San Francisco Trite

Fog City Diner, 7014 East Camelback Road (Fashion Square Mall), Scottsdale, 874-2300. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Phoenix is the sixth-largest city in the country. Maricopa County is the fastest-growing county in the country. But the East and West Coast elites haven't really noticed. To them, the Valley of the Sun means one thing: hicks in the sticks.

That's why some Academy Award-nominated films come to town eight months after they open in Los Angeles. That's why hit shows get here three years after their Broadway runs. And, apparently, that's why a wildly successful Bay Area restaurant waited 13 years to launch a branch in our middle-of-nowhere desert outpost.

Fog City Diner captivated sophisticated San Franciscans when it debuted in 1985. Everyone loved the concept: a sleek, sharp diner for the sleek, sharp 1980s, serving both innovative fare and updated diner favorites with an upscale twist. Pretty soon restaurants all over the country were copying the formula, right down to the "Small Plates" and "Large Plates" menu headings.

Had Fog City Diner come to the Valley in 1985, we local yokels would have been stunned by its trendy audacity. Had it come in 1995, I suspect we might have still been wowed by the novelty. But it's 1999, and frankly, I can't see even our most recent silo-dwelling Midwestern arrivals getting very excited about the look or the food here. Fog City Diner may be new in town, but the concept is no longer particularly fresh.

Ironically, the restaurant is probably a victim of its own success: Because of the imitators it spawned, by now we've all been there, and eaten that.

No doubt the savvy operators behind Fog City Diner (they also run next-door Bistecca) fully understand how the culinary landscape has been transformed. They know that some of their once-daring dishes have become menu cliches. And that may be why they decided to locate their Valley unit in Fashion Square, and not in some freestanding building in north Scottsdale or along Camelback Road.

To be blunt: Fog City Diner is no longer a cool, cutting-edge destination spot, where you might eat something new, impress your date and mix with the in crowd. The Valley branch is aimed directly at the high-end mall crowd, mostly tourists and women with too much time on their hands. You won't see any foodies, trendoids or Beautiful People in this 1999 Fog City Diner, at least not more than once. Instead, you'll be mingling with folks who've come here to rest their Nordstrom bags and refuel, gathering the energy to resume their assault on the shops.

That's not to say this bustling place doesn't look snazzy. It does, from the swivel stools along the counter to the comfy leather booths. Vintage photos of San Francisco landmarks like the Cliff House and Golden Gate Bridge line the walls. A skimpily stocked seafood display case shows off a few oysters and crab legs. And naturally, you can get yourself a souvenir of your Fog City Diner experience. How about a nice $29.95 sweatshirt?

The fare isn't nearly as snazzy, though some of it has merit. But there isn't enough merit to make me want to come back.

Fog City Diner's all-day menu certainly doesn't deliver much bang for your buck. You want bread? You'll have to cough up $2.95 for a small, toasted, butter-drenched garlic, leek and basil sourdough loaf that's barely sufficient for two people to share. The wonderful jalapeno corn bread is a better option. It costs a dollar less and comes with a nifty, sweet/hot pepper jelly.

The only thing that comes with the soups, however, is a spoon--not even a cracker. With the seafood chowder, that's a mixed blessing. This creamy, deftly seasoned soup is so good it doesn't need bread or crackers. But it does need a bigger bowl or a smaller price tag. You sure don't get much for $5.95. A soup-of-the-day beef barley also skimps on value. While it's 25 percent cheaper than the seafood chowder, it's about 50 percent less interesting.

If you feel the urge to order the shellfish tray as a shared pre-entree treat, I suggest you lie down until the feeling passes. Eighteen bucks gets you five lackluster oysters, six flabby, water-logged shrimp (the waitress said they were rock shrimp, but they weren't) and two King Crab legs. If you've forgotten that we're in the middle of the desert, this aquatic platter will yank you back to reality in a hurry.

I'd not only skip the salad portion of the menu, I'd take a flying leap over it. Such is my reaction after an unfortunate collision with the "Titanic Iceberg Wedge." It's a retro idea, much in vogue recently, a hunk of iceberg lettuce draped with a Thousand Island-style dressing and a bit of crab. The problem? This greenery had peaked about a week before I ordered it. By the time it reached the table, it was shot through with ugly brown spots. How could someone have ever let this out of the kitchen? And I wasn't too thrilled with the snoozy "crab Louis" part of the salad, either.

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