What does it take to be considered a successful neighborhood restaurant?
Is it supposed to be friendly? If so, Riverside Clubhouse qualifies. The moment you walk in, you get a genuine "hello," and in no time someone is leading you toward a table. If you're like us, you will face an inexplicably massive wall of water, the effects of which will mesmerize you, soothe you after a tough day at the office or inspire you to visit the restroom umpteen times.
Is it supposed to be a casual meeting place for friends and neighbors? Again, Riverside Clubhouse is a crowd-pleaser. I heard laughing. I heard banter. There were smiles all around from people who were clearly regulars.
Should the prices be easy on the wallet? Should there be one rather amazing weekly special that draws the budget-minded and/or the tightwads? Of course. And there is. (More on that in a minute.)
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Should a neighborhood restaurant be family-friendly? Kid-friendly? Honestly, kids should never expect to have fun when they go somewhere with their parents. For kids, who in some circumstances eat free on Sundays and Mondays, this "clubhouse" might qualify as a snoozer. You cannot, I'm afraid, actually drink from the wall of water, ride the wall of water, scale the wall of water or, based on personal experience, stare at the wall of water without getting dizzy.
The familial ennui of this restaurant was best exemplified by the scene we witnessed one night during dinner: Mom and Dad enjoyed their beers (and then their pasta) while dad read his iPhone, mom stared off into space (and occasionally toward the wall of water) and the two kids each wore their own headphones and watched movies on their own iPads. The kids ignored the parents. The parents ignored the kids. Dad ignored mom. Us? We ignored each other and watched these guys instead.
Should a neighborhood restaurant have a wall of water? Since I neglected to bring my iPad and Netflix membership, and since the alternative to the wall of water is a panoramic view of a Goodwill Donation Express, absolutely.
Should a neighborhood restaurant actually have amazing food? If that were the case, Riverside Clubhouse would be full of strangers, outsiders and interlopers who drove clear across the county for an inspired lunch or dinner as they do for the amazing pizza at Masullo and the fine cooking at Taylor's Kitchen. That does not happen at the Clubhouse because the food is not in the neighborhood of amazing.
Indeed, with all of the friendliness, the neighborly feel, the lively bar scene and the cool, stylish setting, one is reminded that Riverside Clubhouse does a lot of the little things to make you feel welcome and appreciated, but it doesn't handle the heavy lifting well enough to elevate the dining experience from a neighborhood meal to a memorable, meaningful meal.
The food is ho-hum at best, largely uninspired, lowbrow, clichéd, forgettable and, like a certain nearby wall, trickle-down.
The service is easy to describe: Take order, go get food. We didn't see a lot of charm or interplay between servers and customers.
When I asked, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, if the bottle of merlot would pair OK with my buy-one-get-one-free hamburger, the server responded that she couldn't possibly know because she had never tasted merlot.
Riverside Clubhouse is brought to you by the Haines brothers – Fred the chef and Matt the numbers guy – local restaurateurs who have achieved a good deal of success in the restaurant business, including 33rd Street Bistro and Bistro 33 in El Dorado Hills.
There have also been a couple of clunkers. Spin Burger Bar, for instance, was the odd, awkward and mercifully short-lived juxtaposition of less-than-appealing specialty burgers with a contrived bicycle theme, including a stationary bike customers were encouraged to pedal furiously before or after downing one of many burger offerings.
Apparently, the "entertainment" value was to see if anybody would actually participate in such nonsense and, if so, could do it without barfing.
Before Spin, the restaurant at the corner of 16th and K streets was a Bistro 33, where I once encountered a swordfish dish so rancid I could smell it when the waiter was 10 feet from the table. No, I didn't press attempted murder charges.
Then there was Tre, where the cutting-edge chef Charlie Harrison came up with some dazzling culinary creations that nevertheless failed to find an audience.
Tre is long gone, and Harrison is now starring at iNG, an avant-garde restaurant in Chicago under Michelin-starred modernist chef Homaro Cantu.
Riverside Clubhouse does not aspire to be anything other than what it is: a busy restaurant serving food to folks who don't demand better. In a 2007 feature story in this newspaper, Fred Haines said as much: "My strength is being able to read my guests. I know what sells. When I put a menu together, I ask myself, 'Can I sell it?' "
Not to me, he can't. Not the breaded pork chop with the dried-out "dirty rice" that looked like it had been reheated in the microwave. Not the bland salads made with less-than-stellar produce. Not the "classic" fish and chips, which were simply watery, gooey and nearly tasteless, though accompanied by decent fries.
What they can sell me is one of their rather ordinary burgers – if they give one each to me and my significant, promise not to overcook it, throw in a bottle of Bogle wine and a cheap dessert I can't remember eating for $25.
That's what they did, that's what they do every Tuesday, and that's the only thing worth getting excited about.
What's a neighborhood restaurant? The very good ones are an inspiration and a delight, and those are flourishing in and around Sacramento.
With its menu of food that sells but doesn't inspire, Riverside Clubhouse won't be seeing interlopers any time soon. It's a successful neighborhood restaurant best left to the neighbors who don't demand anything better.
2633 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar
Vegetarian friendly: Limited
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Overall Two stars (out of 4 stars)
Convenience, ambiance and food specials are the highlights at this neighborhood mainstay. Though it is a friendly place to grab a bite, the kitchen underachieves. The service is basic at best.
Food Two stars
Straightforward and mainstream to some, predictable and banal to others, the menu here is either putting a finger to the wind or waving the white flag. Decent food at best, though sometimes the cooking is not as precise as it could be and some of the plating is no more refined than what we get in a cafeteria (see pork chops and dirty rice).
Service Two stars
They say "hello," they write down your order and they bring you your food. What? You want more than that?
Ambiance Three stars
That wall of water is an achievement of interior design and solid plumbing. The fireplace is a touch of coziness in the winter. The place can get a little loud, though it's a comfortable and stylish setting. We rode our bikes on two of the three visits and eventually found the bike rack on the edge of the parking lot.
Value Two 1/2 stars
The best deal going is the two large burgers, a bottle of wine and one skimpy dessert for $25. The happy hour deals are also worthwhile and on Sundays and Mondays kids under 12 eat free when an adult purchases an entree.
Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.