Would the real Pine Tavern please stand up?
Two recent meals — a very disappointing dinner, a subsequent excellent lunch — have me asking the classic question from the old “To Tell the Truth” television program.
My dinnertime disenchantment with both food and service was partially redeemed a week later, when I returned for an excellent lunch on the Pine Tavern's delightful riverside patio. Perhaps my evening experience was an aberration. At the very least, it points up a degree of inconsistency.
Certainly, no restaurant survives 74 years without doing a lot of things right. Opened in 1936 when Bend was a small lumber-mill town, the Pine Tavern has built a reputation upon its classic ambience, homespun service and reliably consistent cuisine.
To be sure, today's clientele doesn't seem to include a lot of younger local couples. Almost without exception, the diners I observed were either families with young children, or they were middle-aged and older. The restaurant is also often sought out by visitors from Portland and the Willamette Valley.
The Pine Tavern takes its name from two large ponderosa pines that extend into the ceiling of the restaurant's main dining room, giving diners a sense of being in a woodland pavilion. (Only one of the trees actually emerges through the roof.) Beyond this dining room, maple and birch trees shade the beautifully landscaped brick patio overlooking the Deschutes River. At the front of the restaurant, where Oregon Avenue ends at Brooks Street, hostesses greet patrons beside the casual lounge, a local watering hole.
So, what made me so unhappy with my dinner?
It couldn't have been the scones, even though they aren't really scones. Melt-in-your-mouth famous, the delicious baked goods that launch the meals of most Pine Tavern diners are more like beignets (fried pastries), served with creamed honey.
The young man who served me and my companion was a nice enough fellow, earnest and conversational. But he made us uncomfortable with his attempts at familiarity. He joked about his co-workers and several times patted me on the back as he was taking our orders and delivering our salads.
Those salads were no better than ordinary. My Caesar was made with fresh, crisp romaine lettuce, and topped with cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmesan cheese. Herbed croutons, however, were more hard than crispy and were larger than bite-sized. I moved them all aside on my plate.
My companion had a house salad of tossed greens. She asked for honey-mustard dressing on the side. But her request was ignored, and the dressing — which she decided was heavy and unremarkable — was delivered already atop the greens.
For her entree, my friend selected Oregon Country Beef prime rib, a 10-ounce hand-seasoned cut that is one of the Pine Tavern's longtime customer favorites. Served with jus, blue-cheese butter and creamy horseradish, the meat was cooked rare to medium-rare, as she likes it.
And although my companion enjoyed the beef, she said the flavor was not in any way distinctive.
It's hard to make a mistake with a baked potato, but when a fine-dining restaurant delivers it not with a serving of whipped butter but with a bowl full of pre-wrapped butter patties, that's a mistake. The vegetables were good: fresh broccoli, carrots and green beans, steamed al dente.
I was torn between ordering several entree items, and I was eyeing the list of daily specials, which features fresh seafood. Our server discouraged me from selecting the sturgeon, and he told me the kitchen was out of another dish that I had considered. So I followed his recommendation and opted for pork tenderloin Oregonian, described on the menu as “encrusted in chopped hazelnuts and topped with marionberry-merlot sauce.”
Next to my friend's slab of prime rib, my piece of pork was a thin cutlet. The plate was dominated not by meat, but by a pile of mashed Yukon Gold potatoes and a complement of vegetables.
I cut into my pork and took a bite. I could have been eating cardboard. The meat was overcooked and the nutty coating had failed to lock in any moisture. Two bites and I was done.
After a spell, our friendly server returned. “How is everything?” he asked, cheerily.
“This is terrible,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” the server deadpanned.
“No, really, this meat is truly awful,” I said.
There was a moment of silence, and then: “Oh, you're serious?!”
At this point, our server did the right thing. After I explained what I didn't like, he apologized profusely and replaced my meal with another. This time I chose chicken Marsala, which I enjoyed. The tender poultry breast was much larger than my piece of pork had been, and the Marsala wine sauce doubled as excellent gravy for the mashed potatoes.
Lunch on the patio
My subsequent solo lunch was a far better experience. On the patio among carefully tended hostas and geraniums, I sat near a large maple tree with a birdhouse designed to look like the outside of the Pine Tavern. Two warblers were flitting in and out of a birdhouse window, perhaps feeding a brood within. It was a charming scene.
The lunch menu informed me that I could add broiled salmon to my spinach salad, but I hesitated: The midday entree listing declared it Atlantic salmon, and I have a strong preference for wild-caught Pacific salmon.
My server, who was young but very professional and not prone to back-patting, assured me the fish was indeed line-caught Columbia River chinook, and that despite what the menu said, the Pine Tavern no longer carries Atlantic salmon. New chef Skye Elder, who started in May, insisted on the regional product, he told me.
The salmon couldn't have been prepared any better. It was lightly charbroiled to medium doneness, easily flaking but still moist in the middle. Served atop the spinach salad, it was a perfect complement. A generous portion of fresh baby leaves was tossed in a tangy marionberry vinaigrette with slices of Bosc pear, chopped hazelnuts, crumbled chevre cheese, red bell peppers and red onions. The whole presentation was superb.
I will certainly give the Pine Tavern another opportunity. But I think I'm more likely to return again for a sunlit lunch on the wonderful patio than chance another dinner indoors.
Maragas Winery will host its first Central Oregon Grape Stomp from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 4. “You'll get to hop in the vat and stomp grapes just like Lucy (of “I Love Lucy” fame),” said owner Doug Maragas. Tickets, priced at $10, include three tastings and a complimentary logo glass. Children are admitted free with parents; food, beer and soft drinks will be available. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Partnership to End Poverty. Jazz music will be played by the Two Thirds Trio, with Michelle Van Handel, and by Lino and his band. Maragas Winery is located one mile north of the Terrebonne-Crooked River bridge at 15523 S.W. U.S. Highway 97, Culver; 541-546-5464, www.maragaswinery.com.
Rimrock Cafe (B+): The cafe at Bend's High Desert Museum may not be gourmet, but the soups, salads and sandwiches served here are fresh, tasty and generous in portion. Seating is indoors and outdoors, with chipmunks always ready to beg for a patio meal. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. 59800 S. U.S.Highway 97, Bend; 541-382-4754, www.highdesertmuseum .org.
The Spice Box (A-): This new family-friendly cafe is operated by three women of East Indian heritage who serve “the same things we have on our Sunday dinner table.” There's no buffet table here; the short menu features mild vegetarian curries as well as chicken dishes and, occasionally, lamb. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday. 133 S.W. Century Drive, Suite 204, Bend; 541-419-2542.
Thyme at FivePine (B+): T.R. and Jennifer McCrystal, the same couple who own Jen's Garden, have revamped the dining room at the FivePine Resort. Some dishes are superb, but preparations are inconsistent; service and ambience are fine but not outstanding. Open 4 p.m. to close every day through late September; same hours Wednesday to Saturday through May. 1011 Desperado Trail (FivePine Lodge&Conference Center), Sisters; 541-588-6151, www.thymeinsisters.com.
Dandy's Drive-In (B+): As they did when Dandy's opened in 1968, smiling servers roller-skate up to car windows to take orders for cheeseburgers and shakes. Other sandwiches pale in comparison to the burgers. The only menu is posted on boards above the covered 18-car parking area. 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. 1334 N.E. Third St., Bend; 541-382-6141.