What do you do when you own a large, well-situated but unoccupied discotheque-cum-restaurant?
You can always try singing the blues. But a more useful approach might be the one taken by the partners in the Diego's chain of restaurant-nightclubs, which responded to difficult times at its branch in Solana Beach by trading the yuppie trappings for a modern version of a Big Band-era supper club.
The concept is basically forgotten in these parts, which haven't boasted a spot that could honestly be called a nightclub since the days when the Sky Room sizzled atop the El Cortez Hotel. But Solana's is as close to New York's Rainbow Room as this county gets.
More than just the distance of 3,000 miles separate Solana's from the Rainbow Room and its ilk; Solana's seems quite the country cousin. But its heart is in the right place, and any restaurant that even attempts to offer its patrons a big night out, a concept that seems to have vanished with men's hats, is to be applauded.
In the clubs of yore, guests dined and danced in the same room. But Solana's separates the functions and, depending on the entertainment offered, may require a cover charge for entrance to the nightclub.
Variety of Bands
The dining rooms do enjoy live piano music, though. Guests who proceed to the club can follow their meals with dancing to a musical schedule that, in the space of a few weeks, runs from such traditionalists as the Dick Braun and Benny Hollman big bands to Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham and the Sweet Baby Blues Band.
The restaurant side of the operation, if left to stand on its own, would be a bit wobbly. The grand and attractive antipasto table that dominates the main dining room sets the tone for the place, which in theory is high-line Italian. In truth, though, the \o7 antipasti \f7 seem prepared and presented with greater diligence and style than the entrees. The chef, like the maitre d' and several other staffers, formerly worked at the likable Villa d'Este in Del Mar, but the product that issues from Solana's kitchen lacks the finesse associated with formal Italian cookery.
The dining rooms are quite handsome and festive, with a single red rose and a shaded lamp on every table, and the service is in line with what one expects of a relatively formal and expensive restaurant. The dress code takes the local point of view, which is another way of saying that beyond certain minimum requirements--say, shirt and shoes--a code does not exist, another point that separates this place from the supper clubs of old.
The crowd on a recent Saturday generally did seem turned out for a special evening, however, and unified by its intention to have a good time.
The menu abounds in appetizers, but both the waiter and maitre d' were so insistent upon serving up a plate of \o7 antipasti\f7 (possibly because the chef had put a small carload of items on the display) that we acceded. The \o7 antipasti\f7 proved a happy choice in any case, because they included the usual mix of appetite-sharpening sweet, savory, piquant and sour offerings. Slices of salami, mortadella and other cured meats, such as prosciutto wrapped around wedges of nicely ripe honeydew melon, joined such nibbles as \o7 caprese \f7 (buffalo milk mozzarella and fresh basil leaves layered over tomato slices), marinated grilled zucchini and an attractive pairing of smoked duck breast and bitter \o7 radicchio \f7 lettuce.
Among the standing appetizer choices that went unsampled were a rather intriguing-sounding \o7 bruschetta \f7 (thickly sliced bread, flavored with olive oil, garlic and basil and gilded in the oven) topped with snails and sun-dried tomatoes; a saute of shrimp in a tomato-tinted white sauce seasoned with mixed herbs and a mousse of scallops and salmon with an artichoke sauce.
The menu lists a decidedly dressy lineup of pastas, commencing with \o7 agnolotti\f7 (circular ravioli) garnished with saffron-glazed scallops, hearts of palm and a Gorgonzola cheese sauce, but it does not always deliver. The description of \o7 penne arrabbiata\f7 ("ragingly hot, quill-shaped macaroni," to translate literally) promised toasted walnuts, Roma tomatoes, dried grapes, paprika and \o7 pancetta\f7 , the Italian bacon. This already differed from the classic recipe found in most books, which specifies red pepper and makes no mention of nuts or grapes, but the dish sent out by the kitchen resembled neither. It was simply pasta in a somewhat sweet tomato sauce, and the guest who shared it summed up rather neatly by declaring the dish "nothing special."
The entree list offers steaks for those who would eat nothing else, but becomes more interesting with medallions of boar tenderloin in a vodka cream sauce, sauteed shrimp in oyster sauce, and quail roasted with currants and cinnamon butter.