One for the Road

The bar is packed. A woman with heavy black eyeliner and a black pantsuit with a plunging neckline flirts with a very tan man wearing a golf shirt and, around his neck, a thick gold chain from which dangles a tiger's-eye the size of a small egg. Another man down the bar, in a sports jacket with a crest and a silk pocket square, talks to a pageboyed blonde who's wearing a business suit with pearls. The television is tuned to a golf match.

Where are we? Mill Valley — soaking up the atmosphere at the Buckeye Roadhouse. Well, not exactly Mill Valley. Not the center of town where old rock musicians drink good wine at the Avenue Grill, women in tennis skirts run in for a low-fat decaf at Peet's, and kids from Tam High do their best to look like refugees from the Haight.

This is border Mill Valley, at the freeway ramp heading to the city. You've passed it a million times on the way back from Stinson Beach, seen the baby Mercedes and Porsches lined up in the parking lot, and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Well, it's not about the worried-looking young man with slicked-back hair checking names at the door. We arrive at 6:50 for a 7 p.m. reservation. “You're early,” he says by way of greeting, sending us into the jampacked bar to wait. It's hard to get the bartender's attention, what with the golf and expensive watches and ruddy yacht-club types acting frisky with their dates. We inadvertently jostle the hair of a woman sitting at the bar in our effort to order a drink. She turns around and glares at our apology.

Seven o'clock comes and goes. The “host” enters the bar, looks through us, and retreats. He does it again at 7:10. Whee! We are invisible! At 7:20, a woman we've never seen before comes and ushers us to a table right next to the kitchen. We're grateful.

Things start looking up the moment we're seated. The dining room, dominated by a stone fireplace that looks 10 feet high, has a lofty wood-beamed ceiling and tall windows looking out into the trees. New old-looking sconces in the shape of antlers reinforce the hunting-lodge theme. As the daylight fades and the room grows dim, the lights are reflected in the windows against the deep blue sky. Minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge, you feel light-years from the city.

Our waitress is cheerful and professional even if she has too many tables. Unlike the pickup scene in the bar, the dining room is more settled down. At a table for 10, there are three generations of one family, including a baby. Eight men, who look like they've just closed a business deal, sit at another big table. Two women look as if they're celebrating something. In fact, there's lots of celebration going on; we hear “Happy Birthday” sung twice during the course of our meal.

We start with two extremes from the appetizer menu: smoked duck tostada ($6.95) and onion rings ($3.95). The tostada, with meltingly tender shreds of duck, fiery mango salsa, and black beans, is topped with feta cheese, which sounds odd but works, the creamy sharp cheese complementing the spicy fruit and game. Thin, delicate onion rings are addictive, but the sweet-and-sour sauce served on the side is a mistake. (Heinz ketchup would have been fine with me.) Other appetizers include smoked Teleme pizza ($6.50), house-smoked salmon pastrami ($6.95), oysters on the half shell ($7.50), and pan-roasted artichoke ($3.95).

We choose the California dressing, an overly busy blend of tomato, soy sauce, lemon, garlic, and Worcestershire, with our mixed greens ($4.95). Other salad choices are warm spinach ($5.95), Caesar ($5.95), house-smoked chicken ($8.75), and spice grilled salmon ($9.50).

There's a long pause between the end of our salad and delivery of the entrees. During our wait, we observe our friend from the front door pacing the dining room, the crease between his brows deepening. This is not a happy guy.

But we're very happy with our barbecued baby-back ribs ($11.95), a moist, sweetish slab served with fresh-tasting coleslaw and garlic mashed potatoes. If this is comfort food, I'm all for it. Barbecued roast quail ($15.95) have excellent flavor and come with irresistible pecan and polenta stuffing and al dente green beans.

We're having so much fun we order the S'more pie ($4.95) for dessert, forgetting that our taste for marshmallows has mellowed with age. As a camper's nostalgia item, the combination of chocolate, graham, and marshmallow has some merit. The kids will love it. A strawberry/blackberry shortcake with a scone in place of shortbread and excellent whipped cream is more our style.

There's a good selection of California wines in the midexpensive price range. Chardonnays start at $22 (Louis Martini Reserve, 1991) and go to $47 for a 1993 Far Niente. The least expensive cabernet (1991 Husch) is $23, with a 1990 Alexander Valley Silver Oak topping the list at $51.

Buckeye Roadhouse is owned by Real Restaurants, whose other places in the city include Fog City Diner, Roti, and Bix, plus Mustard's Grill in Yountville and Tra Vigne in St. Helena. These guys are pros, and Buckeye reflects their experience. The restaurant is another slick, well-oiled example of the company's winning way with a concept. “Roadhouse,” however, is stretching it a bit. The way I see it, no chicken-fried steak, no country music, no roadhouse. But golf? You gotta be kidding.

Buckeye Roadhouse, 15 Shoreline Highway, Mill Valley, 331-2600. Open Mon-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

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