Comfort Food in Mill Valley

We may live in a region where the latest trendy ingredients and culinary themes are as ubiquitous as the Toyota Prius. But it’s nice to know that when a craving for American comfort food hits, one of the best places for satisfaction is in our own backyard at Mill Valley’s Bungalow 44.

Tucked into the space best known as the former Avenue Grill, the restaurant is virtually two destinations in one. The main area is contemporary and lively with black banquettes and high-back chairs, an open kitchen shielded by acoustic panels and frosted glass, and a jumping bar that continues to hop long after the tables have been cleared. The adjoining room is whisper quiet with a crackling fire during winter, ambitious artwork, and removable plastic panels that allow for breezier seating during warm weather. Navigated by managing partner Peter Schumacher, who holds the same title at sister restaurant Buckeye Roadhouse, the two spaces satisfy decidedly opposing atmospheres: one for festive diners and imbibers throwing back specialty cocktails and one for diners who prefer a little peace and quiet with their wine and food.

At first glance the menu seems a gourmet version of American cuisine’s greatest hits. Order a burger and you’ll get ground Kobe beef—with truffled fries. Super-crispy and peppery fried chicken with silky mashed potatoes is joined by arugula salad. Saucy and sassy barbecue-spiced creole shrimp tangles with artichoke heart slices, tiny cubes of andouille sausage, and a block of creamy grits. Meat loaf, onion rings, Caesar salad…they’re all here and done very, very well.

But a closer look proves that the menu highlights the flavors of not yesterday’s but today’s America, where international influences are part of the local fabric in the same way that Italian-influenced North Beach and exotic Chinatown are just as San Franciscan as the Marina or Pacific Heights.

The integration of more loosely “American” items is not as much a philosophical issue as it is a dilemma for the hungry diner. You may come in with your heart set on an onion rings starter and braised beef short ribs entrée, but be easily swayed by a beginning of roasted asparagus with tomato confit, olives, goat cheese and parmesan jus followed by creamy Maine lobster spaghetti.

Halfway through our first meal—and the menu—my party was convinced that executive chef and partner Robert Price, who also oversees the kitchen at the Buckeye, is as skilled now as he was in 1994 when he first won me over at San Francisco’s bygone Rumpus. Virtually every dish is a hit, and the near-misses—such as an overly vinegary arugula side salad—are trivial enough not to tarnish what amounts to a very satisfying dining experience.

Desserts, such as classic butterscotch pudding buried in a pile of whipped cream, are tasty, but I can’t help but pine for Price’s famed Rumpus finale, the heavenly chocolate brioche. The pudding-like cake moved me to head to Rumpus regularly and on one occasion plead for a to-go order when I arrived after the restaurant closed. It also prompted Gourmet magazine to request the recipe nearly a dozen times—to no avail. Should you book a table at Bungalow 44, which I definitely recommend, perhaps you could do us all a favor and lobby for the famous dessert’s resurrection.

Bungalow 44, 44 E. Blithedale Ave., Mill Valley, 415.381.2500;; entrées $15.50–$25.95, dinner nightly