The Bay Bar & Grille

Saturday Apr. 2nd, 2011

Favorable impressions of The Bay began on the phone; friendly and accommodating to a reservation request for a “nice booth” on a busy night, the brief conversation was a tip-off to a high level of hospitality. This is one bustling harbor, and it is easy to see why…

Once through the door a few things are clear: the place is busy, it is clean, it is neat, its décor goes just far enough to add a comfortable flare while still utilitarian…and it is popular. The Bay wears many hats through the cycle of each day, and appeals to several demographics, morphing from lunch place for hungry mall customers (and others) to a favorably priced family dinner destination to happening happy hour to jazz-infused late night date place. Add to that mix an active casino crowd in adjoining quarters, apart enough to shield diners from the bells and whistles of Keno machines and the like. (Earnest casino patrons are offered complimentary drinks and soup du jour. As the restaurant, the casino is clean and does not assault the senses as many such places do.)

The relaxed ambiance of The Bay creates an atmosphere of, well, pleasure. This is not a place to discuss heavier matters plaguing the soul, but to gladden the heart. One can see why: a bank of TVs (mercifully on mute) line one wall of a bar area that is cozy without being crowded. High bistro tables, espresso-type counters, deuces, and four tops are scattered throughout the impressively roomy area. Clever design helps the attached dining area with a sense of separation; tall art deco floor lamps provide an illusion of privacy between booths, a bit of strange juxtaposition considering the grid of tree branches on the ceiling. Anchoring the restaurant, a small stage resonates with jazz combos on Saturday nights. Otherwise, there is a dearth of music, a sensible decision really, based on the steady murmur of conversation and satisfaction coming from customers hunkering down to full plates of food.

The menu at The Bay nods to a spattering of ethnic dishes (Pad Thai, Baja fish tacos, Moo Shu platter, French onion soup) and offers a liberal assortment of appetizers, pizza, and entrees. All food (including salad dressing) is house-made and fresh, making the moderate price point particularly attractive. The Bay offers a children’s menu, and children were in abundance during the time of this review. Indeed, the young child at an adjoining booth was treated with respect—and to a ramped-up scoop of ice cream for dessert, evoking squeals of delight.

Dining choices for this appraisal included prime rib (Angus, seasoned and cooked to perfection), French onion soup (clearly house-made, with a back note of sherry that was a tad heavy-handed), their halibut fish tacos, complemented by seriously tasty rice and beans. Seasonal cauliflower and yellow squash came as a side to the beef, but uneven knife skills left the veggies either undercooked and inedible or overcooked and not appetizing. Mac n’ cheese, that sexy new culinary star, disappointed. The four cheeses touted on the menu blended into a flavorless cream, though there remained a strong after-taste of black pepper. Ordered strictly for its popularity, an appetizer of fried wonton, shrimp, and cream cheese was suitable, but not appealing to reviewer’s palates. Dessert was an exceptional crème brulee escorted by two spoons. Alas, so decadently infused with luscious vanilla bean, would that the custard be a bit less runny. Frankly, would that the custard be more, overruled as it was by the thick and expertly burnt sugar top. A smaller ramekin would serve well here.

Promoted by the server as a frequent drink request at The Bay, one Mai Tai was ordered, the first since a Tiki bar in NYC in the 1960s, back in the day when cloyingly sweet drinks appealed to tastebuds. (Not so much anymore, drinks of the punch variety giving way to more sophisticated tastes—of which there were plenty.) The house Cabernet, which hails from the owner’s vineyard in Oregon, surprised with a sonic boom to the mouth followed by a clearly astringent finish. A good house wine, that, leaving one to wonder if their vineyard produced any of the excellent Pinot coming from far west of here. Tap water was offered and politely declined, opting instead for small bottles of Perrier. The beverage selection was extensive, offering pages of options, including the requisite martini page. The backbar showcased twenty or so draft spigots, and sundry beer had select mugs or glassware, as did wines, aperitifs, Ports and Champagne. (Read: Attention to such detail as proper glassware is a big deal in a place as popular as this, and speaks volumes about overall service and presentation.)

Service, by the way, was pleasant and snappy, though unhurried–quite a feat on a busy Saturday night with a ball tournament in town, to boot. In a more formal setting it might have been annoying to have the table bussed often, but table clearing here balanced nicely between good service and c’mon-we-need-the-spot turnover.

The Bay takes what could be routine and transforms the house into something a giant step above ho-hum in both service, bar, and food. Though it would be a stretch to consider The Bay a fine dining establishment, it can be endorsed heartily as a place to go for a darn fine meal. This place is the real deal—a “neighborhood” bar, lunch spot, restaurant–but on steroids. While a model of proficiency, and with an unmistakable business profile lurking behind their work ethic and food, this is a place to go again and again. By the looks of the crowd, Bozmanites and others already know this. Four stars and heartfelt “Cheers” (if you get the drift). Don’t miss out on this one.

The Bay Bar & Grille
Gallatin Valley Mall
(406) 587-0484

Open Daily at 11:30     Lunch: 11:30 – 4:00
Dinner: 4 – 10 (Friday & Saturday til 10:30)
Bar & Casino: 11:30 – 12:00 AM
Happy Hour Daily: 4 – 6; 9 to close.

Cynthia Yates cut her teeth in the restaurant business, ran a café in the middle of nowhere, hosted a popular wine group, and was active in the Slow Food movement. An author of several lifestyle books, she has been known to eat on a regular basis. This is Cynthia’s last contribution for the time being, she will be greatly missed.