I never thought I would recommend a restaurant based on its salad bar, but that’s what I like best about The Hydra in Sandpoint.
Salad bars like these - laden with 60 items - don’t exist much anymore. They’re a throwback to a different time, to the salad days of steak and potatoes.
But, hey, retro is in, especially the ‘70s, so a visit to this local favorite provides a perfect nostalgia fix.
The restaurant is all nooks and crannies - a virtual maze of small dining rooms and big cozy booths. The rough wood paneling and plentiful plants reminded me of what used to be called a fern bar. Couple those things with the dim, romantic lighting and this makes a fine spot to snuggle up with a date.
A trip to the salad bar is downright social, though. Usually, there’s a line while people meander through. Take advantage of that time to people-watch - some folks really know how to load it on - or gawk at the amazing trophy rainbow trout on the wall. (It was caught in Lake Pend Oreille.)
Over the years, I’ve honed my salad bar strategy to be selective. I focus on the cream of the crop. Forget the iceberg lettuce and instead go for the fresh spinach. Never mind the diced celery when there’s marinated artichoke hearts. And - this is a biggie - no Jello, no matter how many mini-marshmallows are in it.
Besides all the usual salad do-dahs, the Hydra’s salad bar features a creamy, old-fashioned potato salad, a tangy pasta salad and a zippy three bean salad that took me back to a summer picnic. All those are made on premise.
At the end of the expansive bar, there weren’t just housemade croutons, but also sunflower seeds and goldfish crackers. (OK, I realize it’s kind of goofy to get excited about these superfluous details, but these crunchy bits just happen to turn my crank.)
This salad bar could easily make a meal, and at $5.25, that’s quite a deal. Many diners also go for the affordable option of ordering a stuffed spud for a measly $3.25 and then add on $2.25 for one trip through the salad bar.
Much of the menu is reasonably priced. Spaghetti with meat sauce and an Italian sausage is $6.50, a steak sandwich is $6.95 and $4.95 for a burger. (The salad bar is an extra $2.25 with those meals.)
Steak and prime rib fit right in with the old-fashioned atmosphere at The Hydra. The steaks there are aged and cut in-house, a step that many chefs insist makes a big difference.
I sampled the teriyaki top sirloin ($9.95) and thought the beef was well-cooked and juicy. But I was disappointed that the meat hadn’t been marinated in the sweetened soy sauce. It came on the side instead.
On the surf side, the menu includes scallops, Alaska king crab, lobster and scampi.
The mesquite-seared shrimp ($10.95) was a plentiful portion, but was not exactly the dish I expected. The shellfish didn’t seem grilled, but sauteed with lots of green peppers and onions. It came swimming in a slightly sweet sauce, which was perfectly edible, but I would have preferred to dip my grilled shrimp in the sauce instead.
I also tried the oysters ($11.75) and was overwhelmed with the generous portion - a half-dozen plump beauties surrounded by a light crispy batter. I only wish the cocktail sauce wasn’t so wimpy. (Bring on the horseradish.)
Dinners come with the standard side dishes - baked potatoes, rice or pasta and utterly forgettable steamed veggies.
What’s truly remarkable about The Hydra is that it has been around for 23 years, owned by the same folks all that time. In the restaurant biz, that’s an amazing run.
Owners Ralph and Karen Hefley have kept customers coming back by hanging in there with a mix that works. They have also put money back into the restaurant, with several remodels and they recently added more space in the lounge.
The salad bar has been such a hit that several buffets are also served including a lunch buffet, a Sunday brunch and an all-you-can-eat Sunday dinner with roast beef, grilled cod, chicken and barbecued ribs.
You shouldn’t go The Hydra expecting chi-chi cuisine, but if it’s straightforward, old-fashioned food you’re craving, it will fill the bill.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: THE HYDRA Address/phone: 115 Lake St., Sandpoint, (208) 263-7123 Days/hours: lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Sunday dinner buffet 2-9 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. Meals: Steak and seafood Prices: $3.95-$18.95 Smoking: separate smoking area Reservations: large groups only Credit cards: AE, D, DC, MC, V Personal checks: yes