I had good intentions; I was determined, after our now-traditional Christmas Eve dinner at Sacramento's venerable Zinfandel Grille last month, to take a fresh look, if only briefly, at where they find themselves these days. Let's face it, 30 years (okay, 28, if you want to nit-pick) is a remarkably long life for an independent restaurant in this country, especially here in California where many trends in food, wine, and pretty much everything else come and go so quickly that many of us never even knew that they were here. So let's give credit where it's due; the folks at Z-Grille have locked into a formula that has weathered a number of storms, including the Big Meltdown, and have kept on doing what they do best to a packed house most nights of the week. I can honestly say that the restaurant is one of the few that has never disappointed me; I haven't always been thrilled, but never disappointed.
The Grille bills itself as being "Mediterranean inspired", and I suppose that's a reasonable thing to say if only because of the number of pizzas and pastas on the menu year in and year out. However, many of the things they do really well don't have much of a claim to Mediterranean heritage, but so what? They taste good.
The menus are re-written on a more or less seasonal basis, but fish always plays a prominent role in the restaurant's offerings, and they have always had a nice touch with it, especially salmon. The current dinner menu's variation is a grilled version with a Meyer lemon beurre blanc and ginger-teriyaki glaze, and is very nice. The shrimp piccata with angel hair pasta is also excellent, as is the Mustard Chicken. And, although I've had a few that are every bit as good as this one (although not many), the always-available because so many people love it and order it every time they walk in (me included), the Spicy Black Bean Soup, with its life-giving roasted tomato salsa, is not to be ignored. Ever. All in all, and allowing for a little of the usual inertia inherent in the nature of long-term successful restaurants, the kitchen is, and always has been, solid.
Surprisingly, though, all things considered, the wine list is not dazzling. Nor has it ever been, at least in my experience. The white wines side of the menu is a disappointment, being composed mostly of the same old tired representatives of the high profile and hip, with only a few stars shining. The reds fare better, though, with listings of really nice examples (and good values) from folks like Justin, Boeger, Trefethen, Ridge, and Martin Ray, as well as sturdy war horses like Simi, Louis Martini, Franciscan, and Clos du Val. There is a good bar with (usually) solid bartenders in residence, and it is almost always busy. We recommend. In short, Zinfandel Grille is still a dining establishment where all is well; good food and drink at fair prices, with service to match.
Now on to another subject near and dear to me: golf. Almost everyone connected to the game, particularly those connected in a commercial way, are, and have been for quite some time, concerned with the significant fall-off in numbers of new players entering the game, and most acutely with the dire situation that many private golf/country clubs now find themselves facing. And. as you can imagine, there as many theories making the rounds about the reasons why this is happening as there are people concerned, and most of them are, to one extent or another, valid. I, like many, am convinced that the greatest challenges lie with the facts that the game is expensive by the average person's standard; it requires a substantial portion of a day to play a full 18 hole round; that players are, at least at many private clubs, still governed by repressive (and sometimes ludicrously so) codes of behavior and standards of dress which make little sense to most individuals under the age of 40; and the game is hard, and requires serious attention and dedication in order to become proficient at it.
A few of those issues will never change: the game, as it exists in its traditional form, will always be hard, it will always require a significant amount of time to play, and it will always be expensive, at least relative to many other pastimes such as tennis or softball/basketball/soccer leagues, or bowling, to name a few. There is only so much that can be done to address change in those areas without negatively impacting the game, itself, and I have no interest in that; it's not a viable solution. However, there are some positive measures that the industry can take to alleviate some of the pain associated with the other concerns of many new players:
First, and this applies for the most part to many, but not all, private clubs, re-write your bylaws and general rules to discard the silly and repressive guidelines for dress and behavior that are no longer relevant to today's families and lifestyles. Prohibitions against the use of cellphones on club grounds, or discussions concerning business in certain areas of the clubhouse, or restrictions of times during which "juniors" are allowed on the course or practice areas, as well as a myriad of variations on those themes and other similarly nonsensical ones, are no longer acceptable to most of today's young families, and are best left in the past, where they belong. The selection of which local club to join by young families today goes far beyond which has "the best course in the area". Successful recruiting campaigns these days are the ones that address the needs of every member of the family. If your club happens to be in the enviable position of neither needing nor wanting new blood, then I suppose you can do whatever makes you happy, but if not, then you'd better pay attention to what prospective members want, rather than what you want them to have.
And next, I urge that you invest in your staff. Recruit the best, pay well, and spend money to advance ongoing professional education opportunities for key personnel. Your members expect the best when they come to their club, and both Management and boards of directors are responsible for seeing that it is provided to them, within the club's means. From many years' experience I can tell you that there's no more valuable asset to a hospitality organization, whether club, resort, hotel, or restaurant, than a happy, committed, and well-trained staff; they will make or break you.
And, finally, set your dues at a level that will support an operation of the quality that you intend to provide your members/guests. No matter what else you do, DO NOT OVERPROMISE AND UNDERDELIVER. That is the deadliest of sins. Do only what you can do well, and afford. If the demographics of your membership are not such that it can or will pay for the vision, then the vision has to change to serve reality.
Good luck. The golf industry is presently facing the greatest challenges of my career, which spans more than 30 years, and the private club sector, in particular, is vulnerable and exposed as never before. I believe that only those leaders who are forward-thinking and aggressive in their planning and execution of their visions will succeed and prosper. The landscape is already littered with the carcasses of hundreds of marginally-operated private clubs that floundered and died during the disasters of the economic crashes and sector meltdowns of the recession, and there will be more, I am sure of that. I hope that you won't be responsible for any of those.
Finally, before closing this letter, I feel obligated (almost) to acknowledge the local activism of the good people at our down-the-road neighbor, Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, in Chico. I find it interesting, as well as encouraging, that they are so relentlessly persistent in their determination to do the right things for the environment (their water-conserving initiatives have been front and center in the community), for example. They have also been leading-edge pioneers in the area of composting (brewing generates a great deal of organic waste that has to go somewhere, so why not use it productively?) and had the first, and for a long time the only, HotRot system in the country. Hot Rot is a pioneering method of super-composting through the use of an innovative bit of engineering manufactured in New Zealand, and it enabled the brewery to achieve the first-ever coveted Zero Waste Platinum Certification from the US Zero Waste Business Council in 2013, in recognition of the fact that they are diverting 99.8% of their waste from landfills and incinerators. And, among many other initiatives, Sierra Nevada is a major supporter of the Public Broadcasting System in the North State. And, they make great beers.
Thanks for you efforts, and please don't ever stop producing Torpedo.