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Trade Winds Lure Patrons to Billy's : Fun-Lovers Find Climate Favorable Despite Slow Service and Sloppy Kitchen

April 29, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Billy's at the Beach is a throwback to those carefree '70s (or '60s, or maybe even '50s) and is this joint jumpin'! Take your nostalgia pill before you visit.

Most diners can expect to be greeted by owner Billy Craig, a fair-haired fellow generally seen lounging in a corner of the bar or traipsing around the dining room in a Hawaiian shirt, schmoozing it up like a mainland edition of Don Ho.

His dining room looks like the lair of another Don--Don the Beachcomber, that leading light of the Polynesian cuisine phenomenon of several years back. The lure of the trade winds clearly lives on in Newport. Billy's has been packed from day one, and it is every man and woman for him- or herself at the pagan tropical bar.

You enter the restaurant through a bamboo-framed door, passing surfer and sunset murals not to mention restrooms labeled in Hawaiian ( kane and wahine; figure out for yourself which you are). Behind the bar, catch sight of an oil portrait of a bare-breasted Hawaiian princess and expect plenty more ersatz Gauguins scattered throughout the dining area, a long dark room filled with cane chairs, leafy plants and large numbers of loud people who are rather, er, well-oiled themselves.

I should mention that this is a prime Newport Harbor location, stuck--or rather squeezed--right in the middle of the restaurant row adjacent to John Dominis and the Chart House. Billy's is in a converted office building that now sports a plate glass window affording a broad view of the pleasure craft moored silently in the harbor. Cling to that tranquil image if you plan to have a peaceful dinner in here, but don't hold your breath.

Most people start out in the lively bar, because diners tend to linger, especially at the window tables. We made the mistake of reserving a window table and spent an hour waiting for it. There's only so much to be said for silly drinks such as Island Kurrant, made from Meyer's Rum and cranberry juice, or mai tais in bucket glasses, or such bar hors d'oeuvres as cho cho (hibachi grilled beef with a thick teriyaki glaze). Waiting an hour will make any native restless, and I'm not even a native.

Once at your table, you can expect even more waiting, because the nice, friendly waitresses are overextended. By now it may be cold comfort that these tables are charming. They're decorated with anthuriums and covered with butcher paper and are spaced nicely apart and indirectly lighted, making the space extremely comforting.

What's the problem? Simply that the service is completely disorganized, starting with what comes out of the kitchen. One evening, the kitchen managed to muff three out of four dishes at our table, no mean feat. It wasn't a complicated order, either--swordfish, fish and chips, a hamburger and Hawaiian chicken breast.

Only the chicken came through as we ordered. The burger, ordered rare, came well done. And as the waitress brought it, she informed us the kitchen was out of swordfish.

The fish and chips showed up more than 10 minutes after the chicken and the burger, providing one more surprise: The fish in question turned out to be ahi, a dark fleshed fish in the tuna family. I'll be the first to admit that ahi is superior to (and certainly more expensive than) the Icelandic cod most fish and chips places serve, and so technically we were getting a great deal. But I don't like surprises, particularly when the evening is running an hour late. The kitchen at Billy's doesn't seem to mind surprises one bit.

This is a pity, because there is some talent lurking back there. Appetizers such as coconut shrimp are somewhat thickly battered but delicious--island fun food made with a very generous amount of coconut in the batter. Poki is good too, a Hawaiian specialty consisting of chopped sashimi-quality ahi mixed up with sesame oil, soy sauce and limu (seaweed).

Even better is the fish taco, lightly grilled fillets of white-flesh fish on fresh-tasting tortillas with shredded cheese and three Mexican sauces. The bongo bongo soup is also a bit heavy-handed but tasty. Mostly a spinach preparation shot through with the flavor of pureed oysters, it reminded me of the potage Billy Bi from Trader Vic's.

All main courses are prefaced by deliciously addictive garlic cheese bread. You also get a giant Lazy Susan of mixed greens with bacon, onions, lots of dressings and other fixings, which takes up most of the table.

Main dishes run to the usual beachfront restaurant steaks, seafoods and chops. Barbecued lamb (for two or more) comes unadorned in thick, lean slices with a spicy red barbecue sauce on the side. The chicken breast is fairly straightforward, with the same thick teriyaki glaze as the cho cho beef strips in the bar. The steaks are good, cornfed hunks of beef, charbroiled exactly as at every other restaurant on this stretch of PCH.

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