Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to midnight, AE, BA, MC. No reservations.
Food: American flights of fancy, some of which don't get off the ground
Style: The visual fancies fly higher, but the service bogs down
Price: Omelets, salads and sandwiches $3 to $4 average; two-course dinners $6 to $13.
THOUGHTS OF FIDDLERS run through my head, and they all begin with, "If only . . ." In my more disillusioned moments I have thought that Fiddlers is doing everything right except the important things.
One thing they have done right was to decorate their office building ground floor for both lushness and comfort. Blond wood and plants, macrame and wicker are nearly restaurant cliches by now, but Fiddlers uses them with enough restraint that you don't feel as if you are in a furniture showroom or nursery. And, despite the grand expanses of window glass, stained glass and mirrored glass, the space has been divided into small emough seating areas that you don't feel as if you are in a showroom for people. If it is hard to find a hostess to seat you, at least you aren't sorry to have to look around.
Things get better before they get worse. Your first introduction to the food is having to pass the salad bar on the way to your table. It is the restaurant's best public relations, being a lineup of nearly twenty items from orange slices to alfalfa sprouts, on the through raw cauliflower, mushrooms, chick peas, real - yes, real - bacon, and remarkably good sauerkraut and marinated cucumbers. Some of the five dressings look alarmingly vivid red or green, but they taste fine.
Things are still right when you look through the menu. Even after pizza mysteriously vanished from the listings, the choices remained intriguing. The creamy, fruity drinks described as "Booze" include an alcoholic chocolate banana shake. Amusing idea, and the drinks are as sumptuous as they sound. Appetizers include a culinary hit parade of potato skins, guacamole, onion soup, chile con queso and even baked brie with almonds. Happy choices to have to make. The main body of the menu is the familiar California Cafe melange of omelets, salads, sandwiches, hamburgers and hot entrees, but the Fiddlers stamp is in the possibilities - a couple dozen ingredients to mix and match for your omelet or hamburger, sandwiches not limited to reubens, clubs and avocado-sprouts-mushroom-cheese, but soaring off to diet tuna (with cottage cheese instead of mayonnaise). You can order side dishes of chile, French fried onion rings, ratatouille, potato puffs, or hot cider. You can have Haagen Dazs ice cream garni for dessert, or house-made brownies and deep dish apple pie.
But you are foiled by atangle of "if onlys." If only the kitchen weren't so slow that it took two hours to get through two courses on a nearly empty evening. If only the waiters enthusiasm extended to remembering your side dishes. In a single ordera waiter forgot the soup, the vegetables, and the whipped cream on the dessert.
Most important, if only the food were as lovingly prepared as the menu. It is almost as if nobody ever tastes anything back in that kitchen. The guacamole is a fresh, chunky paste, tasting of no seasonings at all.The chile con queso is not quite as bland, but a pool of oil floats on its surface. The chile con carne, on the other hand, is too intense, having been left to cook down nearly to a concentrate. The barbecued rib sare one day firm and delicious, their sauce powerfully tangy; another day they taste steamed to the point of collapse.
Clever management turns the insides of the potato skins into deep fried, airy potato puffs prettily squeezedout of a pastry bag. Then one night they are squashed and soggy, neither as crisp nor as feathery as they had been before. Hooray for the hamburger, a thick rare patty of lean meat. Boo for the club sandwich, good turkey wasted in the company of wan ham and flabby rye bread. The corned beef was zapped to death in a microwave oven that rendered it of all its fat and turned it to stone. Up and down it goes, good ideas at the mercy of careless hands. How intriguing to stuff the chicken a la Fiddlers with mustard cream under the skin before baking it; what a shame to underseason the cream and plop it all in one place so that most of the chicken is left bare. How nice to mix lump crab with practically nothing else for crab cakes, and bake it rather than fry it; too bad it emerges so unappetizingly pale, and sits on soggy croutons. Freshly made onion rings - what a rare treat; somebody should recognize the slight extra flouring that restrains them from greatness. A side dish of ratatouille is a thoughful gift, but one can hardly call drowning peppers and zucchini a proper ratatouille.
As for dessert, one hates to complain when the brownie is so buttery rich and the apple pie a handsome individual casserole with apples from a tree rather than from a can. The desserts, in this town where the course is so often neglected, are commendable. So long as the kitchen keeps control of the microwave oven that heats them.
In short, decor and menu planning are only the beginning. What ultimately matters is control over the purchasing and the preparation of the food. Nobody wants to wait around for the kitchen staff to have a good day.
Furthermore, Fiddlers is priced as if everything were handled with professional care. At $9.95 for barbecued ribs, $7.95 for barbecued chicken, $11.95 for crab cakes (with soup, salad bar and two vegetables if the water remembers to bring them), they ought to come out right every time. Omelets, sandwiches, hamburgers and salads averages $3 to $4. Appetizers start at $2, desserts average $2. With drinks or wine (which is quite modestly priced) you could spend $25 a person, though you could also order a light meal for under $5. The problem with the prices is not that they are high, but that their elevation reflects quantity more than quality.
Fiddlers looks as if it could be Washington's uptown watering hole and started off in the right direction. But it seems to be fiddling around while the microwave is burning up all its good intentions.