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BRINE TEASERS

You don't have to be a genius to figure out the genesis of Hooters. You don't even have to read Hooters' press release or back-of-the-menu description to make an educated guess. The name pretty much says it all, doesn't it? And no, we're not talking about owls.

Hooters, the restaurant, is the brain child of men. Six Clearwater, Florida, businessmen who, in 1983, gathered on a regular basis for drinks. Night after night, sometime around the third or fourth round, the conversation probably went something like this:

"If this was our place," one guy says, looking around in disgust, "All the waitresses would be young and good-looking."

"Yeah, and they'd all have to wear short shorts," suggests a "leg" man.
"And short, clingy tee shirts," says a man with a different preference.
"And we'd sell pitchers of beer," a fourth businessman says. "And food you have to eat with your hands, like wings and steamers and crab legs." "It'd be real casual," another chimes in. "No napkins. Just a roll of paper towels on every table, and stools instead of chairs."

"Sports," says the sixth guy. "I want televised sports."
"Yeah!" The men raise their glasses in a toast. "Gotta see the game."
Well, every man's wish came true. Promoted as a purveyor of Florida seafood, Hooters is everything they dreamed of and more. It is a cheerfully casual place where young, perky waitresses wear skimpy uniforms and do things like swing a plastic hoop when they're bored. TV screens tuned to sports are everywhere you look. Good-time rock 'n' roll songs like "Hound Dog" and "Little Red Riding Hood" play in the background. Large fans whir overhead.

And, of course, the clientele is primarily men. Men in business suits and ties, men in polo shirts and denim, men in tee shirts and shorts. They come to flirt with the cute young waitresses, to enjoy the male-bonding atmosphere and to manhandle the action-oriented food. Heck, in this town, they probably come for the name alone.

The funny thing is, even though I'm a member of the wrong demographic group, I have fun at Hooters. It's relaxed, it's friendly, it's busy. There's a college basketball game on TV and neither my male dining accomplice nor I have to strain to see it. We order up a ton of seafood and eat most of it with our hands. As I crack open crab legs and peel shrimp, I can feel the frustations of the day ebbing away. Why, this food is almost cathartic!

And it's decent enough to be satisfying. I especially enjoy the jumbo crab legs, though I'm certainly no expert on the subject. The cracking and eating process is still novel for me, I've ordered them so infrequently over the years. I like the way the drawn butter provides a salty counterpoint to the sweet crab meat. The big platter of hot, steamed, ready-to-peel shrimp is my second favorite item.

I am less happy with the grouper sandwich and steamed clams. The former is your basic innocuous whitefish sandwich, although thicker, because grouper is so big. It is pleasant enough, but no big deal. "Hooters-style" steamers come smashed and broken in the bottom of a big metal bucket. They're still a little sandy--as clams are wont to be--but no hot water is provided for a clean dip, only melted butter. This drains some of my enthusiasm. I guess I prefer my steamers "Maine-style."

The side dishes we order are not exceptional, but they're okay. "Curly Q" fries aren't as appealing in person as they are in that TV commercial where the kid goes to the birthday party and the cool mom serves them. Cole slaw is tasty enough, but the beans are too sweet.

I like our young waitress. Her name is Jody. I know this because she tells us when she greets us. After she brings the drinks and takes our food order, she tests us. "You remember my name, don't you?" "Jody," I say, on cue. After she leaves, my dining accomplice, who may or may not have remembered her name, asks, "Why is that important?" I tell him I don't know. I guess I'm just a sucker for a quiz.

Jody is swinging a plastic hoop on the patio outside when we're ready for our check. I catch her eye and she comes to our table, breathless. "We do that sometimes," she says. "When somebody orders a pitcher of beer, we Hula-Hoop while we're pouring it." Suddenly, a child at a nearby table starts shrieking. His voice cuts through the noisy restaurant din. "What's that?" asks Jody, alarmed.

I gesture over my shoulder at the table. "It's that kid," I say.
Jody is concerned. "What's he doing?"
"He's screaming." "Gosh," Jody exclaims. "He sounds just like a pig."  

I don't ask Jody how she knows what a pig sounds like. She has already told us she is from Wisconsin and eats cheese on nearly everything. We pay our check and leave. Outside it seems very quiet. We walk around the Arizona Center shops for a while. "Gee, I don't know," I tell my dining accomplice. "I sort of had fun at Hooters. It was relaxing."

"Yeah, I liked it, too," he confesses. "You were really into those crab legs."

