Handling the overflow

Riza Parsons
Food and beverage manager Oscar Gunn is shown with a sampler paddle that customers have a choice of three beers on tap by the Alaskan Brewing Company at the Solstice Bar & Grill at the Westmark Hotel in downtown Anchorage .
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Half-pound American Kobe beef burger glazed with teriyaki sauce on a focaccia roll is served with a choice of soup, salad, or french fries at the Solstice Bar & Grill.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

The Solstice Bar & Grill has a primo spot on Fifth Avenue but is often overlooked. Not surprising, considering it is located inside the Westmark Hotel across the street from the twin dining Meccas of Orso and the Brewhouse.

It was virtually empty the day blustery winds blew me into the lobby. A single gentleman was drinking a cup of coffee and the chef stood in his spot in the open gallery kitchen patiently waiting for orders.

The restaurant is cheerful and scrupulously clean. Warm amber and red lights glow against the yellow walls. Plenty of windows allow for unobstructed people-watching, my favorite thing to do while sipping coffee.

Breakfast is offered from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., and lunch is served until 2 p.m. The lunch menu covers soups, salads, panini sandwiches and burgers. The Westmark salad ($10/$14 with chicken) is a sprightly mix of greens, blue cheese, grape tomatoes, apples and pecans. The chicken bacon ranch salad (self-explanatory and $14) sounded like a sure winner.

I'm not much of a salad person, no matter how much bacon gets thrown in, so I turned to the paninis and burgers.

Manager Oscar Gunn said the Kobe beef burger ($15) is pretty special. It's made with Wagyu beef and dressed up with teriyaki sauce and wasabi mayo. I had already met my quota for burgers that week, so I opted for the Reuben panini ($12) and a cup of seafood chowder (regularly $5, $2 with the sandwich).

The service was quick and friendly, all of my food arriving within seven minutes of ordering it. My cup of soup was just what I needed to warm me up; a lobster bisque base was swimming with clams, shrimp, chunks of salmon and creamy vegetables. The seasoning was just right, but could have used a few dashes of hot sauce to liven it up.

The sandwich left me feeling ambivalent. The trifecta of tender meat, oozing cheese and tangy sauerkraut between crisp buttery bread was satisfying, yet lacked something. It could have used another layer of corned beef but I contented myself with asking for some 1000 Island, which improved the sandwich immensely.

I dropped in the next night to pick up an order and perused the selections. The dinner menu offers most of the lunch items, with the addition of some hearty entrees. New York steak ($29), herb roasted chicken ($19) and fish and chips ($14) are some of the items that make up what Gunn refers to as a "basic American meal." The menu changes in the summer to accommodate the tastes of tourists, who prefer more seafood-based dishes.

I asked if the overwhelming popularity of the tourist attractions across the street affected business and Gunn replied positively.

"I know we're going to be busy on Friday and Saturday nights because we get the overflow from Orso and the Brewhouse. And we stay pretty busy with catering events," Gunn said.

The restaurant has been in operation for more than 10 years and was once a sushi bar, but switched to a bar and grill due to management changes and the cost of operation.

I ordered the beef short ribs ($25) to go. It's described on the menu as being plated with mashed potatoes and I was surprised to see they also had thrown in some broccolini.

The meal consisted of an enormous beef short rib lying across white cheddar mashed potatoes and a verdant bundle of broccolini. The beef jus that puddled at the bottom was liquid gold and the beef itself was tender and braised until the mere sight of a fork caused it to fall apart.

For such a humble-looking meal, it was both comfort food and an elegant interplay of flavors. I thoroughly enjoyed the al dente broccolini, broccoli's thinner, more cosmopolitan sister, and the creamy potatoes with the rich, juicy meat.

I like that the menu offers basic burgers and sandwiches along with classier fare. Hotel restaurants may not be the first options that come to mind when deciding on a venue, but Solstice may offer some solace from the downtown waiting game.

Solstice Bar & Grill

*** $$$

Location: 720 W. Fifth Ave.

Hours: 5 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday

Phone: 339-4320

Options: Dine in, catering and takeout

By Riza Parsons
Daily News correspondent