When Lafayette's beloved Bo's Barbecue closed in 2014, after more than 15 years perched on Mt. Diablo Boulevard near Brown Avenue, Lamorindans were disconsolate. Bo McSwine's barbecue joint was an institution. And we've never understood landlords who boot great tenants, presumably in the hopes of bringing in more revenue from someone else. We're still bitter over the loss of Freddie's Pizza, and that was more than a decade ago.
So huzzahs greeted grillmaster Dave Roberson's announcement that he was turning his Bonehead's Texas BBQ catering business into a bricks-and-mortar place in the old Bo's quarters.
The Texas barbecue spot opened last summer, and the renovations have brought a welcome verve to the space. The restaurant is considerably airier. Three flat-screen TVs hang along a wall for the sports-loving crowd, and you can actually see the giant smokers in back (although you can't really smell them). Bright orange chairs and patio tables line the front deck, making it a great spot to hang out in warm weather. There are occasional live bands now, and plans for singer/songwriter open mic nights in the months to come. And there's no question that Roberson is used to feeding a crowd.
We'll get to the specifics of Bonehead's food in a moment, but first, we've been pondering the vast differences between catering a barbecue gig and running a sit-down barbecue restaurant, and the expectations diners bring to those two very different experiences.
Think about those barbecues in corporate parking lots and festival grounds, as happy diners queue up at long buffet tables. Ribs, chicken and smoky brisket are dispensed from giant disposable aluminum trays, and sides are scooped and unceremoniously plopped on straining paper plates by a catering crew that is paid to be fast and unobtrusive, not charming.
Unless you're the barbecue host, chances are good that you have no idea how much your meal costs. You're too busy chatting with friends to even notice oversalted food. And who cares about paper plates, flimsy plastic forks and small servings, when you can go back for seconds?
It takes a clever and experienced restaurateur to translate the casual delights of a park barbecue to a sit-down environment, where diners are paying close attention to flavor, ambience, service and value, especially when the dinner tab for two crests the $50 mark as easily as it does here.
At Livermore's popular Sauced, for example, impeccable, elevated barbecue fare is served on butcher paper-lined metal trays, an irreverent, casual and sturdy presentation completely in keeping with the culinary genre, and one that ensures that your food won't end up in your lap. The baked beans are served in ceramic bowls, the flatware is metal, and the booze is, frankly, great.
By contrast, Bonehead's is an indoor catering gig -- although the beer is Racer IPA ($6) and the sauv blanc hails from Dry Creek ($6). You order at the counter, choosing your meat -- Harris Ranch brisket, pulled pork, sausage, a chicken thigh or ribs, which carry a $3 surcharge -- and sides. A one-meat, two-side combination will run you $11.50, two and two is $13.75, and three and three will set you back $19.50.
You'll pick up your plastic utensils and loaded paper plate at the counter, too, and carefully carry them to your table, acutely conscious that the paper plate industry does not expend adequate attention on issues of structural integrity, and that the probability of your mac 'n' cheese turning into shirt 'n' cheese is high. It's the parking lot barbecue experience indoors.
The night we were there, the chicken thigh proved small and unremarkable, and the pulled pork was very salty, but vastly improved by lashings of sweet barbecue sauce, which you pump from a vat, ketchup-style. The brisket was the star of the night: smoky, flavorful and tender meat, although our plastic knives were unequal to the task. And we can't help but think that if the barbecue fare had been knock-your-socks-off awesome or even uniformly up to the brisket level, we wouldn't be whining about chintzy paper plates -- the repetition of which, we realize, must be getting tedious by now.
Bonehead's offers half a dozen sides, and although the baked beans were underdone and the potato salad was sharp and pungent -- which may be a Texas thing -- the cornbread and honey butter were very tasty, and the spicy mac 'n' cheese comforting on a chilly winter's night. Other sides include green salad and coleslaw.
Those with a sweet tooth can peruse Bonehead's dessert offerings -- on this evening, vanilla pudding in Styrofoam bowl and brownies -- at the cash register.
In the end, we have mixed feelings about Bonehead's. We want so badly for Roberson to succeed, but while Bonehead's may excel at corporate parking lot catering gigs, here, it's competing with the other dining options on Lafayette's increasingly exciting restaurant row.
Still, those orange patio chairs look like a fine place to imbibe a craft brew on a warm summer night. We'll try again.
Bonehead's Texas BBQ
WHERE: 3422 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette
HOURS: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
VEGETARIAN: A side or two of mac 'n' cheese ($3) and a salad are about the only options.
BEVERAGES: Wine and craft beer on tap
RESERVATIONS: Not accepted
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Free parking lot
PLUSES: Airy interior, charming outdoor dining area, nice wines and beer on tap, and tasty brisket
MINUSES: This is paper-plate picnic fare, more appropriate to a catered barbecue in a corporate parking lot than a restaurant on Lafayette's vibrant restaurant row.
DATE OPENED: July 2014
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