A restaurant like the Railroad Station Bar and Grill in Cloverdale could very well be the best restaurant in town in many places across America. But in Sonoma County, it's a sports bar with some kickin' grub to go with the row of beers on tap and the 65 choices of beers and hard ciders by the bottle.
The big, open room is not an old railroad station. It's named for the station that will be the northern terminus of the SMART train from the Larkspur Ferry to Cloverdale when both phases of construction are finished. The Cloverdale depot has been built since 1999 and continues to wait for the train to arrive. When it does, passengers will find the Railroad Station Bar and Grill waiting just a few steps away.
You can tell it's a sports bar by the seven large, flat-screen TVs placed strategically around the room, tuned to a variety of competitions. The sound is turned off so there's no cacophony of announcers hollering.
Service couldn't have been nicer; it was gracious, friendly and helpful. Our waitress seemed genuinely happy to serve us, and that makes any dining experience better.
The food is an elevated sort of pub grub, and while the kitchen uses local ingredients and makes its dishes from scratch (the menu brags that they do not have a microwave on the premises), they are hit-and-miss in terms of quality. For instance, the <CF103>Railroad Chili</CF> ($4 a cup; $7.50 a bowl ***) was a definite hit, rich with good ground beef in a spicy - but not firehouse spicy - chili base that's loaded with three kinds of beans.
An example of a miss was the "hand-cut French fries" that came with the entrees. The first problem was that they were overcooked to a burned-looking dark brown that might have made them crispy; yet somehow they were also limp and soggy. A place like this, where burgers and fried foods are a central part of the menu, should have wicked good fries, especially when there are five kinds of special fries that include Disco (like Poutine), Garlic Pecorino, Bacon Cheese, Truffle & Herbs, and Chili Cheese.
The <CF103>Hummus Plate </CF>($7 **?) was excellent, with the rather bland flavors of pureed chick peas and tahini piqued by lemon and garlic. Some fresh vegetables and lots of pita bread for scooping up the hummus filled the plate. The Soup of the Day was Shrimp Bisque ($4 cup, $7 bowl **), which was a slightly spicy tomato soup with just a whisper of shrimp flavor.
Take the restaurant's word for its <CF103>Hot Buffalo Shrimp</CF> ($9 ***), because these skewered, grilled shrimp are tossed in a hot sauce and become mighty spicy in a very good way. To cool things down, the plate contains celery and Point Reyes Blue Cheese dressing. And seven fans set into the ceiling, all going at once, help keep things cool, too.
To make <CF103>Crispy Nor Cal Rolls</CF> ($9.50 **?), ancho-braised chicken, peppers, onions, black beans, corn and jack cheese are enfolded in a wonton wrapper that's then deep fried and served with a lovely lime and avocado dipping sauce.
The menu includes a range of interesting, if pricey, sandwiches. The "Snake River Farms Kobe Beef Hot Dog" is $9.50 — a hefty tab for a hot dog, even if it is Kobe beef, which, despite the moniker, it's not. Calling American Wagyu beef "Kobe" is akin to calling Sonoma County sparkling wine "Champagne." The Wagyu breed of Japanese cattle from which Kobe beef is raised is crossed with Black Angus to create American Wagyu, which is what Snake River sells.