Zealots of Retro 

Old-world passions at the Hotel Mac

Tucked away in the toy-sized village of Point Richmond, secluded from the piers and refineries that define the surrounding landscape, Hotel Mac has existed in its own protective aspic for 96 years, feeding paleolithic platters of honest grub to local and itinerant alike since the Taft administration. Here, the furniture's worth settling into, your server wouldn't dream of telling you her first name, and the only choice of drinking water is seltzer or tap. The new century makes inroads here and there, not all of them successful, but by and large this is the place to go when you're hankering for oysters Rockefeller, prime rib, and a reflective Johnnie Walker far from our maddening millennium.

This venerable hotel-restaurant, built in 1911, was a destination for several decades. Then it fell on hard times and was abandoned in the early 1970s. A few years later, the place was purchased and restored to something approximating its former glory. Today, it's a handsome sight to behold as you approach on foot, neon casting a pleasant glow. Three stories of red brick house ten upstairs guestrooms, a banquet room seating eighty, two dining rooms, a wine cellar, and a cozy little lounge that looks like the sort of place where Bret Maverick would unwind after a game of faro. We relaxed into one of the overstuffed sofas, gazed at the passing parade through the big picture windows, and enjoyed a round of peartinis — crisp, refreshing pear-infused vodka touched with citrus.

The two dining areas just off the lounge aren't quite as stately as the outer architecture might indicate. Despite handsome touches here and there, there's something Anaheim-generic about the stained glass, the wicker chairs, the wall-to-wall carpeting, the vintage knickknacks. This institutional ambience can be tasted in many of the kitchen's wildly eclectic menu offerings as well. They're serviceable and hearty, just not up to the expectations, the evolving palates of 21st-century diners, or the rather impressive final price tag.

First, the good news. The Mac's zeal for retro banquet food results in the occasional splendid example of this bygone cuisine. Oysters Rockefeller, for instance. It's difficult to find a local version of this baked-bivalve Louisiana classic that isn't ponderous and flavorless, but Mac's rendition respects the taste and texture of the succulent oyster while draping it in spice and crunch. The mac and cheese, while tending like most of the establishment's dishes toward the overly creamy, offers pasta al dente enough to stand up to smoky shards of pancetta and the snark and bite of sharp cheddar. And the prime rib is an impressive table-sized slab of pristinely roasted protein. Ribboned with tasty fat and a good inch thick, it's rich, juicy, and just chewy enough to let the potent flavors work their way into your system and are perfectly accompanied by creamy, crunchy-crusted roasted potatoes infused with the flavor of the meat.

Then there's the blackberry-zinfandel pork chop, a tough, ponderous two-by-four that tastes of neither blackberry nor zinfandel; the chicken cordon bleu, dry, overcooked poultry with not enough ham 'n' cheese to raise it above the perfunctory; and crab cakes with an oddly creamy pink filling disconnected from anything that ever inhabited the seven seas. Every dish is accompanied by the same communal steamed squash, an indication of the kitchen's inclinations toward the institutional.

Every once in awhile the kitchen strikes out for uncharted territory. The shrimp tostadas set plump little prawns, strips of cabbage and cilantro, and a ginger-wasabi dressing atop crunchy, wafer-thin tortillas. The result is brisk and refreshing. The vegetarian enchilada platter offers up (on one side) a tortilla wrapped around a whole lot of black beans and (on the other side) a more successful example of the genre stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, chilies, and a tremendous depth of flavor. And the Pennington burger takes your standard (albeit perfectly seared, smoky-juicy) hamburger and tarts it up with blue cheese, hickory-smoked bacon, Dijon, and horseradish, much to the consumer's benefit.

Everything on the ever-changing dessert menu is made on the premises. A good half-dozen are brought to the table for perusal and selection; over the course of two visits we tried five of them. The candy-bar pie is decadent, mood-altering, and absolutely over the top, involving a crust of crushed Oreos, a filling of chopped-up Snickers bars, a top layer of cheesecake, and a possibly unnecessary dollop of whipped cream — a dense, sticky, endorphin-rich dream. At the other end of the spectrum, the chai crème brûlée is supple and silky with the evocative flavors of cardamom, clove, and black tea, balancing out the dish's creamy sweetness. The pineapple upside-down cake is a disappointment; instead of the warm, juicy, sugar-ribboned confection of my youth, I got me a hillock of Bisquick dough crowned with some diced and candied quasi-pineapple. At first taste, the bread pudding is almost as unsatisfying — more cinnamon bun than creamy Creole comfort food — but reheated the next morning (bread pudding is always better the next day), it's moist, almost lush, flavors of rum and spice pleasantly embellished. In other words, get this one to go. Best of all, though, is a velvety flan touched with caramel and sprinkled with fresh coconut: a light, lovely digestif.

Despite a dearth of by-the-glass options, the extensive wine list is impressively eclectic, encompassing small boutique vintners, standard Safeway-aisle crowd-pleasers, and a few wildly expensive bottles. The minty-chocolaty Cyclos Syrah was a surprisingly tasty match for the enchiladas, while the Wild Horse cab added earthy richness to our slab of prime rib. (Incidentally, the lounge hosts wine tastings every month — the December 4 champagne tasting sounds promising — and there are regularly scheduled winemaker dinners in the restaurant proper. The aforementioned wine cellar can be reserved for your own private two-hour tête-à-tête at no extra charge.) Hotel Mac is an often-unimpressive, occasionally splendid oasis of rococo cookery where you won't stay hungry, you won't upset your tastebuds and, if you work it right, you'll end up with a pretty fair meal, aspic nothwithstanding. Considering the disaster the 21st century has been so far, the old millennium's not a bad place to pay a visit.


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