It's not easy to find a place to eat where I can go with my whole family. They are all extremely picky eaters and everyone, at some point, is not eating some old favorite after having OD'd on it. But they all love fondue. My parents got into the fondue thing in the 70's, like everyone else, and fondue quickly became our favorite meal as kids. We'd have it only rarely (cheese, after all, is expensive and those Swiss cheeses and kirsch were not easy to find in La Plata, Argentina), so it became a special treat. Although it later lost some of its allure with the appearance of fondue boxes, this was one meal I knew the whole family could enjoy.
I had been to a couple of fondue restaurants in the Bay Area, but this was my first visit to Matterhorn. I had read conflicting things about the restaurant. It's consistently named by Michael Bauer as one of the Top-100 restaurants in the Bay Area, and many people seem to love it, but others have reported high prices and bad service. I even read that the house pools the tips (which makes sense as several waiters work on each table) and that the owners skim a percentage off the top (perhaps because they also work as hosts?). So I was a bit weary of going there but I figured it was worth a try.
I'm happy we went. While my family may disagree on a point or two, I thought the food was good and plentiful, the service was fine and the meal was a good value.
Matterhorn doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it's very pleasant. The whole restaurant is decorated in blond woods and you can get the feeling of being in a Swiss chalet. The owners are Swiss German so you know you are getting some authentic fondue. The restaurant is divided into smaller rooms, with a large bar taking central stage, and is noisy enough for a party of six with a toddler not to be too annoying, while quiet enough that you can hear each other. In all, a good place to go as a family.
We were seated in a small open room with three other tables in a half booth. We weren't offered a high chair (I don't know if they have them) but we didn't need one. Michaela doesn't do well with regular chairs, but she's happy in booths as she can stand and walk a little bit.
Matterhorn has a fondue menu and a regular menu, the latter emphasizing Swiss German specialties. Parties of six or more, however, are restricted to ordering from the fondue menu. This wasn't an issue for us, of course, as we'd gone there for the fondue.
The menu offers nine cheese fondues and three meat fondues. Cheese fondues are $30 and meat fondues are $40; each serves 2 people. We decided to go for the "Original Fondue Valaisanne", a blend of Swiss emmenthal and gruyere cheeses, "The Highlander", a blend of cheddar and gruyere cheeses with whisky and the fondue Bourguignonne (meat cooked in hot oil). Actually, I had meant to order the fondue Bacchus (meat cooked with vegetable broth and red wine) but I got confused and ordered the Bourguignonne instead. We also ordered a side of mushrooms to go with the cheese fondue and a side of pork to go with the meat fondue.
All of the fondues come with a small, dressed salad of mixed-greens and tomatoes. Everyone who eats salad (I'm not the only non-salad eater in my family!) liked it. Mika even ate all the tomatoes from mine. The home-baked bread was also delicious, though I wasn't too impressed by the lightly herbed butter.
The cheese fondues were advertised as being served with bread, but a lot of other small plates were brought to the table. These included cubed pineapple, herbed potatoes, pearl onions, kiwi slices, olives (I think) and something that was pickled. They were to be eaten by themselves, probably to provide a break from the bread and cheese, but some worked quite well dipped in the cheese as well. All I tried were very good.
I thought that the slightly sweet original fondue was very pleasant, but everyone else felt it needed more of a kick (i.e. more alcohol). It was certainly not nearly as strong as the ones you get from a box or would make at home yourself.
Similarly, I found the Highlander delicious. I had never thought of adding whisky to a fondue, especially as I don't drink whisky myself, but it was a very good addition. The whisky provided a welcome additional sweetness and richness to the fondue. The rest of my family thought it was better than the original but (you guessed it) still didn't have enough alcohol. We were accompanying the fondue with water, maybe they'd have felt differently if we'd actually ordered wine.
Meat fondue was a new concept for my parents, but my dad and sister were very much into trying it. The meat cooked in the hot oil was surprisingly tasty, both by itself and with the accompanying sauces. Mika ate a lot of it, which of course made me very happy. The key to cooking it in the oil is to not cook too many pieces at once, as that can bring down the temperature of the oil. Don't try to do more than 2 or 3 pieces at once and you'll be fine (I'm emphasizing this as some of the criticisms I read clearly came from using improper cooking techniques). All of this was explained by the hostess.
My one problem with the whole meal was, surprisingly, that there was too much food. This was surely our problem as, on the one hand, Mike was ill throughout the meal so he didn't partake in it (we're blaming a sandwich he had earlier in the day) and on the other, we had ordered an extra side of meat. As it was, we all ate until filled and we still had quite a lot of leftover meat, cheese and sides. The waiter did offer to pack the raw meat to bring home - probably as my mom kept loudly suggesting it - but I declined. This meant that we could not order the chocolate fondue - and I LOVE chocolate fondue. That probably was for the better, as Mika would have made a huge mess out of herself, but I would have loved to try it.
As I mentioned earlier, service throughout the evening was very good. We were seated immediately, the waiters were very polite and efficient, and the hostess happily answered my dad's questions (yes, all the cheese fondues have kirsch).
The whole dinner, including sides and three sodas, came to $154 after tax and an included 15% gratuity. For the amount and quality of the food we got, I thought it was an excellent value.
2323 Van Ness Ave
San Francisco, CA 94109
Open Tue - Sun from 5:00pm