I’ve been on a roll lately with good hotel restaurants — namely, Villon in the Hotel Proper and Gibson in the Hotel Bijou — that I was beginning to think that maybe there’d been a fundamental shift. Maybe hotel restaurants weren’t necessarily going to be flashy mediocrities designed by committee where you can never find the restroom because the restroom is never in the restaurant.
Nope. Those two wonderful places are probably just as atypical as they ever were (although there are other prominent exceptions around town). And if I may break a self-imposed rule, which is never to lob gratuitous slams at a restaurant that isn’t the subject of a week’s review, the embarrassing, ought-to-fling-itself-into-the-void-and-begin-anew Nobu in Palo Alto is in the Epiphany Hotel — so I should have realized the sample size was actually bigger than it was.
Now we have B55, in the ground floor of the Marriott Marquis on Fourth Street. The Proper and the Bijou are boutique hotels and the Marriott Marquis is a PoMo relic. Fun fact: It opened on the same day as the Loma Prieta earthquake. And it already has one better-than-it-seems venue, The View.
Up there, on the 39th floor, you can get a $15 drink while staring out at the city skyline through a window that looks like the one in the Death Star from which the Emperor watches the Rebel Fleet almost get destroyed. It’s worth going even if you’re not staying in the hotel, whereas B55 is chiefly meant for holders of room cards. It has the look and feel of an admiral’s club, and there’s an attached lounge and workspace — explicitly open only to guests — that has that could-be-anywhere-in-the-world expanse of airport terminal carpeting. It bills itself as “industrial chic,” although it’s definitely not.
The whole thing has a very large footprint, which means lots of wallspace. To fill it, there are many flatscreens. Because it’s a hotel for business travelers, they’re largely tuned to CNN (although some play sports). And because the world went to shit a year ago and there’s no escape, that means eating beneath blaring headlines about this or that powerful man groping women. Enjoy your dinner!
B55’s food isn’t terrible. But it’s expensive and it debases itself through repeated acts of hollow mimicry. It feels like someone ran the numbers on trends from 2014 and concocted a menu around what remained passably cool-adjacent with an eye toward cost reduction above all else. Would I ever be this breezily patronizing about a San Francisco restaurant conceived and run by actual human beings who’d poured their heart and soul and life savings into achieving their dream? I hope not. Am I letting loose because B55 emerged fully formed from the cranium of an anthropomorphic spreadsheet and its sous chef is probably Clippy from Microsoft Office? Totes.
In any event, the presence of the garlic naan that you get with your tiny quantity of flavorless green garbanzo bean hummus for $11 almost makes up for it. The carrots and radishes it came with were fresh, although I wish the olives had been warmed. While it’s an unconscionable $10, the big soft pretzel was plenty satisfying — but I couldn’t help but giggle at the unnecessarily elaborate device it came on, as if it were being hanged in effigy. Spicier mustard and a cheese sauce without a thick skin on it would have been great, too.
At this point, whenever I order mussels ($15), about 10 percent of my excitement goes to the shellfish itself. It’s all about the broth. Once you burn through your sourdough allotment, dip your very large quantity of leftover garlic naan into this and savor it, because it’s a high point. The peppery, agreeably greasy, crispy brussels leaves ($7) made good use of Bellwether Farms’ pepato — although I wish that had been included on the trio of local cheeses ($15) alongside Mt. Tam and Humboldt Fog and in lieu of Fiscalini Hopscotch Cheddar, because then there’d be a sheep-cow-goat triad. Those choices might be a tad predictable, but at some point the hometown boosterism kicks in and you have to cheerlead. This menu should better extol the virtues of Northern California’s incredible cheeses! There are local sausages, too, although neither the menu nor the server explained what they were.
The “San Francisco clam chowder” ($13 for a bread bowl) shrewdly fried its potatoes in duck fat for extra richness, but it’s another small portion. Fish tacos are mighty unforgiving of failure, and these, at three for $18, were simply null and void. There’s quite a hefty amount of rock cod in that flour tortilla, yet neither the cotija nor the avocado crema could impart more than trace elements of flavor, and there wasn’t nearly enough cabbage to balance the resulting sogginess.
Because I order it whenever I see it, we got an Impossible Burger ($15). Although there were zero foodie-tickling adjectives in the lettuce-tomato-pickle description of its build, it was impressive, fatty and acidic in the right proportions. Every time I chew on the slightly fibrous texture of one of those puppies, I wonder what makes an individual burger work or not. I think caramelized onions are very important, and B55’s burger has them.
A Mary’s half-chicken ($26) was seriously underdone, the bird itself and even more so the brussels sprouts and potatoes. And a prime rib sandwich ($18) was much more of a salty, gloppy mess than it needed to be. With beer cheese, peppers, and onions, it’s aiming for a sort of elevated Philly cheesesteak, but it was both expensive and generic. Beer is the “B” in B55, and while there’s a very well put-together list, it’s Mikkeller prices for small pours, like $14 for 12 ounces of Devil’s Canyon Triple IPA — and the quantities are conspicuously unlisted. A $15 Marquis Manhattan (with Templeton rye) was exponentially too sweet, so watch out for the cocktails.
Service is chain-like. On one visit, more than 30 minutes elapsed between the arrival of our drinks and the arrival of any food — and it was the full order, apps and mains together. After five full seconds of silent eye contact with me, a tablemate asked if the server might hold the big plates for five more minutes and he looked at us in total non-comprehension. And that’s the baseline state the patrons are in, too. If you just got off your flight or you know nothing about San Francisco, you won’t kick yourself for eating here. Otherwise, get out and explore.
B55 Craft House & Kitchen, inside the Marriott Marquis, 780 Mission St., 415-896-1600 or marriott.com