It's important to put things in perspective. Furnace Creek is in the middle of the 2-million-acre Death Valley National Monument, more than 300 miles from Los Angeles and 160 miles from Las Vegas. Except for dates, anything you eat at restaurants in this oasis must be transported there--it certainly doesn't grow or graze in the Mojave.
Also, keep in mind the people who visit Death Valley are a cross-section of Americana. They stay at the more luxurious Furnace Creek Inn, the rustic Furnace Creek Ranch, or in area campgrounds. The point is, restaurants in Furnace Creek cater to a wide range of tastes. You won't find anything trendy, but what you do find is remarkably good food, considering the obstacles.
The philosophy at Furnace Creek Ranch Steak House might be summed up as "keep it simple but do it right." The menu includes three types of steak, barbecued chicken breast, some fish and a nightly special. Everything is served with the same accompaniments--baked potato, sour cream and chives and ranch-style pinto beans. Also included are unlimited trips to the salad bar. Nothing fancy, but it works.
The salad bar greens were fresher and better looking than those I've seen in many a local restaurant. Instead of the assorted toppings we're used to seeing, however, there were tomato wedges. The rest of the space was occupied by cottage cheese, corn relish, and an array of carrot, macaroni, marinated bean, fruit and crab salads. There was also a tray of celery and carrot sticks, olives, pickles and sliced onion. I had the feeling I was somewhere in the Midwest.
Mini loaves of bread, still warm from the oven, are served on a board with a knife for slicing. White bread.
Entree portions are generous, steaks are tender and so was the prime rib special available the evening of our visit. The chicken breast was moist and tender. Trout was on the small side but well prepared. You can also get side orders of sauteed onions or mushrooms.
There's wine--white and red. Order by the glass, half or whole carafe and don't expect anything more than generic jug wine. Cocktails, beer, coffee and tea are also offered.
Some desserts are available, but we were told that the pies and cakes were frozen and that the hot fruit cobbler wasn't available (it seldom was, according to our waiter). That left ice cream and sherbet, so we passed.
The decor is as simple as the food. It's almost as if the restaurant was added as an afterthought, tucked into a long, narrow space between the general store and coffee shop. Just inside the wrought-iron gate is a patio area with six small tables. Probably a nice place to sit on warm evenings, but on the chilly night we visited the wood burning stove at the far end of the inside room drew us like a magnet.
Walls inside are board and batten, painted what appeared to be creamy white in the yellow lighting from wrought-iron hanging lamps. Ten tables have laminated Death Valley place mats, paper napkins and bottles of assorted steak sauces.
The flagstone floor isn't exactly level, so you find yourself rocking a bit or looking down or up on those across the table. But the chairs are comfortable and, after all, it is a ranch.
Furnace Creek Ranch Steak House, Death Valley; (619) 786-2345. Open November through April, nightly (except Sunday) from 5 to 9 p.m. No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. Lot parking. Entrees, $12.50 to $18.25.
The line must have been a hundred deep when we arrived 20 minutes before opening of the Sunday brunch buffet at Furnace Creek Inn. Veterans told us it's always the same; but if you arrive later, there may be a wait for a table once you've gone through the line.
That seemed to be our observation about 12:30 p.m., but by 1 p.m. there was a lull, at least on the day we visited. A look at the buffet, however, and we were glad we opted to go early--some of the best items had not been replaced.
It's a U-shaped buffet, beginning with trays of date and nut and sheepherder's breads. Next comes a choice of about 25 salads, which that particular day included several different pastas, marinated beef, cottage cheese, fruit, marinated mushrooms, two types of coleslaw, Thai chicken, marinated peppers and mixed pea.
The second table had crudities and dip, fruit and cheese displays, tomato aspic with creamed herring, salmon, quiche and a couple different terrines. That was followed by a beef station, then a third table of hot items--beef Burgundy, chicken marengo, shrimp and scallops in supreme sauce, eggs Benedict, cheese blintzes, raspberry filled pancakes, sauteed chicken livers, potatoes O'Brien, sausage and bacon.
Omelets Made to Order
At the open end of the arrangement was an omelet station, where you could designate ham, shrimp, cheese, mushrooms, onions, red peppers and sour cream fillings. Since we could return to the buffet area as many times as desired, we opted not to stagger into the dining room under the weight of a full plate.