Elroy's is as much a rec hall as a restaurant. Several of my friends who work in SOMA are semiregulars at the two big bars and the balcony-level pool tables, but they can never remember what they ate there. And up until recently, I'd avoided the place altogether because of its reported unbearable loudness of being.
But then I learned that Sunday and Monday nights until further notice Elroy's is serving all wines at wholesale prices -- cheaper than at the supermarket. My Elroy's Moment had come round at last.
A Monday business meeting ended early, and I arrived solo an hour too soon. I found the entire peri-Elroy's region under construction, full of titanic machinery and evanescent parking lots locked up tight at 6 p.m. I slipped through the near-empty bar and settled on Elroy's heated patio. Alone on the vast, dimly lit deck, I relaxed with a smoke and a paperback, serenaded by bone-thwacking, fanny-whacking whoomps from a nearby pile driver. I wondered whether anyone would notice and serve me. But in just a few minutes a server came out and took my order for the "classic" margarita ($7) touted at the top of the drinks menu. It was big and good, made with honest lime juice and served in a tall, heavy, blue-rimmed Mexican glass.
Music percolated from the bar and a couple of nice-looking late-30s guys came out for a cigarette. Insisting that I must be lonely, they commenced chatting from the nearest table. They, too, had been drawn to the place by the wine bargains, they said. I decided that Cheap Wine Night on Elroy's patio was OK.
Finally, my real tablemates showed up. On the way in, one of them had paused at the miniature martini station; he described his cocktail as "perfect." A waiter with time on his hands gladly gave us the lowdown:
"Sunday and Monday, the place is really quiet and mellow," he began. "That's why they're doing these as wholesale wine nights. Tuesdays, you see some businesspeople having business dinners. Wednesday is hump night, with a lot of people coming early and leaving early. And Thursday through Saturday are scenes -- SRO, a total zoo!"
Given the long list of starters, we decided to make our first visit a tapas meal, letting the waiter arrange the order. We began with tender fried calamari ($9) swamped in a heavy cornmeal breading but rescued by a spicy mustard aioli dipping sauce. A thin- but soggy-crusted minipizza ($11) was garnished with dead cilantro and flavorful sausage. Our waiter told us that the slow-cooked duck quesadilla ($9) changes according to the evening's chef. Some nights, it's dominated by portobellos; our night, it was just cheesy, with none-too-ducky braised duck meat and more comatose coriander. A minisalad of thin-sliced onion, radish, jicama, and daikon sprouts mainly offered entertainment.
Round 2 brought small, tender mussels ($9) steamed in white wine broth with chile de arbol aioli drizzled over their shells. Although the aioli was sparse, some of it slid into the broth to lend the liquid a rich kick. Our waiter had suggested oysters sprinkled with tequila ($10 for six oysters) and cleverly brought them midmeal as a palate-cleanser. The hat dance of tequila and bivalve juice was sufficient dressing, but alongside came conventional spicy cocktail sauce and a dreadful shivery-sour, overonioned sauce mignonette.
Round 3 started with prosciutto, black fig, and cambazola cheese bruschetta ($11). Everyone's doing figs-and-cheese right now; this dish wasted the figs on an open-faced grilled cheese sandwich, adorned with mediocre prosciutto and fruit cooked to mush. We tried one light main course: goat cheese and red pepper ravioli with lemon leek herb butter and Swiss chard ($13). The ravioli, with thick skin and thin filling, were overwhelmed by noisy herbs (rosemary, lemon thyme, basil) quarreling in the sauce; the shreds of leek couldn't get a word in edgewise.
Ah -- but the wines? you ask. A schizoid chardonnay list is split between supermarket bottles (Fetzer, Meridian, Clos du Bois, Indigo Hills, etc.) restored on Cheap Wine Night to supermarket sale prices vs. decent but hardly adventurous uppity quaffs (e.g., Cakebread, ZD, Phelps, Simi, Chateau St. Jean). You might do better ordering from the short list of sauvignon blancs (e.g., Frog's Leap at just $10.66, or Flora Springs at $18). We tried a '96 Grgich Hills chardonnay for a mere $13.33. Alas, it was my least favorite Grgich vintage of any I've tried, as weedy as a mediocre sauvignon blanc; I pity anyone paying Elroy's full price of $52 in expectations of this vintner's usual finesse.
A longer list of reds includes the '93 Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon for $39 and '95 Opus One for $65. We were very happy with a '94 Jordan cabernet (half-price at $24). But after all the cheese-heavy dishes among the appetizers, we were shocked by the absence of a simple cheese and fruit dessert plate to help us finish off that lovely cab.
We returned later that week for main courses and the normal "SRO Zoo" Elroy's Experience. In the dining room, a brutal rectangle filled to the last chair, the noise level was unbearable despite sound-absorbing drapes, rugs, and tablecloths. Groups of 10 or 12 diners were trying to outshout each other as they chomped down burgers and glugged martinis, margaritas, beers, or wine flights.
The red wine flight proved worth glugging, with four substantial tastes for $12, though not all the tastes were great. The evening's best sip was a '95 Sebastiani Old Vine zinfandel (normally $28, or $12 on wholesale nights).
Following the crowd, we tried the Elroy's Burger Deluxe ($11) with applewood-smoked bacon and Bellwether Farms cheese. Served on a Dutch crunch roll, the meat's cooked medium-well unless otherwise requested, accompanied by tamarind ketchup (tasting like orange juice and onions) and rather soggy, greasy herbed french fries. The bacon's better than the beef. A molasses-cured ranch pork chop ($19) was also disappointing -- under the crisp coating and unexceptional deglaze sauce, the meat was tough and bland, and the accompanying smoothly mashed potatoes were ordinary.
The best dish had rich-flavored "fire-roasted citrus-braised lamb shanks" ($17), the meat dripping from the bone, happily flavoring the pearl couscous that sopped up the juices and left a hint of spice in the aftertaste. For desserts ($6 each), we tried a French pear upside-down cake with champagne zabaglione, all terribly sweet, and an enjoyable warm Scharffen Berger chocolate souffle cake with raspberry zinfandel ice cream, decorated with chocolate that had been poured over bubble wrap to harden into food-art.
In contrast to the Thursday mob-scene (which was everything I'd expected and feared), on Sunday and Monday nights, Elroy's is safe for tender-eared wine-bibbers. The only problem is that you can't take the wholesale-price wines home, but must drink them on-site. And while the dishes that accompany the bottles are edible enough, very few are equal to a good wine. At other restaurants, you can BYOB. At Elroy's, I wish I could bring my own food -- I'd gladly pay the corkage.