PAST KNIFE REGRESSION

Beef Eaters Restaurant, 300 West Camelback, Phoenix, 264-3838. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sunday dinner, noon to 8 p.m. America has seen quite a few changes since John F. Kennedy occupied the White House. Back then, products stamped "Made in Japan" signified cheap, shoddy goods. Comics got laughs telling wife and mother-in-law jokes. California seemed like a golden land. Difficult as it is for us moderns to believe, millions of people in those antique times had nothing better to do than to watch The Fugitive, worry about a young president's inexperience and strain to catch a glimpse of Elvis Presley. On second thought, maybe the world hasn't changed quite as much as we imagine. You'd certainly never suspect the decades have crept by after dining at Beef Eaters, a Valley landmark for more than 30 years. In fact, you may be hard-pressed to believe that the 20th century has just about come and gone. Beef Eaters is a shrine to our distant, meat-eating past, when diners didn't care if their cholesterol count surpassed their combined math and verbal SAT scores.

But it remains an outpost of dining comfort, gracious service and solid fare. Those three qualities, like trust in government, have taken a battering since the Kennedy years. The place is designed in the style of an English duke's country estate. Dark, wood-beamed ceilings, brick walls and old-fashioned pewter chandeliers provide the first impressions. The walls are covered with portraits of manor-house-type ancestors, sober-visaged gents who look like they could tax the peasantry into starvation during the week and enjoy the vicar's love-thy-neighbor sermon on Sunday. I doubt, however, milord did much listening to piped-in renditions of "Love Is Blue" fashioned by 1,001 schmaltzy strings. The menu offerings are so relentlessly familiar, they wouldn't raise an eyebrow on Queen Elizabeth--the First. Obliging staffers bring a plate of rye crisp and cottage cheese dotted with red peppers as soon as you're seated. A decent breadbasket with fresh dinner rolls and date bread can also extinguish hunger pangs. Novelty seekers won't get any satisfaction from the appetizers. The shrimp-and-crab cocktail rests on ice, surrounded by olives, carrots and cucumbers, accompanied by the inevitable cocktail sauce. But $8.75 secured only three medium-size shrimp (the menu promised "jumbo") and three bits of crab leg. More substantial and appealing is the paupiette of sole … la nantua, crab-stuffed sole poached in white wine. Oysters Rockefeller and escargots Bourguignonne are other time-tested options. In a nod toward modern sensibilities, the menu offers some fish and chicken dishes. But anyone who comes here to order something other than meat is probably the kind of person who would trek to Buckingham Palace and then skip the changing of the guard. As you might expect, prime rib is king at Beef Eaters. A server wheels up a side of beef on a cart and then carves a portion. Thirty years ago, this kind of presentation passed for sophisticated dining in Phoenix. These days, the show has an element of camp. But the meat's still first-rate. Diners who know their own capacities and who can forget their English history will opt for the relatively dainty, and infelicitously named, Anne Boleyn cut. Maybe I'm a bit squeamish, but couldn't management have chosen to call this item after someone who didn't have her head severed at the neck? What's next, a Joan of Arc flameburger? Hearty carnivores with an extra five bucks should choose the Henry VIII prime-rib version. It's a lovely, monstrous slab, thick, juicy and tender. And as long as you've got room, you'll never ask where's the beef--it's all-you-can-eat. Be warned, however: My meat-eating pal, who envied Tyrannosaurus rex's whole-cow dinner in Jurassic Park, couldn't even make it to seconds. Perhaps he was distracted by the excellent mashed potatoes. Tournedos lightly drizzled with b‚arnaise sauce is also outstanding. The meat is butter-soft and full of beefy flavor. A lovely bouquet of vegetables--asparagus, broiled tomato and broccoli--rounds off the platter. And if beef doesn't put your salivary glands into gear, you might consider lying down with the lamb. Two reasonably tender double chops sport the pungent flavors that make lamb a wonderful alternative to a hunk of beef. The side of thick-cut steak fries adds to the attraction. For dessert, check out the groaning dessert wagon. It looks like it needs a team of mules to lug it around the room. Everything's home-baked, and tastes like it, too. The lemon cake, tart and not too sweet, is a particular favorite. But it's in your best interest to let the cart roll by. Go for one of the flaming desserts, instead. Our crepe suzettes were prepared tableside by the restaurant manager, a fellow who has been with the company 32 years. In an age in which 32 days with the same employer practically qualifies you for a gold watch, that's quite a testament. He certainly has the routine down pat. Three crepes per person (it's served for two or more) get submerged in a puddle of butter, a bucket of sugar and substantial doses of cognac, orange liqueur and rum. Then they're folded and flamed. The calorically sensitive might want to avert their eyes until the luscious treat is placed before them. Despite the hokey English decor, the kitschy carts and flaming desserts, Beef Eaters somehow never comes across as pretentious or ridiculous. One reason is the staff: It's friendly and efficient. And the food, for all its old-fashioned stodginess, is quite good. As conservatives have noted since the time of the ancient Greeks, change is not necessarily progress. For the past 30 years, Beef Eaters has furnished supporting evidence for that theory. Monti's La Casa Vieja, 3 West First Street, Tempe, 967-7594. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

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