Mica Grohn
Three does make a crowd. Until a month ago, the stretch of storefronts along SE 12th was easy to drive past. Sure, Three Friends Coffee is popular with nearby residents, and the adjacent upscale restaurant, William's on 12th, has its steady clientele--but somehow that wasn't enough. Sandwiched between industrial warehouses and Sandy Blvd, those two eateries just seemed more like a lonely oasis than part of a full-bodied nightspot.

But that was before Buckman Bistro moved into the space of a former dusty old antique frame shop in mid-September. Named after the little-known, mostly residential neighborhood in which it resides, Buckman Bistro has filled out its stretch of storefront and given it a much-needed bustle.

The Bistro is the new undertaking by the owner of William's on 12th. And while this neighboring eatery is slightly snotty and decidedly expensive, Buckman Bistro is a study in casual elegance. No need to dress to the nines or practice your table manners. While William's encourages reservations, Buckman does not. It is this approachable attitude that helps unfurl the welcome mat to the neighborhood.

The building itself is charming. L-shaped, it stretches back from yawning floor-to-ceiling bay windows. Although small, the restaurant is dynamic. The square footage is not great, but the layout feels deceptively large. The night I was there, a large party mingled in the back, by the turn-of-the-century bar. They were laughing loudly and yelling. Even so, our dinner, by the front windows, felt cozy and intimate.

Most of Buckman's dishes are smart ingredient combinations that create non-intimidating salads. There are also seminal plates like burgers and pork loin sandwiches. What's most charming about the menu is that Buckman has taken unabashed efforts to incorporate foodstuffs from local bakeries and regional farms--the bread is from Grand Central, the greens from local growers. They also have a full liquor license and a smartly stocked bar. (Tried-and-true drinks, like martinis and gin & tonics, are best; Buckman still seems to be climbing the learning curve towards more exotic and complicated beverages.)

For anyone looking for the Sizzler gut-popping steak plate, this is not the place. To fill up, I had to eat two dishes, though I do have a Wisconsin appetite. The scallops were excellent; glazed lightly in a lemon-tomato sauce, with the delicate texture of slightly melted butter. The tuna salad was a clever mix of hazelnuts, fresh greens, and (local) goat cheese--a dynamic and robust enough mix to be considered an entrée, but not overdone with too many ingredients. The fruit plate we ordered was a savory compliment, with fresh pears and boysenberries, and again, hazelnuts and goat cheese. (Vegans beware: most everything here has cheese.)

Almost every main dish costs between $5 and $9, and though it is unlikely that you will leave raving, Buckman Bistro still fits comfortably into an undernourished niche of medium-range, really good neighborhood restaurants. It is not the high-end cuisine perfection of Wildwood, but it is also much more elegant than your local deli, and is suitable for an evening cocktail. Perhaps not a first-date type of place, Buckman is a welcome and much-needed addition to this stretch of storefronts; in fact, it makes the neighborhood.