Bing Crosby's Restaurant & Piano Lounge

Bing Crosby’s is huge, impressive and almost overwhelming in its tributes to the star.

Der Bingle, as Bob Hope called his buddy Bing Crosby, went to his eternal reward on October 14, 1977, after golfing a course in Spain. The crooner, actor, one-time Rancho Santa Fe resident and cofounder of the Del Mar Racetrack epitomized Hollywood stardom for decades. Today, his name can’t be very familiar to recent generations (except to young fans of old movies), but it’s been revived by a high-end restaurant enterprise that numbers three California outlets and includes widow Kathryn Crosby among backers.

Bing Crosby’s Restaurant & Piano Lounge opened in early September at Fashion Valley center, which in the last year or so has remade itself as San Diego’s haute bourgeoisie riposte to South Coast Plaza, Melrose Avenue, Bond Street, Madison Avenue, Via Veneto and Rue du Faubourg St. Honore. If timing is everything, it’s not clear that 2008 is just the right year in which to shower deluxe fashion houses upon this city, but then, perhaps it’s true that some men never can have too many Hermès neckties.

Located near the mall’s main entrance (Cheesecake Factory hums across the drive), Bing Crosby’s is huge, impressive and almost overwhelming in its tributes to the star. The main dining room, an alcove and the bar (where a piano and drums occupy a low stage) seat up to 270, and there are more tables on a terrace that faces Bloomingdale’s. Restaurant publicity claims the interior is “a Hollywood-inspired setting that captures all the glory and glamour of the 1930s,” but it may be necessary to have been born circa 1910 to determine the truth of this. It is a handsome place, richly finished in a mixed palette of greens trimmed with dark wood. The look is very “country club,” if suggestive of a club at which Crosby was the sole member.

Anywhere one looks, Bing looks back from vast black-and-white photographs, many of them poses with such fellow stars as Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Louis Armstrong and a casting call’s worth of other luminaries. More shots catch him mid-swing on the golf course, and in the largest, which brings a unique celebrity focus to the dining room, he gazes amiably if somewhat intimidating from an especially sizable portrait.

What can be said about the music, except that if you love it, you really love it? Bing sings plenty, and whenever his recordings take five, other hot songsters and Big Bands swing into play. At dinner, live piano soothes exhausted shoppers.

If you forget the titles of Crosby’s films, refer to the cocktail list, headlined by High Society (like most tipples, this basic vodka martini costs $12) and followed by martini variants named Road to Rio, Road to Bali and Road to Singapore (Road to Morocco is reserved for a tasty Happy Hour plate of hummus, feta cheese and more, $10).

If you’re a good-humored sort of person, a new restaurant can provide plenty of anecdotes about service. By and large, Bing Crosby’s staff seems devoted to smiling, although there was a busboy who, having served each guest one very thin slice of baguette, returned to ask, “Would you like more bread?” in a tone that implied you should say “No,” and quickly. A waitress proudly presented a bowl of soup, without having first provided a spoon. When the diner politely requested this utensil, she gazed in wonder and said, “Do you want a spoon?” in a way that kept the table chuckling through the meal. A glitch on a different occasion was considerably less amusing (a hostess decided that a cocktail table in the bar was good enough for a solo lunch guest, and discovered in certain terms that it was not), but by the final visit, management seemed to have service running much more smoothly.

Bing Crosby’s claims it serves “California country club cuisine,” which might frighten many members of this state’s private clubs. In fact, the food mostly is quite good. The noon menu rises to the shopping center location, where lunch is part of the experience, after all. The restaurant’s take on crab Louie ($22) differs from most Louies but can be regarded as superior. It stars a sizable mound of Dungeness crab salad, rich, creamy, flavorful and perfect, arranged over slivered greenery and prettily garnished.

When the soup of the day ($8) is minestrone, order it. Also lovely at lunch: the croque madame ($14), here beautifully interpreted as a square of toasted focaccia topped with a mountain of shaved Black Forest ham, some Gruyère, a gently fried egg and a tidal wave of sauce Mornay. With French fries and colorful, puckery homemade pickles on the side, it’s perfect. “The Lunch Trio” ($14), which combines a cup of soup, a nice green salad and a half-sandwich of choice (roast beef with crisp fried onions!), makes another perfect presentation.

The dinner menu often strives for major effects, and often at major prices. The theatrical chilled-seafood sampler (served for a minimum of two at $18 per person) trails billows of “smoke” generated by dry ice placed on a sizzling dish; the oysters, mussels, clams, prawns, lobster and so forth keep their cool on a bed of ice. Otherwise, consider a meaty starter of heirloom tomatoes, house-made mozzarella and basil ($10) or a well-garnished steak tartare ($12) that shares nicely if you’re not sure you’re a steak tartare sort of person.

Entrées include big steaks: a 20-ounce, bone-in rib-eye ($39) and “Bing Crosby’s Signature Dish,” a grilled filet mignon with truffled brown sauce, green vegetables and potato cannelloni ($39). If the house-made fettuccine with grilled prawns ($24) disappoints, choose such pleasing offerings as lamb presented three ways ($28) and pan-seared ahi with various light, refreshing garnishes ($28). Among the desserts ($9 each), the fresh, sugary doughnuts served with a molten chocolate dip are a sweetly cheerful novelty.

Bing Crosby’s Restaurant & Piano Lounge serves lunch and dinner daily at Fashion Valley center, 7007 Friars Road, San Diego. Reservations are accepted at 619-295-2464.

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