In the horse race of American shibboleths, it's neck and neck between "choice" and "democracy" down the unending stretch. But maybe not in the kitchen. Well-settled folk wisdom teaches that the best kitchens more closely resemble autocracies or fiefs than serene republics. "A kitchen is not a democracy" what sage said this, or should have? And out there in the dining room, it can be equally true that choice is sometimes more a burden than a benefit. Many of us have known the quiet horror of sitting down in a Chinese restaurant and being handed a menu whose numbered items run into the hundreds and whose heft is like that of an appropriations bill. Choice is not always for the faint of heart.
One of the reasons I retain a particular affection for Chez Panisse in Berkeley is its fixed menu. It changes every night, but on any given night, they serve what they serve. The presentation of the menu card is something of a formality, a polite advisory. You are being clued in but not actually consulted. And, in a strange way, you relax, as if you're strapping yourself into an airline seat. You surrender your autonomy, say your little prayer, and trust in the fates to take you (and your luggage) where you want to go. And that's what happens. There's no point worrying, since it's out of your hands. You're free to direct your energies elsewhere.
As far as I know, Chez Panisse is the only restaurant in the Bay Area that uses this kind of absolutely set menu, the king of the prix-fixes. (And only downstairs. If it's choice you seek, upstairs you must go, to the excellent café.) But in recent years, I have noticed a gentle bloom of lesser prix-fixes: some offered beside a regular à la carte menu, others that give a few options for each course. While quite a few of the restaurants are French, as we would expect, an increasing number aren't so you won't necessarily get stuck with crème brûlée for dessert.
The prix-fixe isn't for everybody all the time, of course. There have been moments when I've forsaken a tempting one because I didn't want dessert (which is almost always one of the courses offered). At other times, a dish on the regular menu strongly appealed. Prix-fixe dishes have long seemed quite mainstream to me; they're the kind of things a kitchen can produce without too much struggle that appeals to a broad swath of customers. In return, you generally do get more for your money. The greatest prix-fixe deal I ever came across was at Hawthorne Lane, in the autumn of 2001: three courses for $28 at one of the best restaurants in the city, where even the modest dishes were memorable. Those were strange days, true, and the restaurant itself is no more, having morphed into Two. But silently, with only my lips moving, I compare all subsequent prix-fixes to that one.
The George W. Bush Wirtschaftswunder has brought, among other delights, steady upward pressure on prices, especially food prices. Yet there is at least one restaurant in the city where you can get three courses for less than $20 only a nickel less, but still. The restaurant is Le P'tit Laurent (699 Chenery, SF. 415-334-3235, www.leptitlaurent.com), an atmospheric bistro in the heart of the Glen Park village. On nights when rain smears the windows, the street scene looks almost Parisian. Inside it's warm and cozy, with bustle. The prix-fixe is available until 7 p.m. and includes soup or salad, a main dish (perhaps sautéed prawns or roasted veal), and a dessert from the dessert menu, maybe the sublime profiteroles. My lone sorrow here is that if you want the restaurant's excellent cassoulet, you'll probably end up having to order it à la carte.
Only slightly more expensive, at $23.50, is the three-course prix-fixe at Zazie (941 Cole, SF.