Once we finally got a table at Mac's Old House in Antioch, my friends and I sat around for ten minutes waiting for our server to bring us menus. Then she arrived with pen and pad in hand, and we realized the paper placemats we were idly fingering were the menus.
Here's what they read:
All dinners include soup, salad, hot baked bread, pasta, and fresh sautéed vegetables (extra bread portion: $1):
Prime Rib or Steak: $7.95
Extra Cut Prime Rib: $12.95
Fresh Red Snapper: $7.45
Calamari Steak: $7.45
Chicken or Ground Round: $5.45
Pasta Dinner: $4.95
Soup and Salad Only: $4.45
That explained the crowds.
As we'd driven up to Mac's late on a Friday night, a couple dozen folks were milling around the porch and standing in clumps on the front lawn, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. If it weren't for the neon arrow pointing directly at the large farmhouse I would have thought we had arrived at a crackin' house party. A ring of parked SUVs was draped around the house like a fur stole.
Inside the funky, homey restaurant, drinkers were packed three deep around the bar. The moment I learned that the wait would be 25 minutes, I bought a round of drinks to quell the mutinous murmurs in my party. The prices: $1.50 for a single-shot well drink, $2 for a double. A pint of Sam Adams cost $3. Now that really explained the crowds. We stood around pretending to watch the A's on TV while we checked out the locals in their baseball caps, flannel shirts, and tightly fixed hairdos.
The bons temps have been rolling at Mac's for twenty years, ever since the Noe family bought the house, which had been a bar and restaurant since the 1950s. Under them the roadhouse has evolved into an institution, serving hosts of diners seeking cheap drinks and solid, home-style fare.
The three courses come out at a goodly clip. Mac's family-style dinners start with a bowl of its famous minestrone, a thick, tomatoey soup chunky with sausage, beans, and pasta. Family-style means that it's served in a big aluminum mixing bowl with a plastic ladle. We cleaned our bowls with a basket of soft, warm white bread, and splurged ($1!) on a second. A thin slice of salami garnishes every mixed-lettuce salad, dressed just right in a simple vinaigrette.
Eight bucks gets you at least eight ounces of beef, a decent hunk of prime rib served precisely rare, or a grainy, thinly cut steak. (The extra-cut prime rib on our neighbor's plate looked positively Neolithic.) Eight dollars also gets you a tender breaded and pan-fried calamari steak or a snapper fillet, which for a dollar you can have dusted in mild Cajun seasonings, though the difference in flavor is negligible. All the entrées come with a small mound of overcooked pasta in a smoky, sweet beefed-up tomato sauce and crunchy, barely pan-kissed zucchini, broccoli, and carrots. Eight bucks doesn't get you dessert, though. You'll have to order a White Russian instead. Hey, it's only $2.
Moraga's Ranch House Cafe isn't throwing quite the same party as Mac's, but it's just as much of a local landmark. Before suburbia engulfed it, the cafe really was a ranch house, part of the century-old Moraga Ranch. A restaurant has occupied the house off and on since the 1960s; the current owners took over a little more than five years ago. Now that developers have chopped down the orchards and a supermarket has moved in across the street, the well-manicured complex of buildings, barn-red trimmed in white, looks like a petting ranch. Which is half of its charm: You can easily see some gingham-swaddled farmwife stepping out on the porch to clang a triangle and holler, "Come 'n' git it!"
Once through the door you step into the 1950s and the decade's love affair with Westerns. The cafe is the perfect backdrop for a night out wearing your old Roy Rogers chaps and boots. Sitting at the back of the room, I felt like I was dining in the funhouse cantina but couldn't identify why until my friend's beer slid across the table toward me. The table next to me looked askew, too. I looked over to the side wall and noticed wooden slats hammered in between the back half of the banquette seating and the Astroturf-green carpet, keeping it level. Yep, the building is slowly slipping down the hill. Most folks ask to sit up front by the windows.
Weekday breakfast and lunch bring in a steady stream of locals. On my Friday night visit, the patrons had about a decade or so on Mac's, and the mood was definitely more subdued. A couple waiters were enough to attend to the eight to ten occupied tables. The ladies next to us talked about their tickets to Lord of the Dance and the gentlemen enumerated all the military helicopters they'd seen whirling their way around Iraq.
The menu mostly sticks to burgers, sandwiches, and American classics, though a new chef has introduced cuisine such as pasta chicken Marengo and veal piccata. But European-style food seemed out of context, so my friends and I ordered prime rib, fried chicken, and pan-roasted salmon.
Everything you get with your meal at Mac's Old House you get at Ranch House Cafe. Plus dessert. You can have a regular iceberg-lettuce salad or a Caesar -- romaine lettuce tossed in a lemon-garlic vinaigrette. You can also get a cup of house-made soup -- mine was a thick, salty clam chowder that tasted more of smoked ham than clams.
We ordered the prime rib rare and it was served medium -- a juicy medium, decently seasoned, but not very pink. The salmon, evenly bronzed in the pan and strewn with parsley, came with wedges of Meyer lemons. And the fried chicken had that thin, brittle crust that comes from a light dredging in flour and a stint in the deep fryer instead of a skillet. The white and dark sections came out of the oil equally meaty and moist.
All the entrées are served with your choice of potato and crisp California-cuisine steamed mixed vegetables. Order the baked potato, because the mashed potatoes out of the box were a crime. We pardoned the chef once our dessert arrived -- homey, moist, loose-grained pound cake with a sugar-heavy sour-cream frosting tinged with rum.
One part nostalgia, two parts familiarity, both Mac's Old House and Ranch House Cafe dish up the kind of food that roadhouses have been cooking since the days before roads got paved. It's solid, homey, and cheap. The frills stay on the curtains.
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