If a volume of matter equal to all the masses of shrimp that have been set out on the seafood salad bar at the Quails Inn Dinner House over the years were plopped into the adjacent Lake San Marcos, how high would the level of the lake rise?
Certainly not enough to pose any threat of flooding, but the rise just might be measurable. An enormous number of the little critters have met their end in puddles of cocktail sauce since the doors first opened on this quintessentially 1960s-style "dinner house," as the restaurant bills itself.
The shrimp, offered from a deep and seemingly bottomless well, are perhaps the centerpiece of a lengthy bar that also offers quantities of shucked oysters, pickled herring, smoked fish, crab salad, assorted greens, garnishes and dressings, and a pair of soups. A visit to the bar is included with entrees or can be ordered on its own, and the only noticeable concession to economy on the restaurant's part is the small circumference of the plates; it is difficult to take too much on one trip, although some patrons doubtless have managed to do more than justice to the display.
Quails Inn manages an excellent job of providing quantity at a reasonable price.
The cooking is at times perfunctory, but the kitchen goes in for intense flavors and frequently hits the mark, as it did recently with both a well-seasoned (if overly thick) clam chowder and notably meaty beef barley soup.
The menu follows closely in the longstanding traditions of the classic Southern California "dinner house" (the term pretty much is restricted to use within the trade and describes places with menus like this one), and features such things as prime rib and steaks, alone or in tandem with such other featured dishes as batter-fried shrimp and Australian lobster tail. There is much attention paid to seafood, including standing offerings of halibut grilled in egg batter, orange roughy and Idaho trout garnished with almonds.
A number of loosely "Continental-style" dishes are sprinkled through the menu. This list includes veal Mornay, shrimp scampi Alfredo and stuffed shrimp Mornay, a casserole of scallops parisienne and a cross-cultural creation called "stir-fry primavera " that tops pasta with a stir-fry of assorted vegetables and a creamy sauce.
All these seem to have in common a basic white sauce enriched with grated cheese or cheeses, although the sauce is described differently for each dish; the scallops parisienne , reposing in the "special vin blanc sauce," were in fact sprinkled heavily with grated Parmesan and finished with white sauce. The dish was good if not exceptional.
Served separately or together in a "shore dinner" combination are Aussie lobster tails, breaded scallops and butterflied shrimp, which are sliced open, immersed in batter and then in hot oil. For a little more adventure, a trio of Pacific red snapper choices runs from a basic grill with tartar sauce to a ranchero version with red sauce and Jack cheese to a "Cajun-style" creation coated with mixed spices.
A full cut of prime rib that sailed by on the way to a neighboring table looked rather nice, but a thinner portion paired with three fried shrimp on a combination plate had little to recommend it; the flavor and juiciness simply were not there. The choice of garnish with this plate, as with all others, was between good, crisp steak fries, a baked potato (the first one brought to table was cold) and the rice pilaf.
The restaurant offers prompt, efficient service, a view of the lake when the sun is shining and a relaxed but lively atmosphere; the place typically is busy, waits are by no means unknown and reservations are available for parties of seven or more.
Quails Inn Dinner House
1035 La Bonita Drive, San Marcos
Hours: Dinner served nightly
Cost: Entrees from $9.95 to $22.95; dinner for two, with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $30 to $60.