Longbranch Saloon Surpasses Expectations

It turns out the handsome Berkeley drinking establishment is more than that, delivering the perfect meal with Zuni Cafe-esque chicken, an amazing burger, and inspired cocktails


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The roasted chicken is outstanding

Photo by Lori Eanes

When we go out to dinner, we indulge in an appetizer even before we get to the restaurant. It’s called expectation. It comes with being human, and how we anticipate a meal that we’re paying for is influenced by other humans—by word of mouth from friends or colleagues, a critic’s review, or comments on Yelp, Open Table, or Trip Advisor. I admit I didn’t have the highest expectations for dinner at the Longbranch Saloon, the restaurant and bar that opened in late 2014 on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, next door to Paisan (and near Good Vibrations, just for another point of reference).

I hadn’t read or heard a whole lot about the place, which took over the space previously occupied by Sea Salt and gets its name from a legendary 1970s music venue that lived on the same block. But I had perused its menu online, which at first glance looked like unsurprising pub grub—oysters, mussels and clams, ribs, pasta primavera, sausage, pork shoulder, a burger, and lots of fried things (pickles, potatoes, cheese curds, Brussels sprouts)—to put in your belly while consuming any of a vast array of adult beverages. From a distance, the Longbranch seemed to be mostly about the drinking, especially the drinking of beer (24 selections on tap), whiskey (150 whiskies, bourbons, and ryes), and wine, all offered in flights, as well as craft cocktails.

From close up, the Longbranch also looks to be primarily a drinking establishment, and a handsome one at that, with a long row of taps, a back bar gleaming with shelves of liquor bottles, a couple of flat-screen TVs, and an appealing, airy, not-so-Wild-Wild-West décor highlighted by wood-plank high-top tables and counters. There are a few low tables in front and back, plus an entire extra room of dining space and a patio that belongs to Paisan but is shared during weekend brunch. Robin and I showed up around 4:15 in the afternoon to take advantage of happy hour, when you can get one of the special cocktails for just $5. We nursed our drinks—a Grandpa Doc’s dirty martini and a daiquiri—until we could order food at 5 p.m.

That night, the drinks (a second round included a phenomenal California Corpse Reviver made with St. George Terroir gin) and the service (Dan took great care of us, and other staff members were friendly and efficient) were the best things about the meal. The food was fine: Fried pickles were fun complements to the cocktails; the fried Brussels sprouts were crispy but rather dry; and both the main dishes—pork shoulder on a bed of farro pasta, chickpeas, roasted tomatoes, English peas, sugar snap peas, and baby carrots, and mussels and clams in a broth with house-made chorizo and a slice of toasted Acme levain—were cooked to perfection and presented beautifully but lacked any “wow” factor in the seasoning.

So we returned a week later with expectations of not much more than excellent cocktails and a pleasant meal in a welcoming and comfortable environment. We left 90 minutes later in a state of wonder, having experienced something close to a perfect meal. Now, everyone has his or her own idea of a perfect meal. For some, it’s a $200 art-on-the-plate tasting menu with wondrous wine pairings and Swiss-precision service. For Robin, it’s more like the fried riceball salad, Lao sausage, and a cold Lao beer at Champa Garden. I can go either way. I’ve found perfection at the bar in the Restaurant at Meadowood, in a booth at Mama’s Royal Café, and at countless eateries in between. I’m generally a happy eater. But I’m certain about one thing: I will return to the Longbranch to see if the bar and kitchen are up to a repeat performance of our oh-so-satisfying second dinner, which felt like a bargain at $84, including two cocktails each, before tip.

I started with a Sam’s Sazerac, from the “Saloon Cocktails” list, a fine take on the New Orleans standard, made with Sazerac rye, Raynold brandy, simple syrup, herbsaint wash, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters, and a flamed lemon twist. It paired well with the spicy, icy, citrus-tinged Kusshi oyster shooter, served in a small bowl with grapefruit granita, shiso, and wasabi tobiko. That idyllic start was followed by an amply shareable salad of roasted cauliflower and Lacinato kale made crunchy with lots of toasted farro, and sweet-tangy-tart with pickled strawberry, ricotta salata, and pomegranate-citrus vinaigrette.

Finally, after a not-unreasonable wait (given that my order took 25 minutes to prepare), I was presented with a plate of roasted Mary’s organic chicken that approached the Platonic ideal of the Zuni Café classic. The half chicken, cut up after roasting, boasted a crisp, well-seasoned skin, and tender meat that remained moist while thoroughly cooked. It was bedded on a warm mushroom and toasted levain salad given a peppery bite from arugula and a sharp brightness from sherry vinaigrette.

I don’t know if that meal could have been improved upon by adding one of the tempting desserts—coconut chiffon cake, bourbon crème brûlée, chocolate praline mousse cake, or strawberry bread pudding—but I didn’t have room, anyway, and ended up taking a leg and a wing home for the next day’s lunch. Not incidentally, Robin was just as delighted with her Longbranch burger, made with freshly ground Creekstone Farms beef and served on a toasted bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, ripe tomato, pickles, white cheddar (or provolone) cheese, garlic aioli, house-made mustard and ketchup, and hand-cut french fries. Best yet for her, she ordered it well done and that’s how it arrived.

I don’t expect to be able to step into the same river twice, and the Longbranch’s menus do change with the seasons and market availability. But we will go back—for the same dinner, if possible, or, perhaps, for some smoked pork ribs, duck confit with lentils, braised oxtails, black pepper and Parmesan sausage, or a 16-ounce rib-eye steak—with the best kind of expectations: high ones based on experience.

 

Longbranch Saloon

American. 2512 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley. 510-984-0518. Appetizers, small plates, salads $4.5-$10, main dishes $15-$30, sides $3-$7, desserts $8, Saloon cocktails $11-$13, whiskey flights $16-$40, draft beer $6-$7, bottled beer $6-$16, beer flights $8-$9, wine $34-$75 by the bottle and $9-$15 by the glass, wine flights $16-$20. Dinner 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 4 p.m.-9 p.m. Sun., brunch 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun., bar hours 4 p.m.-midnight Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-midnight Sat., 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Sun., late-night menu 10 p.m.-11 p.m. Tue.-Sat., happy hour 4-6 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Sun., www.LongbranchBerkeley.com. CC$$-$$$

 

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