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Sweet 'n' Sour

Adequate food, poor service at Guerneville's River Grill

By Steve Bjerklie

SITTING OUTSIDE with good company and good food on a warm evening is one of life's graces, a definition of dining bliss. And with so much of our weather this summer imported from Saudi Arabia, the number of evenings affording such blissful opportunity is high. At Sweet's River Grill in downtown Guerneville, a fixture site on Main Street with a pleasant outdoor patio, the downtown tabby enjoys peering down at diners from the restaurant's roof. Keep your eyes on the cat and your company. They're better diversions than the disappointing food and poor service.

Or maybe it's just that the food is adequate. Guerneville's rebirth as a gay resort town has revitalized downtown to the point where excellent cuisine isn't required to draw a crowd. Over the "Bear Days" weekend in late July--a truly only-in-California event celebrating the appeal of big, hairy men--the town was jammed, as were the restaurants.

"I felt like a fly," admitted our diminutive waiter at Sweet's a couple nights later. "I mean, this one big man came right in here and ate six hamburgers--six big hamburgers!" He pointed wildly, as though he'd seen a flight of UFOs. "Right over there! Six!" Jeez, sorry I missed that.

Sweet's menu sounds enticing. "Wings from Heaven," for example, buffalo wings in a "mahogany" ginger sauce served with a Moroccan carrot salad. Feeling nasty? Try heaven's counter, "Wings from Hell," which open up possibilities for all kinds of theological discussions because they're basically just a spicier version of the heaven tray.

We opted for the toasted walnut brie, served with sliced apples, strawberries, and oranges--a catholic approach, to be sure. Except that the walnut crust on the brie was chewy, too thick, and tasted little of walnut, and the slices of baguette toast were so stale as to cause the invocation of Beelzebub. The soup-and-salad course fared only a bit better. A "burgundy beef" soup had a pleasing creaminess, but the beef was stringy and the flavor one-dimensional. On the salad, a tasty creamy vinaigrette dressing couldn't quite cover a moldy flavor in the lettuce.

Though "Bear Days" are officially over for another couple of years, the Grill's entrée list remains heavily weighted on the meat side. Steak, ribs, fried chicken, a "barnyard combo" (ribs, chicken), and pasta occupy most offerings. Four basic sandwiches--hamburger, chicken breast, fried chicken, and garden burger--are all available plain or in four variations.

I kept wondering if the six-burger bear had ordered the "Michelangelo" version with melted gorgonzola or the "Smokehouse" with bacon, jack cheese, and barbecue sauce. Possibly the "Russian" with mushrooms and sour cream-horseradish sauce; doubtful the "Monte Rio," with jack and pico de gallo salsa. Real men don't eat little roosters.

The day's special, a shellfish pasta bowl, nicely presented, turned out to be a stew of overcooked penne and clams and mussels that tasted like . . . what?

"They taste old," my companion finally surmised. Exactly. A musty flavor inhabited the entire bowl.

The fish in the fish-and-chips entrée was supposed to come from fresh red snapper. While the dish was not overbattered or oily, I couldn't detect the freshness. On the other hand, the plate's steak fries were delectable--fried to a perfect firmness without loss of the potato's fluffy inner texture.

Chocolate silk pie for dessert--made on-premises, promised our waiter--was, after the appetizer and entrées, surprisingly excellent, smooth, and light. I could complain about the size of the portion--more bear-effect, I guess: the wedge was as big as an anvil--but appropriate chocolate intake on any given day is such a personal matter.

An adequate, moderately priced wine list offers standards--Fetzer Sundial chardonnay, Kendall-Jackson merlot, etc. Everything, however, is available by both the bottle and glass, a thoughtful touch.

Few resort towns on the scale of Guerneville offer big-city cuisine, so Sweet's River Grill must be taken in context. The food is, if not memorable, at least satisfying for the most part and filling. But the restaurant must do something about the service, which is inexcusably bad. Our friendly, trying-hard waiter was hampered by real backroom ineptness. The restaurant's last bottle of the type of wine we ordered got opened and served to someone else. The busboy didn't notice that he dripped water onto our appetizer from his pitcher. And a bread plate didn't show up until the entrées were served.

Our total for one large appetizer, salad, soup, two entrées, one dessert, a glass of Listerine-flavored Lost Coast ale, and a bottle of Davis Bynum chardonnay came to $71 with tip. About right for the food and atmosphere, but way too much for the service.


Sweet's River Grill

16251 Main Street, Guerneville; 869-3383
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; no reservations
Food: Standard resort-town fare: burgers, sandwiches, seafood-oriented specials, some poorly prepared, some OK
Service: Friendly but undertrained and careless
Ambience: Inside, tiles and blond woods; outside, green plastic; occasional snooping from the roof by Guerneville's downtown cat
Price: Moderate
Wine list: Serviceable, but a toast for offering all wines by the glass; cheapest--house red and white for $14 a bottle; most expensive--Armida pinot noir, $26
Overall: One and a half stars


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From the August 21-27, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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