Feast: The fixe is in

› paulr@sfbg.com

In the horse race of American shibboleths, it’s neck and neck between "choice" and "democracy" down the unending stretch. But maybe not in the kitchen. Well-settled folk wisdom teaches that the best kitchens more closely resemble autocracies or fiefs than serene republics. "A kitchen is not a democracy" — what sage said this, or should have? And out there in the dining room, it can be equally true that choice is sometimes more a burden than a benefit. Many of us have known the quiet horror of sitting down in a Chinese restaurant and being handed a menu whose numbered items run into the hundreds and whose heft is like that of an appropriations bill. Choice is not always for the faint of heart.

One of the reasons I retain a particular affection for Chez Panisse in Berkeley is its fixed menu. It changes every night, but on any given night, they serve what they serve. The presentation of the menu card is something of a formality, a polite advisory. You are being clued in but not actually consulted. And, in a strange way, you relax, as if you’re strapping yourself into an airline seat. You surrender your autonomy, say your little prayer, and trust in the fates to take you (and your luggage) where you want to go. And that’s what happens. There’s no point worrying, since it’s out of your hands. You’re free to direct your energies elsewhere.

As far as I know, Chez Panisse is the only restaurant in the Bay Area that uses this kind of absolutely set menu, the king of the prix-fixes. (And only downstairs. If it’s choice you seek, upstairs you must go, to the excellent café.) But in recent years, I have noticed a gentle bloom of lesser prix-fixes: some offered beside a regular à la carte menu, others that give a few options for each course. While quite a few of the restaurants are French, as we would expect, an increasing number aren’t — so you won’t necessarily get stuck with crème brûlée for dessert.

The prix-fixe isn’t for everybody all the time, of course. There have been moments when I’ve forsaken a tempting one because I didn’t want dessert (which is almost always one of the courses offered). At other times, a dish on the regular menu strongly appealed. Prix-fixe dishes have long seemed quite mainstream to me; they’re the kind of things a kitchen can produce without too much struggle that appeals to a broad swath of customers. In return, you generally do get more for your money. The greatest prix-fixe deal I ever came across was at Hawthorne Lane, in the autumn of 2001: three courses for $28 at one of the best restaurants in the city, where even the modest dishes were memorable. Those were strange days, true, and the restaurant itself is no more, having morphed into Two. But silently, with only my lips moving, I compare all subsequent prix-fixes to that one.

The George W. Bush Wirtschaftswunder has brought, among other delights, steady upward pressure on prices, especially food prices. Yet there is at least one restaurant in the city where you can get three courses for less than $20 — only a nickel less, but still. The restaurant is Le P’tit Laurent (699 Chenery, SF. 415-334-3235, www.leptitlaurent.com), an atmospheric bistro in the heart of the Glen Park village. On nights when rain smears the windows, the street scene looks almost Parisian. Inside it’s warm and cozy, with bustle. The prix-fixe is available until 7 p.m. and includes soup or salad, a main dish (perhaps sautéed prawns or roasted veal), and a dessert from the dessert menu, maybe the sublime profiteroles. My lone sorrow here is that if you want the restaurant’s excellent cassoulet, you’ll probably end up having to order it à la carte.

Only slightly more expensive, at $23.50, is the three-course prix-fixe at Zazie (941 Cole, SF. 415-564-5332, www.zazisf.com), another bistro that feels authentically French, though more Provençal than Parisian. The prix-fixe possibilities here are marked on the menu card with asterisks; soup, salad, mussels, salmon, and chocolate pots de crème are some of the staples. Quite like France. A bonus draw is the restaurant’s large rear garden, which is made habitable even on chilly winter nights by those heating trees you often see at ski lodges.

In a much more urban quartier we find Le Charm (315 Fifth St., SF. 415-546-6128, www.lecharm.com), which since the mid-1990s has been an oasis of civilized clattering in the scruffy heart of SoMa. The prix-fixe is a little pricier here — $30 for three courses — but the cooking might also be a bit more urbane. Recent starter choices included salmon carpaccio and escargot, while among the desserts lurked a financier and a sablé. The restaurant also has a small patio for the al fresco–minded, and let’s not forget that SoMa tends to be warmer and less windy than the city’s more westerly neighborhoods.

Not all prix-fixes must be French. One of the better deals of the non-Gallic — indeed, of any — sort going at the moment can be found at Roy’s (575 Mission, SF. 415-777-0277, www.roysrestaurant.com), an outpost of the Hawaiian-fusion chain. The restaurant’s three-course set menu changes seasonally and, at the moment, costs $35 — making it something of a successor to the $28 Hawthorne Lane bonanza. There is typically a choice among two or three starters and a like number of desserts, with a slightly greater variety (perhaps three or four possibilities) among main courses. The San Francisco version of Roy’s doesn’t much resemble its older siblings on the islands; those places are rustically elegant, while ours is unmistakably urban, with a lot of glass, hard surfaces, high ceilings, and gloss. But the food is excellent, and at $35 for a full dinner in such a stylish setting, it’s a bit of a steal.

Firefly (4288 24th St., SF. 415-821-7652, www.fireflyrestaurant.com), which turns 15 this fall, has been well worth seeking out all these years, prix-fixe or no. (The prix-fixe — $35 for any starter, main course, and dessert — is a post-millennium wrinkle.) From the beginning, the restaurant has offered its wondrous shrimp-and-scallop potstickers while providing for the tastes of vegetarians and flesheaters alike, with no apparent fuss. It’s as good as a neighborhood restaurant could be, in a gastronomically-minded city where many of the best restaurants are in the neighborhoods. And with a prix-fixe option allowing a full range of motion across a supple and changeable bill of fare, it’s also an enduringly good deal.

Far to the west, near the shores of the sea, we find Pisces (3414 Judah, SF. 415-564-2233, www.piscessf.com), a seafood house with a minimalist look (including a bold black facade) New Yorkers would call "downtown." The twist here is not one but two prix-fixes, one for $23, the other for $33. What does the extra $10 buy you? A choice of desserts, for one thing; the $23 folk must settle for, say, vanilla-bean crème brûlée. A little ordinary, but there are worse fates, surely; how often do bad crèmes brûlées turn up? The price premium also results in somewhat tonier savory dishes — Dungeness crab cake rather than clam chowder as a first course, for instance, or ahi rather than salmon as a main course. On the other hand, if you want cioppino, the famous seafood stew, you might end up spending less, since sometimes, even in America, less is more.

Lately one has heard a good deal of crashing and clatter coming not from restaurant kitchens but from Wall Street. The great leviathans of finance seem to be going down like torpedoed battleships, while the press struggles to decide if the nation is — pick your cliché — "drifting," "stumbling," or "sinking" into a recession. Whatever. Are we there yet? I would not be so bold as to suggest that prix-fixes are the answer to the many and large problems afoot in this land, but I do think prix-fixe menus are about value, and value is a value from which we stray at our peril. The last time the economic sky looked quite this ominous was seven years ago, after a terror attack and the popping of the dot-com bubble. We began to take a bit less for granted in that strange autumn, and people seemed to awaken for the first time in years to the understanding that champagne did not, in fact, flow from their taps. It made sense to spend more prudently, to look for deals. That was then and this is now, and suddenly now is looking a lot like then. While the high and mighty ponder their big fixes, the rest of us can once again enjoy our small ones.

>>More Feast: The Guardian Guide to Bay Area Dining and Drinking