Vacant, Lettuce and Tomato

Charlie's Grill, Sheraton Crescent Hotel, 2620 West Dunlap, Phoenix, 371-2747. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Once upon a time, the only people who ate in hotel dining rooms were weary travelers and on-the-road businesspeople. They weren't searching for dining adventure or a gourmet meal, just some nourishment at the end of a long day.

In the 1990s, though, hotels have realized that their restaurants can punch up the bottom line. But they can't make much money feeding only their captive guests. They need to attract locals, too.

Two west-side hotels, the Sheraton Crescent and Wyndham Metrocenter, are making a big push to expand their dinnertime clientele. It's a savvy marketing decision. While there are plenty of chain restaurants, fast-food operations and cheap ethnic joints in this part of town, there are almost no higher-end dining destinations. Both these hotels are hoping to get the word out to nearby residents that they don't have to drive to Scottsdale if they want baked oysters, fresh Alaskan halibut or a grilled New York steak topped with a wild mushroom ragout.

In the old days, what's now called the Sheraton Crescent was part of the Charles Keating hotel empire. While his Phoenician resort was aimed at the money-is-no-object vacationer, this upscale hotel targeted corporate executives on business trips, wielding the company credit card.

Named after the original proprietor, Charlie's Grill doesn't look anything like a hotel-chain dining room. Of course, that shouldn't be too surprising: Keating had both excellent taste and almost unlimited access to other people's money, a magical combination. The restaurant is opulently furnished with burgundy carpets, tall windows, a marble floor, giant framed mirrors and mammoth wreaths. Side rooms contain gorgeous tapestries that look like they came from a museum.

These days, Keating rooms and dines at a federal facility. Staffers at the big house don't sweep breadcrumbs off his table, or ask if he wants fresh-ground pepper on his caesar salad. I'm also pretty sure his meals don't approach the quality of the fare at Charlie's Grill. Still, now he has something to look forward to when he gets out. That's because Charlie's Grill is one of the west side's premier dining spots.

The food here is so appealing that I'm even willing to overlook a serious blunder. Some misguided soul thought it might be a good idea to list the calories and fat grams of every dish on the menu. It's so off-putting that I thought about skipping dinner entirely and beginning a 30-day fast.

After all, who wants to know that the linguini and shrimp in a sun-dried tomato pesto cream sauce contains exactly 1,010 calories and 77 grams of fat? My wife, an ordinarily sane woman who doesn't even ask for salad dressing on the side, almost fled. Diet-conscious diners, I'm sure, are perfectly capable of figuring out on their own that a plate of steamed vegetables might be a better option than linguini in cream sauce. So why rub everyone else's nose in it? Food isn't medicine, and eating out isn't a test of nutritional virtue. Why create anxiety? Let's loosen up.

The only anxiety the appetizers create is that you may fill up on them before the entrees arrive. Two skewers lined with spicy chicken sausage and shrimp make a wonderful shared starter. The skewers rest on a large flour tortilla, colorfully drizzled with sour cream and a red pepper coulis. The vegetarian quesadilla is another first-rate option--a tortilla stuffed with three kinds of pepper, squash, carrot and a bit of cheese.

But honors go to the shrimp cocktail, the best one I've had in almost five years on the job. You get five big, firm, meaty critters, grilled and chilled, moistened by a Jose Cuervo cocktail sauce. Hope you can handle being spoiled: Shrimp cocktails elsewhere are bound to be comparative disappointments.

The salad course shows similar care. You get a choice of house or caesar salad, and both make it easy to eat your greens.

Main dishes range from commendable to superb. If you can sneer at the prospect of 1,010 calories and laugh in the face of 77 grams of fat, the linguini with sauteed shrimp is as pleasing a combination of rich tastes and textures as you'll find west of Central Avenue. The pasta is fresh, and the rich, heavy sun-dried tomato pesto cream sauce is boosted by fresh tomatoes and parmigiano cheese.

Pan-seared ahi tuna (440 calories, four grams fat) lies at the other end of the calorie/fat scale. It's remarkable, a gorgeous piece of thick tuna steak, the center moist and pink, the outside crusted with pepper and coriander. It comes with julienned veggies and a small scoop of barley. (The grain is a nice change of pace from rice or potatoes, but it needs something--maybe mushrooms or a touch of fruit--to keep it from tasting dry.)

