They say you should never judge a book by its cover. That’s certainly the case with Club Pioneer in Prineville.
The venerable steakhouse and lounge, on U.S. Highway 26 at the east end of town, 36 miles northeast of Bend, offers much more than a fleeting glance might suggest. Behind the nondescript facade, it may be Crook County’s finest restaurant.
Club Pioneer has been a fixture at least since 1950, according to the folks at Prineville’s Bowman Museum. Records show that original owner John Lang purchased a building that previously had been the East Side Club. Earlier information is sketchy.
Of course, Club Pioneer has had a couple of makeovers in the past half century. Today, although the interior remains somewhat barn-like, with only a couple of tiny street-side windows welcoming natural light, it’s a neat, clean and handsome space.
Two dining areas are split by a room divider that adds a touch of intimacy; a popular lounge adjoins on the east side of the building. Wonderful historical photographs of early Prineville, Central Oregon’s first city, hang on the walls. A blend of classic soft rock and popular country music plays in the background.
Service is both professional and personable, as you might expect in a country town: By the time you leave, you feel as if you and your server are old friends. My first dinner server, who’s probably about my age, told me about the two-week trip to Alaska she was planning. My second server, who just graduated from Crook County High School, will be heading off to Oregon State University this fall. That’s more than I know about people who have served me multiple times in Bend.
Club Pioneer remains remarkably unsophisticated, which may be part of its charm. For example, the first time I came for dinner, “ahi ahi” was listed as a blackboard special. I wondered whether it was meant to be ahi tuna or mahi mahi.
“It’s tuna,” my server patiently explained.
She asked her chef about the double name. “That’s what my distributor called it,” he replied.
A pleasant surprise
One of the things I like about Club Pioneer is that it serves fresh-frozen seafood, not the kind that comes breaded and must inevitably be deep-fried.
On my first visit, my dining companion and I shared an appetizer plate of a half-dozen tiger prawns, sauteed in butter and garlic. They were excellent.
Every dinner also includes a “relish tray” and bread. The relish was raw vegetables with ranch dressing, including yam, daikon radish, zucchini, carrot, celery and black olives. It took the edge off. A warm, dinner roll-size loaf of bread came with packaged pads of butter.
My companion began with a crispy house salad of iceberg lettuce. As an entree, she ordered a slab of prime rib with a baked potato. The beef was very rare, as she likes it, and reasonably lean, although she found the accompanying au jus to be overly salty. The potato, on her request, came “with everything”: bacon bits, green onion and a dollop of sour cream.
I had a cup of the soup du jour, a hearty and chunky-creamy baked-potato soup. Then came my main course.
My stuffed halibut was a real treat. It was lightly breaded, stuffed with crab meat and grilled, then piled high with bay shrimp. The filet was good size and there was no scrimping on the filling. Accompanied by rice pilaf with orzo, it was a delicious meal.
Satisfied after our dinner, we passed up dessert, although the restaurant offered a nice choice of cheesecake, homemade pie and ice cream for just $3.95 a serving.
A second dinner
I came alone for my next dinner at Club Pioneer. Again, I began with soup, this time a tasty prime-rib stew with potatoes, carrots, celery and onions.
On my server’s recommendation, I ordered a chicken teriyaki dinner. The bird was so tender I could cut it with a fork, with a pineapple baked on top for the last couple of minutes it was in the oven. But I found the teriyaki sauce both very sweet and too salty.
Instead of potatoes, I had steamed vegetables as an accompaniment. These were fresh vegetables, not something out of a frozen-food bag, and because they were not overly cooked, they retained their flavor. Broccoli, zucchini, julienned carrots and string beans were accented by lots of minced garlic. Although the beans were pithy, the other veggies were excellent.
Again I passed on dessert, enjoying instead a summer fruit salad of watermelon and pineapple chunks that came with the dinner.
The beverage list features a limited but reasonably priced selection of wines (20 of them, from $12.95 a bottle) and beers (18, including several on draft). My only suggestion here would be to consider more Northwest and fewer California vintages.
Club Pioneer may not be a gourmet restaurant in the truest sense of the word, but unlike many other old-school eateries, it makes an effort to provide healthy, creative cuisine at reasonable prices and with solid service. I will be back.
Taj Palace (B-). As authentic an Asian dining experience as can be had in Central Oregon, the Taj is an oasis of Third World culture. Serving the cuisine of both south and north India, it has an extensive lunch buffet and a full dinner menu. The tandoori chicken is excellent. Beware if you can’t handle spicy foods, as the level of chilies in a dish is often undeclared. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. daily. 917 N.W. Wall St., Bend. 330-0774. Bluefish Bistro (A-). Chef-scientist Matthew Mulder may be Central Oregon’s best molecular gastronomer. He gives a consistently creative turn to such dishes as smoked salmon (on meringue disks with a mango-infused caviar) and pork tenderloin (with dried-blueberry juice). The restaurant is bright and cheery, with a full wall of windows; service is pleasant and casual. Open 5 p.m. to close Tuesday to Saturday. 819 N.W. Franklin Ave., Bend. 330-0663. Ernesto’s (B). A charming village ambience provides a relaxing backdrop to a meal in this former church. But although the Italian home cooking is sometimes excellent, it can also be inconsistent, and there’s a tendency toward overcooking. The lunch buffet is one of Bend’s best bargains. Open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday for lunch; 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 4:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday for dinner. 1203 N.E. Third St., Bend. 389-7274, www .ernestositalian.com. Saigon Village (B+). Clean, spacious, friendly, efficient, this storefront cafe in the Fred Meyer Shopping Center provides Central Oregonians their only chance at authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Invest in pho, the culture’s trademark beef soup with long rice noodles, but skip the tempura and other Japanese dishes. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday. 950 S.W. Veterans Way, Suite 100, Redmond; 923-9986.
Location: 1851 N.E. 3rd St. (U.S. Highway 26), Prineville.
Hours: Dinner daily 5 p.m. to close; brunch Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Price range: Dinner appetizers $6.95-$10.95, entrees $13.95-$23.95.
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa.
Children’s menu: Yes.
Alcoholic beverages: Full bar.
Food: B+. This isn’t gourmet, but the menu runs the gamut from traditional to healthy and creative.
Service: B+. As professional and personable as you could want in a small-town restaurant.
Atmosphere: B. Undistinguished outside but pleasant inside, with historic photos on the walls.
Value: A-. Good portions, fair prices.