The 18hundred in downtown Bakersfield has opened with about the same visual and culinary impact that the Padre Hotel and The Mark did when they started serving people.
The bank building that has been a fascinating sight since the stucco was stripped off and the original beauty was revealed now has a worthy tenant. The food is winning, the décor just fantastic, adding yet another gem to the downtown dining scene.
With one exception, we loved the work out of the kitchen. And it’s almost required that you order one of those visually stunning milkshakes for dessert. Instagram and Pinterest need the shots, and as you’re eating and people nearby are getting these frosty gems served to them, you will not be able to resist. They seem to be showing up anywhere. Don’t go if you’re vulnerable to the power of suggestion.
There’s a lot to like here, and you’ve got to start with the striking appearance, aided by art that combined with the close seating will remind you of a great European café, though my companion thought it more like a restaurant in Boston.
I love that the menu includes the history of the building (built in 1910) as well as an explanation of the Greek owner’s “Filotimo” philosophy (It’s pretty detailed, but is a worthy hospitality mission statement.) Just above the three flat screen TVs over the bar is a fantastic picture of the Bakersfield Motorcycle Club that looks like it was taken shortly after the invention of those transportation devices. On the wall to the left is a bike with the wheel spaces as the letters O lit up to help spell the word Food.
On the far wall is a giant mural of California poppies and dandelions, a wall of large white hexagonal tiles as well as a neon version of the restaurant’s slogan, “Stay Cool Bakersfield.”
The bar area is very small, restrooms are in the back and downstairs, and there’s a small patio seating area with umbrellas for shade on 18th Street. Exposed brick walls, a restored original tile floor, high rafter ceilings painted black, interesting lighting. It can get noisy, depending on how crowded it is, so be aware of that if that’s an issue important to you. You walk away wondering why someone in 1947 thought this should be covered in stucco?
A word of warning. The place is small, including the bar. Make reservations. Bakersfield has long had a reputation as a place where people just like to wander in, like we did, and that resulted in an hour wait. Many walked in, heard the bad news about the length of the wait, and walked out. The hostess and her crew were scrambling like chess players to keep everybody happy. Props to them.
There are two high top tables that could function like communal tables (a la The Lark in Santa Barbara) should no large parties with reservations need them.
The menu is limited to burgers, sandwiches, small plates and four specialty entrees, with reasonable price points for casual dining. On our visit we ordered the charred thick cut bread ($6), the citrus herb wild caught mahi mahi ($22), the house brined herb roasted half chicken ($18) and the Salty Sailor ($8) shake for dessert.
The bread was not as addictive as the version we recently sampled at Fred’s Barbecue Factory Steakhouse, and was not particularly thick cut, but it had a subtle presence of black truffle salt, extra soft butter and olive oil. My companion thought that it had enough butter on it but my brother in law Jeff would say you can never have too much butter and this was a great start to our dining experience, although next time I’ll sample one of the house made soups (tomato or chicken noodle) that are also on the small plates list.
Both dinners were particularly impressive due to the wild rice and vegetables. My companion’s chicken came with and thyme roasted cauliflower that she immediately declared the best cauliflower she ever had. It was a revelation.
My broccoli had been sautéed with lemon and garlic, and was also good, but not on the level of that cauliflower. The chicken was perfectly roasted, not too salty and subtlety seasoned.
The mahi mahi, fire grilled and graced with melting butter, would’ve been outstanding had it been completely cooked. One side of the filet was twice as thick as the other, so that requires some manipulation on the grill, keeping the narrow part on the cooler area. Rather than send it back, I just saved the half sushi portion for reheating at lunch the next day.
The milkshake we enjoyed had a chocolate frosted salted peanut rim, a salted caramel milkshake, whipped cream, two Twix bars and two chocolate covered pretzel rods. Fabulous. My only complaint was that you couldn’t really pry the rim off the glass, and it looked good. A woman next to us ordered the Cookie Monster and got a full chocolate chip cookie. The other three look pretty fun, too.
Beer and wine options are reasonable, though I tried the Tiki Tiki Tembo ($14) from the cocktail list and was not fired up, though they do have Sonic-style ice. There are seven craft beers on tap, including one from Dionysus, a local brewer.
As far as service goes, they’ve got a pretty good crew right now, little of the growing pains of a new operation visible. Despite the crowds, they’re keeping their cool, just like the back of their shirts suggests.
The 18hundred can be recommended for a fine dining experience. It’s one of the best new restaurants to open this year.