The New York steak is not in Morton's class, but it can hold its own against other steaks in the $17 range. A wild mushroom ragout provides pleasing embellishment, while garlicky mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables are effective sides. And if you're into basic satisfaction, the plump roasted half-chicken is an uncommonly juicy bird.

The dessert tray the waiter lugs over does just what it's designed to do--make it hard to say no. The chocolate fudge cake, though, is longer on looks than taste--it's more sweet than rich. The thick apple pie, however, is an uncomplicated delight.

A word about the coffee. The menu at Charlie's Grill boasts, "We proudly serve Starbucks coffee." And on one visit, the coffee was so wonderful I made it a point to tell the waiter. "Ah, we just cleaned the equipment today," he said. That apparently wasn't the case on a subsequent visit. The coffee was so wretched that I doubt whether Sheriff Joe could have legally served it in Tent City. (To his credit, the waiter did take the coffee off the bill.)

If you live on the avenues, Charlie's Grill means you don't have to leave the neighborhood to get an upscale meal served by professionals. Who knows? Charlie's Grill might even tempt folks in other zip codes to unfold the west-side portion of their Phoenix maps.

Copper Creek Bar & Grill, Wyndham Metrocenter Hotel, 10220 North Metro Parkway East, Phoenix, 997-5900. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

If you do unfold your west-side map, remember to put a big "X" on the spot occupied by the Copper Creek Bar & Grill. Then write yourself a reminder: Do Not Enter.

This is one of the most ragged restaurant operations I've had the misfortune to encounter in quite some time. The busers don't know how to bus; the servers don't know how to serve; and the cooks don't know how to cook.

Even the designers came up short. The restaurant has a generic, coffee-shop feel that crackles with corporate timidity. I couldn't feel any "good time" vibes: If I were staying at the Wyndham, I'd just as soon stay in my room and take my chances with room service and cable television.

If you enjoy being entertained by restaurant staffers who fail to refill water glasses, who refuse to bend down and pick up dropped silverware, who ignore stacked piles of dirty dishes, who can't remember who ordered what and who disappear for huge chunks of time, you can count on the Copper Creek Bar & Grill to put on one of the best shows in town.

The kitchen is just as inept. A huge buffet accompanies all entrees. You can fill your plate with greenery, tortellini, tomato salad, cubed cheese, fruit, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, fried rice, mixed veggies and baked potato. You can also visit a cook who'll whip up a right-out-of-the-wok stir-fry, fashioned from beef, chicken or shrimp. It's plentiful. It's a bargain. And it's all stupefyingly dull.

Still, "dull" sounds pretty good, once you start tossing around words like "inedible." Take the chicken and dumplings entree, loaded with so much sodium that it could have been mistaken for a salt lick. The Oriental barbecued pork loin has a nice ring to it. Unfortunately, this dish couldn't handle reality. It's just tiny cubes of pork heaped over fried rice, the kind of entree that might have come from a metal chafing tray in the employee cafeteria. And like the chicken and dumplings, it, too, was heaped with salt.

At $14.95, fresh Alaskan halibut is the most expensive main dish. It's a small, filleted wedge, competently grilled. But why couldn't the kitchen have given it a bit of flair? The fish just sits forlornly in the middle of a big plate, inspiring nothing but yawns. The less-than-butter-soft pot roast doesn't do anything to move the needle on the excitement meter, either, unless you're aroused by the sight of a mound of meat.

The basket of inferior bread won't relieve your agony. Neither will an appetizer like the greasy chicken-and-mushroom quesadilla. Only the starter of baked oysters, adorned with spinach-and-cheese sauce, demonstrated some hint of cooking prowess here.

The menu trumpets Arctic Summer as a "signature dessert." It's a tortilla cup filled with rum-raisin ice cream and lots of berries, drowned in various liqueurs. Had it arrived in a state other than half-melted, I might have been tempted to give a more favorable appraisal. A routinely tasty peach cobbler was a case of way too little, way too late.

Putting a topnotch restaurant in the Metrocenter area is a good idea. But the Copper Creek Bar & Grill isn't that restaurant. It's down at the end of lonely street, in heartbreak hotel.

Charlie's Grill:
Shrimp cocktail$7.95
Linguini with shrimp 11.75
Ahi tuna 15.75
Apple pie4.00

Copper Creek Bar & Grill:
Baked oysters $5.95
Pot roast 10.95
Chicken and dumplings 12.95
Peach cobbler 3.95

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