SECOND SERVE

Management has made one nice change. At the old location, espresso went for $3.50. At that price, even the decaffeinated version kept me up. Now it's a more reasonable $2.25.

But success can breed problems, too. Even though the tourist season is long over, Marco Polo is likely to be packed, particularly on weekend evenings. If it is, diners may have to gird themselves against unreasonably swift service that aims to turn tables over as quickly as possible. Our entrees arrived before the appetizers were cleared; the interval between main dishes and dessert left no breathing room; and the check arrived with unsummoned alacrity.

Still, the new Marco Polo belongs on any short list of good-time Valley restaurants. Sinatra once crooned that love can be better the second time around. This place proves that restaurants can be better the second time around, too.

T-Bone Steak House, 5202 North Central, Phoenix, 234-2255. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

Somebody obviously thinks that this town needs a second T-Bone Steak House.

Somebody's wrong.
I can't think of a single reason to visit this new Central Avenue branch, especially if you're familiar with the wonderful original location. That spot, parked halfway up a mountain on South 19th Avenue, offers a stunning Valley view and genuine Western bustle. In contrast, this place has a view of Central Avenue traffic and the energy of a dentist's waiting room.

Except for some scattered frontier paraphernalia and a deer head stapled to the back wall, this supposedly Western steak house looks distressingly like the last three restaurant failures that have died at this jinxed site over the past few years. It still resembles a coffee shop, only one lined with wagon wheels and farm tools. The piped-in, old-time country western hits ("Ghost Riders in the Sky") certainly can't sustain any cowboy illusions diners may bring along.

It's not only the look that makes this branch suffer in comparison to the original. The food's not nearly as good, either.

Perhaps it's because of some Old West chuck-wagon code I'm not familiar with, but the T-Bone menu doesn't bother with appetizers. Instead, dinners start off with a humdrum iceberg lettuce salad and "Texas" bread, which turned out to be thick slices of mushy whole wheat. Needless to say, neither the greenery nor the bread got the needle moving on my excitement meter.

Surprisingly, though, neither did the main dishes. That's because, unlike our experiences on South 19th Avenue, almost nothing we ordered got cooked according to our specifications. You don't have to be a culinary academy graduate to remove meat from the flames at the right moment. You just have to be attentive.

And it's not as if the cooks are busy preparing exotic sauces or fancy dishes. The menu is small enough to write on the palm of your hand: four cuts of steak, prime rib, chicken and halibut.

A 16-ounce T-bone, ordered medium, came to the table so undercooked that it looked as if it had just been cut from the flank of a live steer. The 12-ounce sirloin also arrived considerably south of the medium rare we had requested. It's good-quality meat--beefy, juicy, tender--but who wants to play steak roulette with the preparation?

The smoked half chicken also experienced a cooking misfire. Sizzling on the outside, it was ice cold in the center. I imagine it had been cooked hours before, and then had sat shivering in a refrigerator before being too briefly exposed to the flames. And after we sent it back, the bird was returned minus its wing. What's going on here?

Prime rib was the only animal protein success. It was thick-cut, moist and without a spec of stringiness or inedible gristle.

Like the cooking, the side dishes would also benefit from some extra attention. Bland cowboy beans need to be punched up with some seasoning. The out-of-the-bag French fries are disgraceful. When the baked potato is the entree's most exciting accompaniment, you know something's out of whack.

Desserts are better, maybe because no one in the kitchen is actually cooking them. There's a surprisingly good cheesecake and a fine apple pie topped with cinnamon ice cream.

This T-Bone Steak House is no substitute for the original. My advice: Accept no imitations.

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