Pardon me if you’ve heard this before — we have another new restaurant in downtown Bakersfield opened by young entrepreneurs that is not offering the same old, same old.
A few months ago, Happy Hour Bar & Tapas opened on Chester Avenue near 18th Street, wrapped around that amazing bank renovation that has, sadly, yet to find a tenant. This place offers creative twists on what might be called typical bar food, and possibly the best dining option for anyone who loves macaroni and cheese. On their menu, they make it your way just like Burger King used to advertise, customized with a long list of cheeses and other ingredients. If you’re a fan of that trendy comfort food, you’ve got to stop in here.
The format is pretty simple. You can "Make It Yours," choosing two items from the list of dishes for $10, three for $14 and four for $16. If I’m a couple, I definitely choose the latter option as the best value. There are also a number of tempting choices under the tapas list. After learning our first choice was no longer offered, we opted for the burger rings ($8), a mashup of burgers and onion rings, and two three-item combinations ($14 each). My companion selected the cranberry spinach salad (they have three different salads), macaroni and cheese and the chicken waffle slider (they have a lot of slider variations). I picked the meatball slider, the chicken apple cran panini and the classic diner-style fries.
First a word on portion sizes. They know this is Bakersfield and consumers here never want to go home hungry. We ordered too much. The meatball slider was what I thought most of the plates would be: a smallish nibble of something good. Two meatballs, a bun, marinara sauce on the side. Very reasonable. The panini and chicken waffle slider both seemed like full-size sandwiches. My companion’s oval dish of macaroni and cheese, so good she had to finish it even if doing so was accompanied by instant “I ate too much” regrets, was what some places serve for a lunch or dinner portion. Order accordingly. Like I said, when we visit again we’ll get four items and share all around.
What makes the mac and cheese here so good? There are 11 different cheeses to choose from, and our waitress told us “pick what you want.” There were the usual suspects, but also sharp cheddar, jalapeno jack, feta and smoked maasdam. The last is a Swiss-style Dutch cheese with an amazing earthiness that adds so much to the finished product, so my companion got that, gouda and sharp cheddar. That would have been enough, but there’s a list of 10 “toppings” that include caramelized onions, pancetta, prosciutto and other Italian meats. The first is free, additional toppings are $1 extra, as is crab. She chose onions and believe me it was a wonderful star of the dining experience. It was the last item presented at the table as it was baked to order.
The chef did come out and talk to customers to ask about the various offerings on the menu, what we ordered, what we liked. There was a real artistry at work even in simple things like my companion’s salad, made with fresh spinach leaves, thin julienne strips of green apple, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese and a light vinaigrette. Balance, proportion, flavor all to the plus side. I like the chicken panini, which had mozzarella, bacon, apple, cranberry and fresh strawberry jalapeno jam. The perfect balance of sweet and savory side by side.
Our biggest disappointment was the fried chicken waffle slider. The waffle was too limp, especially compared to the crispy crust on the chicken breast. The apple slaw was a big plus. I love their use of apples in unexpected places all over the menu. It can startle, but it works. The French fries were fresh cut and quite fetching. If I ordered them again, I’d get the rosemary version with garlic and Parmesan.
That burger ring creation was something else. It looked like a stack of four hockey pucks, each with panko crust on the outside. Inside was a beef patty with bacon and large ring of white onion. Sounds odd, tastes great. Like the mac and cheese, definitely something we’d order again.
The restaurant, last the very humble but alluring Red Grill Onions Mexican Cafe and Bar, has been remodeled with reclaimed wood shiplap on the walls. There’s a large dining room that was completely empty on the Friday night we visited, as everyone was crammed into the back bar, not by the staff’s choice but by customer choice. We headed to the 18th Street entrance back there, saw a lot of people at tables and never even looked into the dining room until we left. I suspect as word spreads, more people will be choosing the dining room as it’s more conversation-friendly. The bar is small, confined and when crowded can be as noisy as its neighbor Uricchio’s.
The chardonnay by the glass was reasonable ($6), and served at the appropriate temperature — not ice cold. No beers on tap yet, but they had the typical domestic choices including 805.
The restaurant opened in May, and co-owner/chef Matt Hearn (seen in chef’s whites with a Denver Broncos cap talking to customers in the dining room during our visit) has a very ambitious vision.
“I want to offer fresh, high-quality food to people in Bakersfield so they don’t have to drive to LA,” he said in a phone interview. “Challenge the palate, shoot for the fences. Offer happy hour food all day long, and we’re working on developing a dinner menu because we want to keep the Friday and Saturday night customers happy if they want a full dinner.”
Hearn said beer taps are in the process of being added and he’s hoping to offer locally-produced beers but the real emphasis is on a cocktail menu “with only fresh ingredients, so you can really taste it. If we use orange juice, it’s gonna be fresh squeezed orange juice.”