freshened considerably and now includes things like mimosas and milkshakes.
Back Burner Roadhouse is just a stone's throw from some of the best restaurants in town, including Bacar, Fringale, and Bizou. But it's easy to forget where you are when the ambience transports you somewhere warmer, where time is slower and beer is colder. But like real estate, there are three important things in the restaurant business: location, location, and location. And this establishment is lacking in all three.
"We're in the middle of a hole," says a frustrated Travaglio, who, tiny and just 24 years old, looks more like she should be getting carded than serving beer. "I'm trying to make the place better all the time," she tells me, pointing out that she's got a lot of improvement projects on the simmer, including live music and DJs, private parties, cheap happy hours, and happy hour snacks, among other things. "It's a good place to chill. It's always sunny." From her casual, laid-back demeanor, I tend to believe her.
Though Travaglio has been concentrating her efforts on getting an after-hours bar crowd to flock here, the lunchtime lineup is the meat and potatoes of the operation. Not surprisingly, it's middle-aged golfers there to work on their swing who account for about 60 to 70 percent of the restaurant's business, Travaglio tells me. Another big chunk are staffers at UCSF's new Mission Bay campus – they receive a 10 percent discount. Roughly a quarter of diners come in every day. "We know what they want the minute they walk in," Travaglio says. And it's easy to see why they return so often. "We b.s. with the customers a lot; we joke around with everyone."
Can you hear the Cheers theme song in the background? Yet Back Burner Roadhouse could already be in its final flickers. The city has decided not to renew the lease on the golf course and instead plans to turn that land over to the emerging UCSF complex. The driving range and the restaurant will probably be gone for good sometime within the next three to five years, and that will be the end too of the prawn tostadas, Jackie Chan salad, and $3 pints.
The hole in one is suddenly the one in the hole. And there's nothing terribly sporting about it.
Back Burner Roadhouse. 1200 Sixth St. (at Channel), SF. (415) 255-1070. Mon.-Tues., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wed.-Fri., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Beer and wine. American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
E-mail Karen Solomon.
Contact Karen Solomon at email@example.com.