Will Amante win any awards for design? Probably not, but if you like people-watching it won't disappoint you. Scanning the crowd, my friend Jane and I searched in vain for an easy descriptive (upscale blue-collar meets old North Beach meets thirtysomething young professional?). We saw pressed suits and work shirts, bulky sweaters, jeans, blazers, Hawaiian shirts, baggy shorts, and fashionable tops. Before long, our imaginations were running wild. Perhaps the young couple with the older gent at the next table represented a classic boyfriend-meets-dad scenario? The four guys in casual work duds probably went to high school together and had come to reminisce about old times. Was the older couple down the way trying to rekindle a romantic spark? Was the tall guy in the leather overcoat mobbed up? And was the man in black boots really a motorcycle cop, as his badge suggested, or a card-carrying fetishist I'd run into later that night during a work-related trip to Bondage A Go-Go?
In other words, Amante lures a diverse, fascinating cross section of humanity. Of this, I approve wholeheartedly. The three bartender/owners (all longtime veteran mixologists) have created a social venue unlike anything I've ever seen. Everyone seems to know at least four other people, and free seats are a rarity at the bar proper. Even the smokier barflies among us are taken care of: Gleaming, stainless steel tables out front allow you to puff in style. A true bartenders' bar, Amante eschews the trendy specialty drinks found at many other newbies (most bartenders I know can't stand them). Instead, it presents fine versions of the classics -- a flawless, delicately spicy Bloody Mary, a Manhattan kissed with just enough sweet vermouth -- or one can peruse a 59-bottle wine list ($15 to $125) that includes seven half-bottles and 15 choices by the glass.
Amante also serves food, the least enticing facet of the operation thus far. The prices are right, and a menu of Americana-style small plates reads well. Unfortunately, the kitchen doesn't always have the deftest touch: Some dishes are wonderful or merely in need of a small tweak, but many others are worth ordering only if you don't want to give up your barstool.
I'll start with the highlights. For four bucks, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying bar snack than a cone of crispy, thin-cut french fries served with a side of classic béarnaise sauce, a rich, sultry ambrosia that exudes a haunting note of tarragon. We also adored the fish tacos. Golden, deep-fried fillets arrived moist and juicy over corn tortillas. Shredded cabbage, a dab of salsa fresca, and the sharp flavors of cilantro and lime made for a simple, irresistible nosh.
Baby back ribs, perfectly cooked so that the meat slid off the bones, suffered a bit from an overly sweet barbecue sauce. The same sweetness marred an order of grilled, tequila-marinated chicken skewers over mixed greens. The "spicy-sticky" prawns -- plump, luscious things served with cilantro and orange bell peppers -- were so hellfire hot that only a masochist could finish an entire order. "Cheese and macaroni" (no misprint) was even more disappointing: Tender elbow pasta came blanketed with melted cheese and a thin, greasy sauce that may have contained a half-stick of butter.
Salads and pizzas could easily have carried the menu; instead, they needed the most work. A "warm" spinach salad with bacon, boiled egg, and an acidic vinaigrette arrived at room temperature, if not a few degrees below. The cobb salad, an otherwise tasty mix of ham, deep-fried chicken, bacon, tomato, and creamy blue cheese dressing, came with clumsy cubes of cheddar and wilted lettuce -- the kind of food I'd expect from a cafeteria. Comparing the crust of a margherita pizza to wet cardboard would have insulted the texture of the latter. Still, the essential flavors -- basil and tomato -- were well balanced. A second pizza, topped with rock shrimp, roasted red peppers, and pesto, offered a decent, but by no means superior, crust.
Dessert held the promise of a foray into new territory: Never before had I indulged in a hot fudge sundae in a bar. Sadly, my hopes were dashed when the waitress explained that someone had accidentally unplugged the freezer, eliminating the sundae along with the rest of the dessert menu (sorbet, a root beer float). Oddly enough, she offered the same excuse more than a week later. Either Amante needs a new freezer, or the owners should hang a sign ("No!") near the plug. I had my sundae anyway, gratis due to the mishap. Drippy, semi-liquid vanilla ice cream, topped with fudge sauce, walnuts, and maraschino cherries, served in a cocktail glass -- a bartender's dessert if ever there was one.
I couldn't help but wonder how much thought had gone into the food side of the operation. For example, why not offer a freezer-proof sweet like cheesecake? At present, Amante's cooking feels like an afterthought. Have some fries or fish tacos and enjoy the scene -- or better yet, have dinner elsewhere and come later for a drink.