Cramming for Finals

Paradise Bar & Grill, 401 South Mill, Tempe, 829-0606. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Life in a university town can be incredibly appealing. Anyone who has ever wandered off-campus in Ann Arbor, Berkeley or Madison knows that the pulsating street scene--the funky collegiate mix of record stores, art-movie theaters, bars, coffee houses, used-book stores and restaurants--does more to keep 18-year-olds in school than any course in Ottoman history, organic chemistry or Shakespeare's heroines ever could.

For a long time, students at Arizona State University missed out on that unique college-town experience. Before Tempe started redeveloping about a decade ago, the Mill and University corridors didn't exactly throb with energy. Believe it or not, 10 years ago, there wasn't even a single coffee house on them. Folks from elsewhere in the Valley certainly had little reason to make a trip to downtown Tempe. They had as much chance finding bustling urban life here as they did finding good fishing off the Salt River bridge.

Times have sure changed. This area is thriving. Nowadays, you have a better chance sighting a UFO than an empty parking spot. Even the pizza parlors and sandwich shops offer decaf mocha lattes. And you could show up every night of the week and not exhaust your entertainment, shopping and dining options.

But it's a mistake to confuse change with progress. Why restore a historic building and then lease it out to the likes of Hooters and McDonald's? Why add ubiquitous chain bookstores and brand-name clothing shops to the retail mix? Why build movie multiplexes showing the same films playing at every other theater in Maricopa County? And why lure fashionable new restaurants--Sushi on Mill, P.F. Chang's, Oregano's are all coming--that aren't new at all, just copycat branches of other successful operations?

In short, downtown Tempe is well on its way to looking exactly like every other trendy shopping/dining/entertainment strip in the Valley. Yes, you can now amuse yourself endlessly. But why did the city fathers and mothers have to sacrifice the charm, character and style you find in the best college towns?

To measure the extent of the homogenization, I pounded the city's pavement searching for restaurants that looked like they hadn't made the sacrifice. First stop, Paradise Bar & Grill.

It sure looked promising. It's set in the historic Andre building, which, during the past century, has housed a bakery, grocery store, pool hall, cigar store, Masonic lodge and post office. The proprietors have done a wonderful job restoring the place, with its high, pressed-metal ceiling and red-brick walls. Heavily varnished tables, old-fashioned wooden booths, etched glass and brass accents contribute to the effect.

Happily, the food is just about as impressive as the digs. The menu offers something for almost every taste, a nice mix of familiar favorites and contemporary fare. And most of it is very well-crafted and reasonably priced.

There may be better, greater pleasures than sitting with a cold brewski and a pile of Paradise Bar & Grill's terrific onion rings, but, at the moment, I can't think of any. Someone here obviously spent time at ASU's Institute of Advanced Onion Ring Studies. These beauties are everything they should be--huge, fresh, oily and crispy. I know I sometimes sound like a broken record, but: Why can't all kitchens make onion rings the way they're supposed to be?

If you're not into deep-fried munchies, don't despair. Instead, nibble on the intriguing soft-shell crab roll, a sushilike effort with rice on the outside and cooked crab, cucumber and sprouts on the inside. But it needs something other than the useless citrus dipping sauce we got here. How about some soy sauce, instead?

I'm not quite sure what oven-baked, nutmeg-tinged gnocchi in a zesty tomato sauce are doing on the appetizer list. The bowl is hard to share, and solo diners won't have any room left for dinner. But you won't hear me complaining about the taste. However, I do have some concerns about the breadbasket, filled with fragrant dark bread that is way, way too mushy.

Paradise Bar & Grill's main-dish list gives everyone in your group plenty of options. Pasta fans should appreciate the first-rate spinach linguini. It's creatively studded with smoked trout, tomatoes and mushrooms. A creamy jalapeno sauce puts just the right finishing touch on this rich platter.

If octopus turns you on, zero in on the heavily stocked octopus salad. It's got an Asian bent, tossed with noodles and pickled seaweed, moistened with a pleasant scallion-soy dressing.

Heartier appetites will gravitate to the menu's entree section, whose plates come with either nifty soups, like black and white bean freshened with cilantro, or a pile of house greenery.

On this list, you'll find chicken breast stuffed with sage-seasoned spinach and veggies, accompanied by bland creamy polenta. (Why not grill the polenta and brush it with cheese?) There's a fetching jambalaya, andouille sausage, shrimp and chicken tossed over angel hair, bathed in heat-packing Cajun sauce that makes no compromises. There's also a grilled strip steak, beefy and chewy, accompanied by exceptional garlic mashed potatoes.

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