Puttin' on the Ritz

The Terrace at the Ritz-Carlton
600 Stockton (at California), 296-7465. "Seafood Celebration": Fridays 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. through Sept. 12. Paid hotel parking; on-street difficult. Muni California Street cable car, bus lines 1, 30, 45. Reservations recommended. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible.

I'd been working too hard for too long, looking at the insides of too many cheap dives, getting around in a dented heap built the year Bogie died. I needed a drink, I needed a lot of health insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. I also needed a smaller car, a bigger dishwasher, and a newer freezer. What I had was a hat, a coat, and a gun. Scratch the gun; Philip Marlowe had one thing I didn't have. I told my cat "Farewell, my lovely," put on my hat and coat, and caught the Muni to the Ritz.

Of the list of needs, the need I needed most was a vacation, but I didn't have the time or the money. Then I heard that the Terrace at the Ritz-Carlton was holding a "Seafood Celebration" every Friday evening. They'd feed you all the seafood you could eat for $42 if you were an adult, $25 if you weren't, free if you were under 5. Not cheap once you hit kindergarten, but a bargain anyway. When I called to reserve, the lady asked me if I was coming to celebrate something. "Yeah, seafood," I said. I already knew what the food would be like, but this time I didn't want any surprises. I wanted to get the hell away, and the Ritz was as far away as I could get.

The Ritz sits in a massive converted high school atop the Stockton Tunnel. The best and worst thing about first-class hotels is that they all exist in a single plane -- call it the Comfort Zone, as free from geographic coordinates as from the meanness of daily life. Their architecture and decor may differ, but once you step through their doors, only the prevailing language of the lobby tells you whether you're in San Francisco, Sao Paulo, or Singapore. Hard and serious travelers may scorn them as the insulated hide-outs of moneyed folks seeking future conversation fare rather than alien realities. But at some weary midpoint of the journey, reverse snobbery falters, and the nationless pleasure dome starts to look like a refuge from the exotic exigencies of your Pension Rosita, your Hotel Patel. Even if you can't afford a room, the luxury of the lounges and loos, the familiar detached competence of the dining rooms, still provide a break as you slog from one culture shock to the next -- a getaway from your getaway.

We found our way to the elevators and discovered that we hadn't gotten in on the ground floor. The lobby is on four, the Terrace Room is on two. We descended and wandered until we found the Courtyard, an urban garden protected on three sides by the hotel and on the fourth by a low windbreak. It was a moist, warm San Francisco night, but as we ambled past the lighted fountain, it felt like a warm, moist night somewhere else. A dressy party was just starting, identified by a standing card as the American Society of Hypertension. Given the ambience, I didn't think I'd catch it.

We entered the Terrace Room and were seated side by side on a cozy banquette. The walls are pale green, decorated with tasteful sconces and portraits of other people's ancestors. An aging piano player discreetly plinked out pop standards. Our fellow diners were only slightly dressed up, the men's sport jackets hanging on the backs of their chairs, the women in neat pantsuits, the blondes in tight new face lifts. The menu offers a la carte items, but with the prix fixe Seafood Celebration you can indulge in buffet starters, cheeses, and sweets besides your choice of a main-course fish. You can have your fish grilled, sauteed, or steamed; sauced with beurre blanc, chermoula, or salsa; served with rice pilaf, porcini pasta, or au gratin potatoes. After requesting the wine list from a smiling busboy speeding by, I discovered that the mediocre preprandial chardonnay I was sipping had already set us back $8.50. Bottles were more than triple retail. I settled on a tenth, a decent Joseph Phelps chard for $19. TJ stuck with tap Anchor Steam at $5 a pop.

A familiar-looking face, with round brown eyes and a thick brown mustache, was presiding over the appetizers at the white-tented chef station. I was sure I'd seen him before somewhere. His name is Ron Baldwin, the waitress told me, a roaming free-lance chef. I still couldn't place him. Maybe he was the next guy on the pier last Fourth of July. He was friendly and proud of his food, offering Manila clams and mussels mariniere, fresh pasta, and a "San Francisco chowder" made with tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and shellfish, no cream. There were plenty of chilled selections, too. Over time we tried some of everything, except the three green salads. We could eat salad at home.

Returning to our table we discovered that the energetic red-haired busboy (resembling a swift and rufous young Jean Gabin) had plumped and refolded the pink linen napkins we'd left crumpled on the table. We decided he must be a management trainee rotating through the hotel jobs. We tasted our buffet bounty. The chowder was low in salt but, once we salted it, came alive. The chilled prawns and Alaskan king crab legs were about normal for a hotel buffet, well-cooked but lacking some indefinable vividness. The Malpeque oysters with their skimpy gray meat were just OK. The mosaic vegetable pátes were pretty but bland, like most of their ilk. But the pasta, herbed fettuccine with nuggets of rock shrimp, was fresh-flavored and delightful. Mussels mariniere were tender and juicy, in a good sauce, although the tiny Manila clams were, inevitably, tough.

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