If food were the lone priority in appraising a restaurant, dining out would be a monotonous pursuit. But food is approximately never the lone priority, and that, in a roundabout way, is what makes this clubhouse restaurant so interesting. None of the most compelling arguments for eating at the clubhouse involve the food; likewise, the top reasons some concerned citizens have chosen to boycott it don't directly involve food either.
The menu here is of the sandwich-heavy clubhouse variety. It possesses few surprises, either jarring or overly imaginative. There's a predictable and first-rate club sandwich, a double-decker that's as well-manicured as the putting greens. The grilled chicken, prosciutto and provolone "panini" is really a quesadilla, the ingredients pressed between layers of tortilla, not bread; it's unlikely that this misnomer keeps anyone from devouring it. Grapes and pecans are stirred into the chunky chicken salad, which is super on wheat toast. And the crawfish wrap is just that: fried crawfish tails pummeled with spices and packaged with pinkish remoulade sauce in a spinach-green tortilla. The tortilla is a nice stab at innovation, even though with each bite I half-longed to taste these ingredients in a conventional po-boy, with chewy French bread and pickles.
While ruffled chips are the all-American side dish, I suggest splurging for a tangle of thin, spice-battered onion rings. The French fries are standard, uniformly square-cut and hot.
Deep, white bowls, whose rims swoop dramatically upwards in the back like Victorian collars, bear reliable salads and soup specials. A caring hand arranged mixed greens, mandarin oranges, toasted almonds and avocado into the eponymous Audubon Salad one lunchtime. Its thick blue cheese dressing automatically came on the side, a stylistic decision that I ordinarily loathe (what's an undressed salad but a mess of unrelated ingredients?); fortunately, the bowls are roomy enough to toss salads yourself. Bacon was the commanding force in smooth artichoke and cabbage soups; the latter was especially pleasant, filled out with cabbage's sweet mustiness.
Most appetizers, such as the jalapeno poppers filled with orange cheese and not-hot chiles, are deep-fried and generic. Coconut shrimp were more noteworthy; masking as an appetizer, they tasted like the shellfish had snuck into dessert macaroons.
Clubhouses are traditionally fueling stations for golfers, the food subsidiary to the sport, the camaraderie and the beer. It still goes without saying that the hamburgers at a clubhouse should be great. If you can't depend on a clubhouse burger, what next? Stale popcorn at the movies? Shoddy hot dogs at the game? The burgers at this clubhouse are so surprisingly distasteful that I ordered them on several occasions just to make sure it wasn't my bad timing. Each time, what looked like fat, juicy, hand-formed beef patties tasted like nothing -- lean as ostrich, flavorless as chicken breast.
At last, nothing edible -- not the perplexing burgers, not the Arnold Palmers (a frozen lemonade and iced tea mix), not the brownie sundae with its sunburst of drizzled sauces -- eclipses this restaurant's setting. I don't imagine that when Charles Olmstead designed Audubon Park back in 1871 he envisioned park-goers driving their SUVs up into the oaks and prizing parking spaces like a hole-in-one. SaveAudubonPark.org, the grassroots organization originally formed in reaction to the Audubon Nature Institute's plans to expand the golf course, still opposes the clubhouse on its Web site, calling it "a building only Al Copeland could love."
And yet it's an oxygenated walk from the lot to the neutral-colored, slate-roofed building. Mr. Copeland's opinion notwithstanding, this is hardly a menacing structure. The bright, comfortable indoor dining room contains roughly a dozen copper tabletops, matching upholstered chairs and a bar. Even in here, though, the scenery is the main attraction: Windowed doors surrounding the room on two sides provide what's certainly the best restaurant view in Uptown. More than one golf-shirted server commented on the everyday bonus of working in this setting.
Audubon Park holds individual significance for each of its users -- dog owners, roller-bladers, duck feeders and naturalists. The former clubhouse, once located across the central course, only accommodated members. This one offers the general public another angle of appreciation, one that doesn't necessarily involve golf. Midway through lunch one afternoon, a friend noticed visors heading into the pro shop and commented, "Oh yes, this is a golf club, isn't it?"
It's also an extraordinary spot for knocking back an Arnold Palmer and perhaps a modest sandwich in the company of those lunging oaks before the imminent dog days of summer take hold.