"They were fun," I say. "Wanna come back during the playoffs?"
"Sure."

What does the Salt Cellar have in common with Hooters? Not much, except that both restaurants sell seafood. The waiters here are men. They wear blue button-down oxford- cloth shirts with "Salt Cellar" embroidered on the chest. Many are pudgy and look like they enjoy food. All wear long pants. From what I observe, they don't Hula-Hoop on the job.

But many of you already know this. In fact, many of you are probably wondering why I'm reviewing a restaurant that's been around for so long. If you are like one friend of mine, you grew up with the Salt Cellar. In 1976, he came to this restaurant with Mom and Dad for his high school graduation dinner. A few years later, he returned with his college girlfriend on a nice date. Maybe you were there, too, in your open-neck shirt and gold chain, drinking tequila sunrises and frozen daiquiris.

But that was then and this is now. In the Eighties, the Salt Cellar fell on hard times. People stopped coming. New seafood restaurants opened up. Finally, late in 1990, the Salt Cellar closed for a few months to renovate and refresh itself. A dining accomplice and I visit about a month after it reopens, on a Saturday night in March. Mind-boggling as it may seem, this is my first trip to the underground seafood emporium.

I am surprised by what I find.
First of all, the restaurant is cozy but not claustrophobic--unless you sit in the designated nonsmoking room, which is very tiny. It is so small, in fact, that I ask if we can be moved into one of the two larger, smoking sections. No problem, says the hostess. Fortunately, the ventilation is very good. Keep this option in mind if you're a nonsmoker. I like the nautical prints of boats and waves and piers on the walls of our new location, but detest the tired-looking oatmeal plaid upholstery on the booths.

Second, the Salt Cellar is more pricey than I anticipate. Not that I expect seafood to be cheap, but I'm still surprised by the prices listed on the board as we enter: $39 for jumbo Maine lobster, $18.95 for Hawaiian ahi tuna. Maybe it's just been a while since I visited an honest-to-goodness seafood restaurant in Arizona. Maybe this is why I don't go more often. Still, during our meal, I find myself wondering how the young couples obviously here on dates can afford it. Third, the food is good! For years, I've heard of nothing but the mediocrity of the Salt Cellar, but I like what I sample. Crabcakes are moist and meaty and seasoned just right. Steamers are slightly fishy, but come with both hot water and melted butter.

My dining accomplice says he wants to eat "Elvis food" and orders a fried combination plate consisting of oysters, Gulf shrimp and red snapper. Amazingly, even this is good. The breading is tasty without being obtrusive so the seafood flavors come through nicely. The fried butterfly shrimp are firm, the oysters sweet.

I'm saving the best for last, namely the Yakimono Hawaiian Ahi which is weird and wonderful at the same time. Picture this: ahi tuna, seared on the outside with Cajun seasonings, rare in the middle, sliced like London broil and served with soy sauce and a dollop of green Japanese horseradish. Believe it or not, it's fantastic--sushi and blackened fish all in one. The Salt Cellar's sound system is tuned to EZ-listening tunes of yesterday. This seems appropriate, since I feel like I'm on a time trip. A mustachioed man in the corner has his shirt unbuttoned to reveal his (gulp) chest hair. His female companion is drinking a frozen strawberry something. I'd like to visit a seafood restaurant where they play sea chanties or the sound of crashing surf or recordings of whales singing. On second thought, forget that last suggestion. It might make people think too much to enjoy themselves.

Dessert is nothing extraordinary, but I like our choices: a tart key lime pie and a fudgey-rich maple walnut ice cream "black bottom pie."  

On our way out, I notice several fewer lobsters scooting around the lobster tank. Now there's more of that precious turf they're always fighting to dominate. But not for long, I fear.

The Salt Cellar is back. Don't wait too long before you go below-below sea level to give it a second try. You, too, might be surprised.

Hooters, Arizona Center, 455 North Third Street, Phoenix, 257-0000. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Sunday.

Salt Cellar, 550 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 947-1963. Hours: 5 to 11 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday.

hooters

It is a cheerfully casual place where young, perky waitresses wear skimpy uniforms.

Jody is Hula-Hooping on the patio outside when we're ready for our check. I catch her eye and she comes to our table, breathless.

salt cellar

In the Eighties, the Salt Cellar fell on hard times. People stopped coming. New seafood restaurants opened up.

Picture this: ahi tuna, seared on the outside with Cajun seasonings, rare in the middle, sliced like London broil. It's fantastic.


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