Arrive for dinner at Baker's Beach Cafe and you will know the meaning of low expectations. Not that its breakfasts or lunches are bad; quite the contrary, its exemplary morning performance has kept Mount Bakerites in creamy lattes and grainy bran-fruit muffins and peanut-butter cookies and biscotti and seven-layer bars and zingy pizza slices for the better part of the decade. Walk in on a weekend morning, and all your neighbors are here, with all their kids, and all their dogs tied up outside, and they're all in front of you in the order line—which is right in front of the door (and right beside the ever-present swarm of flies). In spite of the chaos and the considerable lack of aesthetic charm you'll be back again next week, because the enormous muffins are just that good. Baker's Beach Cafe 3601 S McClellan, 725-3654
breakfast, lunch daily; dinner Tue-Fri
cash; local checks; no credit cards Which is why we never really thought of Baker's Beach as a place to go for dinner. The lived-in room that buzzes as the anchor of the neighborhood by day just looks tattered and a little forlorn by evening. Try as you might, you cannot imagine the squadron of mellow flower children who pull the espresso and the bread out of the oven delivering table service. What could a hippie coffeehouse possibly offer in the way of dinner? I brought a party of four on a Friday night to find out. "Our chef likes to say we're the best-kept dinner secret in town," chirped our server, an affable young woman with dreadlocks pulled into ponytails, as she led us past the two engaged tables to ours. Ah—the refuge of crappy chefs the world over, I snickered to myself. I ordered safely: a Caesar salad ($3.95, $6.95) and schiacciata ($6.95), an individual pizza topped with garlic and four kinds of cheese. The Caesar was all crunchy spring green hearts of romaine, boldly garlicked, and punctuated with delectable croutons. Until now I'd forgotten the best part of eating in a bakery: that all the bready supporting cast members of the meal—croutons to pizza crusts to dinner rolls—rise to exciting prominence. At Baker's Beach the best example of this turned out to be the breadsticks, nondescript-looking poppy-seed-covered rods of dough concealing sublime explosions of onion and Parmesan. The pizza, though a little too densely cheesy in the middle, made a terrific counterpoint to the salad. The flavors were strong and sure, the crust masterful. Unable to stop myself, I munched happily on a dinner roll, which that night was a plump and bewitchingly sweet date-filbert bun, and let my fork wander free. Remarkably, each dinner was better than the last. The paella ($11.95) was heavy on the clams, scallops, prawns, and fish; the latter two of which had lingered too long on the heat but didn't mar the overall delicacy of the dish. Roasted lamb loin chops ($12.95), marinated in rosemary and garlic and shown briefly to the broiler, arrived in another generous portion, alongside buttery asparagus and extraordinarily flavorful mashed red potatoes smothered in a creamy brandy mushroom sauce. Best were the medallions of pork tenderloin ($10.95), an achingly tender piece of meat served in a mushroomy Marsala sauce with that same asparagus and those same potatoes. Divine. By the end of the meal all four of us were stabbing forks with abandon at each other's plates, which by now also included a gratis special-of-the-day appetizer Ms. Dreadlock had brought by mistake and let us keep: blackened chicken and polenta with avocado mayonnaise and honey mustard ($7.95). Though we all agreed the polenta was weirdly grainy, the chicken was suitably spicy, and awfully nice dredged around in the two flavorful pots of accompanying sauce. All four of us were thoroughly fat and happy before our plates were empty, which our waiter efficiently accommodated with heaping doggy bags and an on-the-house sack of those magical breadsticks. "Tomorrow they'd just be day-old," she shrugged cheerfully. Such are the particular delights of the neighborhood restaurant: It can offer the sort of service that doesn't seem so much like service as just folks being thoughtful toward each other. In my experience Baker's Beach has been consistently good-hearted that way, whether by spotting the strapped customer if he's two bits shy for a cup of coffee or bagging up the evening's last breadsticks. When we returned for the sequel, Ms. Dreadlock greeted us like old friends (turns out she's the sole dinner waiter all four nights they serve). This time the bread rolls were home-baked French—delicious—and we sampled the house salad ($4.25) along with another Caesar. The former was first-rate: a long and leisurely graze through mixed greens and tomatoes, draped in an earthy honey-mustard dressing. The Caesar, alas, lacked the punch of our first one; it was outright flavorless. Such are the particular downsides of the neighborhood restaurant: inconsistency. My chicken rosemary with basil pesto fettuccine ($10.95), a mainstay of the regular menu, was only OK: chicken breast a little on the dry side, goopy fettuccine. The evening's fish special, braised sturgeon with tomato-orange compote and saffron rice ($12.95), was much better: moist, light, conceived with imagination, and executed with skill. And so it seems chef Phil Rizzo really is operating one of the best-kept dinner secrets in town. Friendly, affordable, tasty at the very least with occasional forays into outstanding: that's Baker's Beach at dinnertime. I write this in spite of our dessert that last visit: a slice of lemon cheesecake ($3.50) which appeared to be perfectly flavorful on its nice buttery graham-cracker crust but had nevertheless achieved the consistency of Gumby. "Oh, who knows what happened," sighed our server, with an it-could-be-any-one-of-a-hundred-things expression on her face and a pledge not to charge us for it. Now, normally such a mistake would count heavily against a place—a bakery of all things—and you, dear reader, should render your own judgment. Why it only endears Baker's Beach more to me is something I cannot explain.