A Walk on the Mild Side

A terrible thing happened to my friend Michelle a few weeks back. We were having cocktails at a certain high-end hotel and eatery when the bartender served her a somewhat funky glass of wine. A dedicated oenophile, Michelle tasted, sniffed, then had me taste and sniff. “Definitely funky,” I told her. She asked the bartender for something different. He obliged, grudgingly, and poured her a glass of cheaper wine — but charged her credit card for the original order. When she discovered the mistake a little while later, Michelle asked another bartender if he could correct it.

“Those are the breaks,” he shrugged.

Now, I'm not usually one to gripe about such things, especially since I've been trying to wean Michelle off the grape for some time in favor of a more wholesome potent potable (such as vodka). But then I remembered how the first bartender had served me one of the most god-awful margaritas I've ever had — all sweet and sour, no tequila — and charged me a hefty $8.50. I mean, bad wine happens; losing a few bucks won't kill anyone; but a defective margarita … well. Hello, xyz.

The story doesn't end there, however. I was a bit disheartened, Michelle was righteously miffed, and our friend Barrie, who had accompanied us, wasn't in the best space, either. Not that anything was wrong with her drink, but still. And Elena — well, Elena happened to be heading out with us. We were feeling a bit … jaded by it all, I guess you'd say, though none of us was ready to give up swanky restaurants and that citywide pastime known as cocktailing. Still, we needed a change of pace, which led us over to the bright side of the bay to Fenton's Creamery and Restaurant.

Located on quaint Piedmont Avenue, Fenton's is about as friendly as a restaurant can be — an old-fashioned spot where folks spoon their way through gigantic mounds of homemade ice cream and the lighting is as bright as the midday sun. Scooting past a takeout line for ice cream that stretched out the door at 9:30 p.m., we nabbed a spacious booth at the back of the room, spread ourselves out, and got to it. A jukebox cranked out Roy Orbison and Frankie Valli while teenagers huddled together, telling secrets. Babies lay on tables, cooing contentedly, and children milled about in grinning groups.

There would be no wine- or cocktail-related fiascoes here, we soon realized, if only because there was no booze to order. While my dates limited themselves to water, I got into the swing of things by ordering a jumbo milkshake ($5.25) with strawberry ice cream. Served in an outsize metal tumbler, the luxuriously rich shake ended up satisfying my beverage needs and more. As well as Barrie's. And Michelle's and Elena's, if they'd wanted any. In other words, “jumbo” was no idle boast.

For dinner, we split a traditional chef's salad ($6.95) with American and Swiss cheeses, sliced turkey, ham, and egg, sliced tomatoes, shredded carrots, and sprouts served over a bed of fresh greens, with a side of ranch dressing. As we ordered sandwiches, our waitress, Je Ton, kindly explained that when you ask for light mayonnaise at Fenton's, you don't actually get a different kind of dressing — only less of the regular stuff.

The grilled cheese sandwich ($3.75) was definitely for light eaters, and came with cheddar cheese, ruffled potato chips, a side of pickles, and a thin slice of cantaloupe. The chicken burger ($6.50) was a bit more hearty. A chicken breast bathed in tangy teriyaki sauce, it was served with red onions on a traditional hamburger bun, and came with ruffled potato chips, a side of pickles, and … I was beginning to see a pattern. The pastrami sandwich ($5.50) on rye proved a tasty little adventure, and was topped with spicy pepper jack cheese and brown mustard and served with a side of (a lifetime of free SF Weeklys for anyone who can guess). The French dip ($5.75) resembled the same French dip you'd get in roughly 200,000 restaurants across the country — roast beef, a flaky French roll, au jus — which was fortunate, since that's just what I was hoping for.

For our final entree, we shared a crab salad sandwich ($11.50) — a massive helping of crab meat blended with mayonnaise (light, of course) and celery — which was by far the most expensive item on the menu, but also the best. All in all, the food was good but not great, the portions nicely sized but not huge. Then again, I don't think Fenton's makes its name on meals, which seem but a brief stopover on the way to dessert.

With more than 40 varieties of rich, house-made ice creams (cookies 'n' cream to rocky road to butter brickle to cookie dough), sherbets, and yogurts, Fenton's takes you back to a time when “supermodel” conjured images not of jet-setting, wire-thin millionaires, but rather a really neat toy plane. Barrie selected the fudgeanna ($5.25), a mountain of vanilla and mocha almond fudge ice cream served in a fountain glass and topped with banana, homemade fudge sauce, whipped cream, nuts, and cherries. (Je Ton and I got in a somewhat heated debate about how “fudgeanna” was actually pronounced — my take rhymed with “Pollyanna,” hers with “Paulina.”)

Michelle went with the easier-to-pronounce saddleback brownie ($5.75), a chewy, nut-filled brownie buried under vanilla and Dutch chocolate ice cream and likewise topped with whipped cream and hot fudge. Elena selected the black and tan ($5.25) — vanilla and toasted almond ice cream served with homemade caramel and fudge — while I, watching my figure, went for a delightful blueberry pie a la mode ($3.75). And would I like the pie heated or frozen? Je Ton inquired. It took a minute to realize she was kidding.

Feeling as wholesome (and chubby) as Iowa farm children, we raved unendingly about Je Ton's friendliness as we made our way back to the city, where we headed to “Sunday School for the Naughty” at a warehouse on Bryant Street, a dance party at which plaid skirts and knee socks were all the rage and Michelle tried to convince me to pay a burly gentleman in a black leather harness for a massage. Not that I have anything against burly gentlemen in black leather harnesses. In fact, if he'd thrown in a margarita (with plenty of tequila), he might have had a deal.

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