It is hard to question a restaurant's popularity when you walk in the day after Christmas--an occasion upon which many of us presumably still are sated with holiday fare--and find the dining room full.
The Gentleman's Choice, one of the longer-running, full-service establishments in Escondido, enjoyed exactly this condition. This 12-year-old establishment (which has a brother eatery of the same name and menu in San Marcos) seems to base its popularity primarily on a selection of such tried-and-true, perennial Southern California hits as prime rib, teriyaki top sirloin, shrimp scampi and steamed king crab legs. But the menu encouragingly ventures beyond all the usuals to encompass "hearty healthy" and "light cuisine" items, as well as several less typical poultry and seafood offerings.
The decor seems designed to suggest old-fashioned Eastern formality (the menu's logo depicts a gentleman tennis player from the turn of the century), a theme that may go largely unnoticed but is pleasantly anachronistic given the restaurant's location, the very 1970s Vineyard shopping development. The service, rather strained on the course of a recent visit (management may not have anticipated much business the day after Christmas), is decidedly informal and perfunctory; a server assumed that his guests knew what they wanted before they looked at the menu.
Such an assumption would be correct in the case of a guest who wore an "I Love Ribs" button, since a featured offering is the refilled-by-request plate of barbecued rib bones. The only limit to the serving, which costs $8.95, is a prohibition against doggie bags. The bones, of course, are but a by-product of the primary attraction, the roast prime rib, offered in three sizes and priced from $11.95 to $19.95.
Meals include the choice of the day's soup, recently an unexpected cream of cauliflower (not an item one would find on a hit parade of soups), and the house salad. Tossed at the table with what the menu is pleased to call the "famous house dressing," which actually is of the ranch variety, it includes decent greens, crumbled bacon and discouragingly commercial croutons. In the pseudo-elegant style of the period in which the Gentleman's Choice was born, servers offer their guests chilled salad forks.
The entrees sampled were acceptable but unexceptional. The guest who ordered one of the day's specials, an herbed chicken breast, found it well-cooked but lacking any notable herb flavor. The tempura shrimp had a good flavor and a fairly light batter crust, but was somewhat oily, indicating preparation at something below the optimum frying temperature. The vegetable and baked potato garnishes were typical and substantial.
The choice of baked or broiled swordfish from the standing entree list reappears as grilled swordfish in ginger sauce on the "heart healthy" menu, which also includes the restaurant's version of Indian tandoori chicken (coated with a spice mixture and baked) and veal piccata . This menu offers calorie, cholesterol and sodium counts, and includes a choice between a "light" version of vichyssoise and fruit salad.
The standing menu offers a number of steaks (including the once-ubiquitous chopped sirloin with mushrooms, onions and brown gravy); liver with onions; duck in orange sauce; teriyaki and cordon bleu chicken breasts; halibut marinated in citrus juices; a mixed saute of shrimp, scallops and crab, moistened with something called a "private wine sauce," and Australian lobster tail, which at least during the local lobster season seems the lazy way out.
The simple dessert selection features a homemade apple crisp that includes Cheddar cheese in the pie crust and is served warm with ice cream. It's a good finish to one of this restaurant's all-American meals.
THE GENTLEMAN'S CHOICE
1511-13 E. Valley Parkway, Escondido
Hours: Lunch weekdays, dinner nightly.
Cost: Entrees from $5.95 to $19.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $25 to $55.