Upside Woodside

Bella Vista Continental Restaurant
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paulr@sfbg.com

"Are we on the San Andreas Fault?" my companion asked uneasily as we stepped from the car and stood looking at the Bella Vista Continental Restaurant, lit up like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale in the soft winter gloaming. "No," I said. "The fault" — really a rift zone, so I'd learned in my college geology class — "is down there." I gestured vaguely past the rambling structure, perched at the edge of a woody abyss, toward the twinkles and shadows below, perhaps at Larry Ellison's $27 million Woodside backyard. The fault, or rift zone, as I understand it, creates the long, narrow valley that separates Skyline Boulevard and I-280 for much of the northern length of the Peninsula. The valley's chain of lakes look like Scottish lochs but are in fact reservoirs run by the San Francisco Water Department. Larry Ellison runs Oracle; would we find him at the bar at Bella Vista? Is he a regular?

When we stepped inside, we found no sign of him, but the bar was lightly populated by a quartet of young men in sweatpants and sneakers staring at a flat-screen broadcast of some Stanford game.

"We're overdressed," my companion hissed, and my heart sank. I remembered the restaurant as being agreeably classy in an Aspen-ish, horse-country way, with a wealth of rustic, roadside-inn touches — exposed wood beams, picture lamps with their cords trailing down the walls, an unpaved parking lot among the cedars — but my last visit had been some years earlier, in the summer of 1980, when Jimmy Carter's solar panels were still in place on the White House roof and the phrase "President Reagan" was still tinged with irreality. Had the past quarter century brought a down-market slalom to this handsome and atmospheric stalwart, which opened in 1927? Had it become a kind of Dutch Goose with a view, or a rival to Zott's, the fabled hamburger stand and beer garden (once a stagecoach stop, now called something else) on nearby Alpine Road? We were led to our table, which was set with a red rose and a frosted hurricane lamp with a real candle, and our server shortly appeared in a black dinner jacket and black tie, speaking with an Old World accent we guessed might be Belgian. No, no down-market drift.

Cuisine described as "continental" might have had an alluring patina a generation or two ago, but nowadays it suggests museum cooking. Bella Vista is one of the Bay Area's premier view restaurants anyway, and views tend to be conversation pieces. The view is why people are there, and the food only has to be good enough to keep them from getting up and leaving in disappointment.

As it turns out, Bella Vista's food is quite a bit better than that, and while it is old-fashioned — I found myself wondering if the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton might offer a similar menu if it were moved to a lonely mountain road — it's far from arthritic. Good food always does honor to a restaurant, of course, and is a sound fallback plan for any view restaurant in the event (at some point inevitable) that the view is temporarily obscured by weather or ... other forces. We found the air hazy and smoke scented when we arrived; was Larry Ellison hosting a huge barbecue somewhere on the glittering carpet of lights below?

No grilling at Bella Vista. The kitchen's main instruments are the sauté pan and the oven. New Zealand mussels ($14), for instance — gigantic ones — were arrayed on the half shell, slathered with garlic, parsley, and butter, and briefly roasted. This was fine by us, especially since the puddles of leftover melted butter were perfect for sopping up with the formidably sour sourdough bread.

For the relief of unbearable garlic breath, we were presented with an intermezzo of peach sorbet, spooned into sturdy sherry glasses that resembled dwarf champagne trumpets.

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