The strengths of the Monte Vista Inn – its location in a minuscule foothills town along I-80, the charming old building itself, the log-cabin décor, the lively bar and numerous home-baked pies that range from good to glorious – are enough to make this worth a stop on your way to or from Lake Tahoe.
But they're not quite enough to cover up all of the restaurant's weaknesses.
Some of those could be resolved with a 15-minute staff meeting; others, like the overall quality of the food, could be tweaked and improved with significant attention to detail.
But there are things about this restaurant (and bar) that leave me wondering if I was the victim of a prank. Like the time we took our place at the "Please wait to be seated" sign – and waited for 10 minutes.
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As the wait stretched from two minutes to five minutes, then 10 minutes, my eyes wandered over to the bar, which was full of folks having a good time – including, as it turns out, our host.
Finally, after I began wondering if Dutch Flat had a Wendy's or an AM/PM with some gooey nacho cheese, a woman whom I'd seen glance over at us a time or two ambled over.
A pained expression swept over her face, and she shook her head. I thought she was going to tell me something along the lines of, "The test results came back and there's nothing the doctors can do." It was one of those looks.
"We're really backed up. It's going to be at least 10 minutes before I can seat you," she said. "Would you like to have a drink at the bar?"
"Not really," I said, rubbing my eyes to make sure all the vacant tables and chairs I was seeing in the dining room weren't a mirage. "And besides, your restaurant is practically empty."
"I know, but we only have one waitress on duty and we just had a party of six walk in. I can seat you, but it's going to be a while before she will have time to take your order."
At this point, she'd made me feel like a troublemaker.
With menus in hand, she led us into a parallel universe in which an empty restaurant is a backed-up restaurant and a sleepy little village feels more like a tense metropolis. I settled in and watched the weirdness unfold.
I could overhear our host explain to others how everything was behind and customers were pretty much screwed if they expected to have food at their table in a timely fashion.
I glanced at my watch. It was 6 p.m. on a Sunday, the traditional dinnertime in the universe I usually inhabit.
Then something really weird happened. The server came by within 60 seconds, said hello, brought us some bread and returned to take our order.
Was she panicked? Overwhelmed? Out of breath? Not in the least. There were no problems, and it turns out, no reason for the bizarre explanation we got when we walked in.
The food is decent overall, but not as good as it could be. The menu doesn't have a focus or central theme, which means the overall identity of the restaurant remains unclear and confused. The cooking is straightforward in places, sometimes dull, occasionally overwrought, often under-seasoned and, in the case of the "teriyaki prime rib," so blackened it should have come with a chisel or crime scene tape.
We ordered steak and had the option of three styles. We steered clear of the teriyaki style and went for the garlic-style steak. The kitchen is not subtle when it comes to garlic. Cloves blanketed the beef and were piled high on the plate. Take your pick: overdone or disgusting.
Monte Vista Inn actually has a second menu that lists the specials, which change periodically and include such choices as fresh fish and medallions of elk.
I ordered the mahi mahi, which was described as extremely fresh. Indeed, it was fresh before it was frozen somewhere between the time it was pulled out of the ocean and delivered to Dutch Flat. The fish was small and dull, but the biggest distraction on the plate was the salsa topping the fish – a mix of chopped pineapple and minced raw white onions. That combination was a revelation – they are horrible together. Now I know.
The Southwestern chicken dinner is satisfactory, though the steamed cauliflower and broccoli could be taken to new heights with a little creative thinking. The french fries are good, the sandwiches, including the chicken roll-up, are OK but a tad dull.
The best part of the Monte Vista Inn were the desserts. If you're into pies and you're on your way up or down the mountain, this is your kind of place. They have a dozen or more varieties. The raspberry pie is good.
And darn, how I wish our assistant server didn't let it slip that some of the cakes and pies weren't available because "they're still frozen."
Still, there are not a lot of options in Dutch Flat, a place known to few and inhabited by fewer. If you're in the area, this is your place, and if you're passing through, order the basics on the menu, forgo anything that mentions teriyaki or garlic, and save room for some pie.
Arriving at the traditional dinnertime, however, could mean there will be a wait of 10 minutes or more, especially if the place seems mostly empty.
Monte Vista Inn
32106 Ridge Road, Dutch Flat
Hours: 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily
Full bar? Yes.
Vegetarian friendly? Somewhat.
Overall 2 stars (fair)
This is a charming and appealing place to stop off I-80 for travelers heading to the higher elevations. The room has that log cabin feel, but the food and certain intangibles could be improved.
Food 2 stars (fair)
The approach to cooking is straightforward and only occasionally creative. The best bet is to find a favorite or a basic dish and go with that. Some of the options, like the garlic steak, overreached and, thus, overwhelmed. The pies are good, and the giant $20 hamburger makes for a hearty challenge for the big eater.
Service 2 stars (fair)
The wait staff is friendly and attentive, but during one visit we got one of the more bizarre greetings we can recall. Had we not just driven an hour to get there, we would have left and looked for a Wendy's.
Ambience 3 1/2 stars (very good)
It's a lovely, rustic, cozy room and the place gets bonus points for the extra decorating touches during holidays throughout the year. Halloween was fun, and the Christmas décor is supposed to be even better.
Value 2 stars (fair)
Most of the prices are in the teens. Don't expect any flair or extra touches with the cooking.