Like the classic Nintendo game Castlevania, some eateries change drastically between day and night. This is a particular risk at places inside hotels, which opt out of lunch service and therefore frequently close for long stretches during the day. Phlox Commons, inside the Tendernob’s Hotel Carlton, is such a place — but unlike a medusa-filled 1980s re-creation of Dracula’s castle, it’s unpleasant during the morning and quite nice by night.
Let’s dispense with the bad half, but first, a note on the decor. The rectangular Phlox is a somewhat unusual room in that every table can be seen from every other table. Utilitarian though that layout is, it looks like design by (hipster) committee: The ceiling fixtures feel like the Palm Springs Ace Hotel and the wallpaper is some kind of abstract representation, either a bird’s-eye view of a round tray of oysters or else a slice of citrus with fat seeds. The bar is walled with white tile (natch!) and has a sign reading, “DRINK,” which is as subtle as the propaganda in They Live. A bank of windows faces an air shaft, so most of the natural light comes from skylights, and if you’re there at twilight, the overall cast can be thrillingly ominous (Castlevania again). The wooden floors are old and a little warped, which is charming, and there are mirrors to give the space depth. The name feels randomly generated: What phlox, exactly? But in all, it’s not bad.
Still, the tables are cheap-looking oak. (I can see why someone opted for a wood on the blonder side, to keep things from being too dark, especially during the a.m. rush. But birch would do.) Dressed for breakfast, they have S&P shakers and sugar caddies, plus crepe-paper-thin, dollar-store napkins and bottom-of-the-line silverware. So much for design: It’s diner time.
You should order like you were in a diner. The coffee is good, and so are the gooey apple fritters ($6), fried three to an order. Do not get the Mt. Lassen Benedict (trout with hollandaise on sourdough and house potatoes, $13), which came with the saltiest, most leathery piece of fish I ever tasted. It was like an anchovy the size of a human tongue, the very last cured scrap a medieval Norwegian peasant ate before the return of spring, and yet it was trout. When the server asked if it was OK, I couldn’t manage to make eye contact, feeling like Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development as I looked down in horror at the salt shaker instead.
Punishingly, the picadillo (beef and potato hash with eggs, avocado, and tortilla, $12) actually needed salt. I drank a lot of coffee and a lot of water to make sure my taste buds hadn’t been ravaged before making that conclusion, but nope, it was bland. At least, when you ask for hot sauce, you get Cholula.
On a second visit, hoping for something better, I ordered the gravlax plate ($13). Its trout was still salty and leathery, but nowhere near the Dead Sea levels of that first piece of fish. Still, instead of “herbed cream,” I’m virtually certain I was served a pot of plain yogurt. You don’t want to mix that with capers.
So breakfast was a solid D. But by comparison, dinner was much better.
Again, like Castlevania, the music that played was strong on goth. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it looks like the servers can pick what to play, which is great.) Bela Lugosi may be dead, but the Marge, a roasted tomato and garlic flatbread with mozzarella and basil ($12), was not. I would have let it stay in the oven another minute to crisp it up, but the crust was nice and smokey and the cheese-piled-on-cheese presentation was wild enough to compensate.
A warm spinach salad ($10) made with fennel, currants, farro, feta, and prosciutto vinaigrette managed not to feel like bacon overdrive, but it still lacked a certain unity. More farro would have tied things together strongly. Leek croquettes with tomato jam ($7) had a beautiful texture, but were on the mild side. (Leeks are subtle, so subtle’s what you get.) A side of cauliflower gratin (with caramelized onions, gruyere, and parmesan, $7) was outright great; woe unto he who mocks Applebee’s tendency to smother everything in cheese, because it’s not the worst strategy, really.
Then there was a $16 house burger described as “all dressed up and looking for trouble.” Served on ciabatta with exceptionally sweet pickled onions and a very lean beef patty cooked to medium, it was as free of gimmicks as it was of grease. The fries are “bacon-dusted,” which suggests an herbal powder from Moon Juice, but really they’re just golden-brown and slathered in high-end Bacon Bits; good stuff. If Phlox Gardens wants to serve more than just people charging meals to their room, dinner justifies it; it’s only fair to point out that these prices are on the affordable side, too.
They definitely took some pains with the $6-$7 beer list. If you’re a business traveler from the land of domestic-lager supremacy, you might need some hand-holding, because I don’t think any of these beers existed even four years ago. But we got an A+ wine recommendation on a “savory, aggressive” Steele Pinot Noir that was highly acidic and stood its ground against the burger and the cauliflower.
With well-chosen details commingled with cringe-inducing ones, you leave wondering who’s actually in charge. Eating here, you can sense — as with many enterprises where the real decisions are made in corporate suites far, far away — the tension between the people issuing directives and the people tasked with executing them. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but the difficulty is mostly structural: Phlox Gardens is nobody’s baby.
Phlox Commons, inside the Hotel Carlton, 1075 Sutter St., 415-500-2734 or phloxcommons.com