Pinot Provence, Costa Mesa (Photos by Eugene Garcia, OC Register)
Empty restaurants are difficult to enjoy.
I’ve dined at Pinot Provence several times over the past couple of months – at lunch, at dinner, on various days of the week. The gorgeous chateau-style, chandeliered dining room has never been more than 15 percent occupied, even on a Friday night at 7.
I feel strangely unsettled when I’m the only person (or one of few) eating in an eerily empty restaurant. I feel as if I’ve come to the wrong place.
On each of my visits here, my dining companions greet me with heartbroken eyes. “Where is everyone?” they ask. I’m halfway inclined to get up and leave if someone else doesn’t hurry through the door. I apologize to my guests for not taking them someplace more exciting. “Oh, doesn’t the lamb cassoulet sound good?” I’ll say. Or, “Hey, I hear they have a new chef. He’s worked at some really good restaurants.” To which my dining companions nod and feign interest as their eyes dart from one empty table to another.
On a beautiful Thursday at noon when the patio should be packed, a friend and I are the only ones seated outside (as best I can tell, there’s one table occupied indoors). We’ve taken the day off with the intent of whiling away the afternoon, a brief staycation in the South of France by way of Bristol and Anton. We see our waiter once every 20 minutes or so, which is fine, since we’re not in a rush. But we do feel alone, like we’re hiding out in a semi-abandoned chateau where most of the servants have long since been let go.
The braised beef short ribs are very good, but the competition for short ribs is fierce and these barely rise above the fray. There’s a decent strip steak that arrives slightly overcooked and over-sauced, but not enough to warrant sending it back. It’s served with a double-stuffed baked potato that tastes (at dinner) like it might have been left over from lunch. There’s a decent piece of salmon served over braised greens with a carrot purée. And my risotto arrives congealed, a thick brown clump that has me reaching for a gulp of wine after each bite to help lubricate it on the way down. All of these items make me feel not like I’m in France but like I’m at a wedding banquet.
I can remember a time when Pinot Provence felt important. I sense it’s trying to get the mojo back. Like a faded chateau that’s been left to gather dust, there is still so much potential for a rebirth here. But empty restaurants speak volumes, and convincing diners to return to a place they long ago gave up on is always a challenge.
This is obviously merely a synopsis. To read my full review with the star rating, and to view an extensive slide show by photographer Eugene Garcia, check out this week’s OC Register. Note: As of April 1, subscriptions are required to access the OC Register online. We don’t give it away for free at the newsstand, nor do we give away for free online. Anyone can receive one week of complimentary access, but after that you’ll need to be a subscriber. Alternatively, you can always buy a single day pass — cheaper than a cup of coffee — for 24-hour access.