Maybe the people crowding into the Beach Chalet are in a good mood about the easy parking. It's abundant and free, and it makes the restaurant seem like one of those roadside taverns somewhere out there in America, though without a neon sign. Ease of parking compensates a bit for the mobby waits, and for the food emerging from chef Richard Radcliffe's kitchen, the quality of which comes and goes like the surf rolling onto the beach across the highway. The restaurant is, at the moment, an event, and events follow their own logic.
Part of the Beach Chalet's appeal must be its history. The restaurant occupies the second floor of a building designed by local architect Willis Polk and opened in 1925. The ground floor (originally a lounge and changing room for bathers) is now a visitors center whose mosaics and frescoes -- which date from the 1930s and have a distinctive populist flavor -- have been restored after a nine-year effort. Pondering the wall art isn't a bad way to pass the time if you've failed to make a reservation. Neither is studying the human traffic on the path behind the building.
We happened to step in for lunch on a recent noontime when the 49ers had a couple of muddy quarters left in their season. While there still appeared to be hope, a lot of people who would otherwise be rushing to the Beach Chalet were home glued to their sets. But even before the game had ended, the busyness had grown to an uncomfortable crush; people milled around in clots, while serving staff with plates of food threaded among them.
By then we were well on our way through lunch, which began with a bowl of decent chowder ($5.50) containing clams and black cod and not too much potato -- or quite enough salt. There was no salt or pepper shaker on the table, either, and by the time we had the chance to ask for one from our harried waiter, we'd emptied the bowl.
A fist-size pizzetta ($5.50) was just right for a tantalizing first course. It was topped with a discreetly vegetarian Mediterranean melange that included mozzarella, broccoli florets, roasted red pepper, and black olives. The crust had been aggressively blistered; I liked it, but my companion (no fan of bready, thick pizza crusts) found it too crackerlike. A scattering of vinaigrette-dressed baby greens on the side gave the plate color and a softness that contrasted nicely with the inflamed-looking pizzetta.
I have had good fish tacos, but not at the Beach Chalet. Their version ($7.50) offered a choice of sea bass, salmon, or calamari; the sea bass seemed awfully bland. Even grilled onions, avocado, and tomatillo salsa didn't impart much zip, and the soft corn tortillas themselves were cold, gummy, and lifeless. A scattering of black beans at the side of the plate was indecently like spoor. How about some diced tomato, or a sprig of cilantro, at least?
The beef ribs ($12.50) made up for the tacos, and then some. They'd been hickory-smoked and were served in a barbecue sauce laced with the restaurant's proprietary Riptide Ale -- one of several dishes on the menu (and by far the most successful) in which beer figured in the cooking. The meat was so tender and succulent that we mourned the modestness of the serving size; usually slabs of ribs fill up whole platters, but here it was just one chunk, too quickly eaten. A side helping of excellent fries helped cushion the disappointment, as did a slice of chocolate-raspberry cheesecake ($5), which sounded a distinct echo of Linzer torte.
For dinner we'd made a reservation and, despite yet another vast crowd, had to wait only five minutes for our table to be set up -- near a window that, had there been any light, would have given us a commanding view of the ocean, and of the Cliff House just up the Great Highway. Instead, the darkness was punctured only by the headlights of cars parking in the lot below.
The Beach Chalet offers some lovely beers -- the weissbier, in particular, is velvet-smooth -- but as if to prove that beer is for drinking not cooking, the mussels steamed in Scott's English-Style Ale ($6.50) were ruined by a sauce that was simply bitter. Ale garlic mayonnaise (ale aioli, for those of alliterative bent) was salt on a wound, and walnuts, roasted peppers, and scallions offered no redemption.
Buttermilk onion rings ($4.50) -- a golden, haylike pile -- were so good the first time, melting and slightly sweet, that we ordered them again and found they'd been burned. When we pointed this out to our server, she made a perplexed face, as if this were a great mystery, and she neither took them off the bill nor offered to bring us something else.
Main courses were adequate in a pubbish way. Hanger steak ($15) was cooked rare as ordered, but was underseasoned and bland, despite its cap of melted raclette cheese. Watercress sweet onion salad was too sweet for me, but the excellent fries were welcome.
And a seafood mix fry ($16) of beer-batter-fried Gulf shrimp, scallops, mussels, and vegetables was basically a pricey plate of fish and chips, without the chips. Redeeming flourish: the ramekin of fennel remoulade set like a tiny fountain in the middle of the plate and offering a sharp, grassy contrast to all that batter and oil.
On a wet, blustery day, it would be dreamy to sit at a window at the Beach Chalet and have lunch while watching the angry sea. Maybe a bit of weather would reduce the human circus to something more manageable. This place needs room to breathe.
Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant, at 1000 Great Highway, serves lunch every day from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., and dinner every day from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. Call 386-8439.