"Would you like to see Bosco?" the barkeep asks my cousin and me as we wander into the bar. We nod, somewhat puzzled. According to the articles on the wall outside, Bosco has been dead for close to a decade.
She backs up to a large realistic replica of a black dog standing on the bar, a red bandanna tied around his neck. "His eyes flash, his tongue wags, and when you lift his leg. ..." She pulls up his rear leg, and a stream of golden liquid pours out of Bosco's, um, pride. A small glass catches the frothy liquid, which the barkeep proudly hands to me. "Bosco Brew," she says.
The brew is only half of what brings folks to Bosco's Bones & Brew in Sunol, a tiny speck on the map between Pleasanton and Fremont. Get off 680, and you'll find yourself driving through a tiny rural community characterized by greenhouses, not gridlock. The community's independent spirit decried growth, leaving the town rural and charming.
That same independent spirit led the town to elect Bosco -- half black Lab and half Rottweiler -- mayor in 1981. Bosco defeated two other candidates, one of them a biker named Wolf, and the story made national news. When owner Mike Cerny opened his new restaurant in December 1999, he decided it should be named after the town's most famous resident (upsetting Bosco's former owner, who complained about the tastelessness of the beer tap).
Bosco's Bones and Brew quickly became Sunol's Saturday Night Special restaurant, the place where locals gathered for special meals and where curious travelers stopped by for steaks and ended up returning. On a Thursday night several weeks ago, three friends and I arrived without making reservations and ended up sharing the entryway with a small crowd for thirty minutes before a table could be ready. "We're a little short-staffed tonight," the waitress explained. Having cooked through hundreds of poorly managed flash floods of diners, I didn't mind waiting.
Through maintenance and artifice, Sunol's downtown has preserved the look of an old Western town, yet it seems lived-in, not a relic. The ornate whitewashed building that houses Bosco's must have been one of the town's four hotels that sheltered the nascent film industry headquartered in nearby Niles, during an era that drew San Franciscans for weekend getaways. But the artifice shows through once you enter the restaurant. It's just too clean. The Ethan Allen furnishings have only weathered a couple of years of regular use, and the brass lanterns lighting each booth have an electric flame in their glass chambers and a lightbulb shining from the base. The waiters, a friendly bunch, wear white shirts and dark vests with silver sheriff's badges pinned to them.
Bosco's menu reads, "We serve the food of 1890." I doubt that saloons of the period served salads with balsamic vinaigrette, or steamed vegetables so crisp they could still remember what being raw felt like. I'm sure that a few swamp wranglers in Louisiana dined on crispy alligator nuggets, too, but I doubt that Alameda County ranchers did.
Most of the entrées are priced in the $15 to $28 range, which includes soup or salad. One night's soup, steak and black bean, contained vegetables, a few beans, and chunks of meat in a decent, beefy broth. The tomato-lentil soup I tasted on the next visit had obviously been made recently -- the flavors were fresh and bright and the lentils, chopped vegetables, and tomatoes hadn't disintegrated into mush. The house salads weren't quite as fresh, and were drizzled generously with strong balsamic vinaigrette. For the sake of overkill one night, we ordered a plate of fried calamari from the list of appetizers (skipping the alligator nuggets and buffalo kebabs). We got a small school of baby squid, sliced into rings and dipped in a crumbly batter, with rémoulade sauce. The tough calamari had spent too much time either in the freezer or the fryer before we met up with it.
Almost all the entrées come with baked potatoes and crisp steamed vegetables -- a mix of broccoli, yellow and green zucchini, and carrots. Steaks take up one page of the menu, and another page lists chicken, fish, and pasta dishes. Stick with the beef side.
The best dish I tasted over my two visits was the prime rib, served in cuts of eight, twelve, or sixteen ounces. Salt and herbs crusted its exterior, penetrating throughout the entire cut. The deep pink at the center gently radiated out to palest gray at the edges, sign of a perfect medium-rare. I dipped slices of the tender meat and chunks of baked potato in the ramekin of salty beef-bouillon jus served alongside.
One of my companions ordered his Angus rib eye medium, and when it arrived perfectly cooked he decided he should have requested medium-rare. The cooks had removed the bone from the cut before grilling, splitting the steak into two. The meat remained pink inside, but the char taste of the blackened exterior overwhelmed its flavor, especially in the smaller portion. A medium Angus burger was so lean that it easily slid over to the well edge of the spectrum. But the caramelized onions on top were sweet and mild, and the fries alongside were what we Midwesterners call "mojos," lightly breaded wedges that were fried until crunchy on the outside and cakey in the inside.
The lighter dishes didn't impress us. We didn't finish much of the chicken Monterey, slices of chicken and fettuccine in an oily, bland mix of tomatoes, white wine, butter, and pepper Jack. The salmon was evenly seasoned with an unremarkable "blackening" mix, cooked medium-well -- not my preference, my companion's -- and topped with a tablespoon of fruit salsa. A fillet of sole was wrapped around a large scoop of crab and bay shrimp stuffing before being roasted. It was sauced with a creamy but too-delicate Chardonnay-lime beurre blanc.
Some of the desserts, such as the jewelbox of chocolate mousse wrapped in a striped white and dark chocolate ribbon, are obviously brought in from outside, and some, such as a nutmeg-inflected rice pudding, are made in-house. The extensive wine list covers good territory. More importantly, the brew that Bosco dispenses so readily is a lightly hopped pale lager that tastes like a cross between Miller Genuine Draft and Pilsner Urquell. Bosco's -- or Bosco -- doesn't make it: Berkeley's Golden Pacific Brewery does.
Bosco's doesn't serve the kind of food that will woo Oakland foodies south, but it's a pleasant place to have a good old-fashioned steak dinner. If you've got the time, step into the bar to pay your respects to the former mayor. His eyes flash. His tongue wags. And when you ask real nicely, he lifts his leg.
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