The main problem with the Sunbird isn't necessarily the food from executive chef Rudy Barajas, though there are plenty of holes there. It's not the location, which on the one hand is kind of a pain, but on the other offers a pleasant view of the city. It's not that it has out-of-state ownership, via California's Specialty Restaurants Corporation. (There's a picture of the company's now-deceased founder, David Tallachet, in the lobby.)
It's not even that the ambience is outdated, what with the fake plants, generic art, dark carpeting and Vanessa Carlton on the radio. Or that sometimes the silverware is chipped like it's been used to carve arrowheads, or that the coffee ($3.25, from Royal Cup in Alabama) is poured from red and brown diner pots and isn't very good.
The main problem with the Sunbird, a 41-year-old staple of the local fine dining scene and site of countless wedding receptions, is that the service can be mind-bogglingly terrible.
During a dinner visit it couldn't have been clearer that our presence was something of an inconvenience, from the apathetic teenage host who, along with everybody else, failed to collect our unneeded place settings or light the table's oil lamp, to our brusque server, who was also doubling as the bartender and left almost all our plates on the table throughout the meal. (He took more than 20 minutes just to get our drink order in the beginning, and later, when we walked by the bar during an attempt to kill time, he called us over to grab our drinks and take them back to the table. I can only wonder what would've happened if we'd walked by the kitchen.)
Also, items arrived out of sync — we got our appetizer of crab-stuffed mushrooms ($11) before we were told to retrieve our drinks, then a loaf of soft bread followed — and often disappointed upon arrival. The gin martini ($9) was well-balanced, but three-quarters full; a glass ($7.75) of Pinot Noir was clearly oxidized; and the dull appetizer was covered with a pale, gelatinous hollandaise and tasted more strongly of green peppers than mushroom.
Some redemption arrived with the main course. Sourced from Stock Yards in Chicago, a medium-rare rack of lamb ($29), stacked like a campfire over creamy goat-cheese risotto, was grilled to perfection, while an osso bucco ($21), with soft braised pork (instead of veal) and some killer Parmesan polenta, came off like the thick, smoky, tomato stew it's supposed to be. A tough and extremely fishy swordfish steak ($25) mystified when it arrived topped with a strawberry beurre blanc, however. "It tastes like a strawberry-fish milkshake," a fellow diner put it.
A visit to the Sunday brunch ($31.95/person) yielded results somewhere in the middle. The industrial-strength whipped cream that melted into oily globules in my flavored cappuccino was pretty gross, as was the anemic bacon and sausage, the mushy salmon, wet fish sticks and fatty beef tips. But the red-pepper bisque was delicious, the coconut curry lamb sweetly spiced, the runny eggs Benedict OK and the King Crab legs as advertised.
The all-you-can-drink champagne is nice, too, but a bottle of the kind they serve, William Wycliff Vineyards, is, like, five bucks. So if what you really want out of a Sunbird trip is to sightsee, brown-bag one of those and find yourself a hilltop. As one angry Yelper put it, "To bad you cant eat the view!!"