Riviera Bistro,
394 East Main St., Suite B,
Ventura,
$15 and up


“Who knew that a city could be so clean … so … nice?”

Thus, our host explained why he and his partners, in Ventura’s newest eatery, Riviera Bistro, moved from jobs in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills to strike out on their own. These guys hope to succeed in bringing to the Gold Coast fine, affordably priced French food with a California twist.

The restaurant occupies a section of what was once a vast, marbled bank building whose size killed off too many restaurateurs before. For Ventura regulars, Riviera Bistro occupies the same space as the much more expensive and now closed DECO. Beyond the same location, however, everything else is different.

Until the late 1990s, Ventura supported three types of restaurants: Mexican, Italian and chain. The key was always to be small enough to cover your overhead with two seatings, while big enough to become a local tradition. That seems to be the idea behind Riviera Bistro, which its partners call an “American bistro with a European smile.” The very affordable menu offers something for anyone who understands the words “continental cuisine” and loves fish, meat and game cooked to perfection, with nice little touches along the way that make a dinner at this new bistro a treat.

Bread arrived at our table before we ordered, and the drinks from the bar were good and cheap — a nice glass of the house white wine was only $4. Accompanying the bread was a garlic-pesto-something-else-and-butter spread that was delightful; sadly, we only got one helping, but that minor flaw was completely forgotten when our food arrived.

For an appetizer, we split a Caesar Salad, which is big enough for two, and had clean tastes of parmesan and garlic with just a hint of anchovy — as a non-fish guy, I found the anchovy perfectly blended in, a compliment rather than a distraction. For dinner, I wavered between the beef Bourguignon ($16) and the six-ounce filet mignon ($23), before settling on the skirt steak ($15) served with arugula and matchstick-thick pieces of Parmesan. My dining companion had the salmon ($17) with buerre blanc, mixed vegetables and mashed potatoes … and loved them. For dessert, we shared the apple tart with vanilla ice cream drizzled with raspberry sauce ($7); next time, I’ll have the crème brulée, simply because I know they’ll do such a great job.

This is like one of those places I learned to love when I lived in France: a place where you go to have a good time and the chef comes out to see what all the noise is about. At Riviera Bistro, you have four partners to serve you (and probably do the dishes when you leave). They are all affable and clearly take great pride in their food — as they should. Two partners seem to share the roles of waiter-busboy/maitre d’ while the other two do the cooking in the back. They came out after dessert. Though service was slow-ish the night I dined there, the food clearly outweighed any limitations.

This is the type of place I would take a teenager who’s starting to appreciate good food, or younger kids whom you want to introduce to the concept of just really good cooking. Unlike so many pretentious French restaurants, Riviera Bistro makes a point of including children in the experience, offering every item on the menu in a child’s portion (!). To me, that’s the sign of a truly confident chef, and a good way to win loyal, local customers.

Dinner for two, with lots of beverages, dessert and coffee, came to less than $90 with a tip. Clearly, these guys are hoping to make Bistro Riviera a new Ventura tradition … my taste buds only hope they succeed.