Homes Away from Home 

Some neighborhood bistros are more about place than the food they serve.

Castro Ascarrunz, owner of Lafayette's Vino, may be the source of his restaurant's charm, but he's a bit of an odd charmer. In his sixties, the stocky owner/waiter/entertainer -- which is how he labels himself on the menu -- bustles around his tiny restaurant, tossing off dry comments in passing like a guy handing out fliers on a street corner.

"Everything okay, professor?" he murmurs to a table as he brushes by -- all the men at Vino are "professor," all the women "ladies." Ascarrunz doesn't look as if he's expecting an answer, but if none comes he pauses at the next table and turns around to repeat himself, idly straightening up the plates and glasses for the second party while he waits.

"Last call for water," he jokes with another couple, arriving with a pitcher just as they're noticing that their glasses have almost gotten to that point. Regulars come and go, bookending the meal with enthusiastic handshakes. Occasionally, Ascarrunz weaves his way back through the maze of tables to a baby grand and plops down. Smoky Casablanca music burbles out, ratcheting the romantic factor way, way up.

Ascarrunz has been in the business for 51 years, and over time he's moved from his mother's kitchen to owning a number of restaurants in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland as well as a few more down south. Vino is his latest project. "I'm not in the commercial business," he says when I call him later. "I'm not making money." No, he's in it for the love.

The new restaurant has been open less than a year but it looks ageless, with wine-colored walls, French posters, and framed reviews of Ascarrunz' other restaurants. Candles on the tables and an eclectic assortment of small lamps cast their scattershot glow over the room, and the tables are set so snugly together to make room for the piano that I could have played footsie with the next table over had either of us felt the spark. Halfway through my meal Ascarrunz stopped our conversation and called out to another table, a couple of regulars. "Tell them this is the best food in the world," he commanded.

The man nodded. "We eat here more often than we eat in our own kitchen," he said, while Ascarrunz looked on benevolently.

Vino devotes two-thirds of its menu to small plates, one third to entrées. Dishes like sardines with olives, Basque meatballs, and shrimp in spicy mushroom sauce sample from Ascarrunz' Basque, Italian, and South American heritage. All are simple, familiar, and casual, such as a salad of mixed greens with apples and crumbled blue cheese in a zippy vinaigrette; and roasted piquillos -- sweet crimson peppers -- stuffed with a creamy blend of mashed potatoes and salt cod and set atop swirling tomato and pesto sauces. Entrées such as large scallops sautéed with snap peas in a white wine sauce, and tender roasted salmon garnished with a sprinkle of paprika and a spoonful of olive oil, both come with watery mashed potatoes and crisp steamed vegetables. Vino's food reminds me of the Europe that doesn't make it into guide books and tourist itineraries -- meals I've eaten at small-town cafes, Tuesday-night family dinners.

Just as we were leaving, a couple walked in, zooming in on the most sheltered corner table. "Are you going to play the piano for us tonight?" they asked. "No," he answered. "I'm gonna go home early to make love."

Vino reminded me that a restaurant is more than the food it serves -- and it's a reminder I need to hear once in a while. If you hadn't noticed, dear readers, food has always trumped decor for me, and I've kicked aside roaches to enjoy a top-notch steamed-fish custard and have endured quasi-apathetic patronizing for a sublime tagliatelle with rabbit-porcini ragù. But some restaurants thrive on atmosphere -- not high design, mind you, but comfort.

Vino also reminded me of Britt-Marie's restaurant and wine bar on Solano Avenue, another quirky neighborhood restaurant I'd been meaning to return to for a meal. A year ago, a friend lured me into Britt-Marie's for a late-night drink with the promise of big pours of wine. We wandered into the bare-bones bistro, which over the years has been loved down to scruff and burnish, and found a stool at its curvy, turn-of-the-last-century wooden bar. The bartender ferried our glasses of zinfandel over cautiously, each step enough to slosh the wine up to the lip of the glass. There was no way to swirl and sniff like a pro without getting soaked.

My friend and I spent an hour or so chatting with the bartender, asking about the bar -- apparently inherited from the previous tenant, a lesbian dive -- and making chitchat with the folks sitting next to us. At the end of the night the bartender discovered that the bottle of wine we'd been drinking didn't contain enough left to store overnight and slipped us the rest gratis.

Britt-Marie's has been open 23 years, but Arthur Morfidis has owned it for the past five. As these things happen, the restaurant has weathered a few chefs over the years, and the newest one, Rene Cage, called me several months ago to inform me of his presence and let me know he was busy tightening up slack in the staff. I approve of his initiative, but it meant that when I came in for a meal, those giant glasses of wine had dwindled to standard size. Damn that professionalism!

The eclectic menu lists longtime standards that would be impossible to get rid of -- these tend toward the Mitteleuropan -- and specials that you could label Greek, Southern, Asian fusion, and half a dozen other cuisines. My friend calls Britt-Marie "the other kitchen," the place its regulars go to when they get home from work and don't want to bother turning the stove on. Which pretty much describes its homey food: spanakopita, sliced cucumbers tossed with sour cream and dill, roasted beets and overdressed greens, portobello mushroom slathered in a thick soy-based glaze and pine nuts, roasted peppers stuffed with feta, an oddly gooey chocolate-pecan "turtle" tart. The roast chicken and duck are longtime favorites. So is the schnitzel, a lean slab of pork coated in crisp breadcrumbs, and the Hungarian goulash, a paprika-dense beef stew.

Bustling with regulars, Britt-Marie's is the kind of place where you're more interested in scanning the room than the menu, because you know the other patrons as well as you know the food. It was around long before I braised my first lamb shank -- and both Vino and Britt-Marie's, I suspect, will probably be around long after I've traded in my job for a Jenny Craig intervention. That's a better measure of success than most.


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