While Lo Coastal Fusion presents itself — perhaps unwittingly — as a champion of all things '80s, particularly the dreaded fusion, Avenue Grill has actually been around since the 1980s (and has the documentary evidence to prove it, hung all over the walls behind and beside the bar) and has a kitchen that presents that iconic cuisine with more than a modicum of flair.
I've heard people refer to Avenue Grill's fare as New American cuisine, as modern cuisine, as hip and up-to-date. In fact, it's anything but. Save sushi, it is the very definition of what characterized the culinary scene in the era of shoulder pads and teased hair, of DeLoreans and blow. Granted, the kitchen takes a San Francisco slant — and in doing so, advances its own personal timeline by six or eight years because the Bay Area has always been a bit more advanced in terms of cuisine — but it's still whipping up wasabi mashed potatoes, sesame-seed-crusted seared ahi tuna with ponzu, goat-cheese salads, fusion egg rolls and tempura-fried prawns with daikon and Thai chile-lime sauce. And I had all of those things when I ate at Avenue Grill last week, and I wasn't even looking for the most zombie-rific retreads on the board.
Okay, maybe I was. A little.
Still, the big difference between Lo and Avenue Grill is that I've been going to Avenue Grill on and off for years, and always manage to find something on the menu that looks good (if a tad retro) — while just three meals at Lo gave me more of a taste of the place than I ever wanted. Why does Avenue Grill work so much better? Maybe it's because the cooks here have been practicing their particular brand of '80s veneration for better than two decades, since the '80s actually were the present day, and not some dim past that most cooks look back on with barely concealed revulsion. Maybe it's because Avenue Grill concentrates its efforts on a traditional apps/salads/mains/desserts arrangement, then further narrows the field by focusing on the post-Panisse, pre-Laundry cuisine of San Francisco.
Or maybe it's just that Avenue Grill's cooks are better. Sometimes the answer is that simple.