The dining scene for much of Sun City, Del Webb's masterplanned commune for silver-haired citizens, is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Looking for exciting, cutting-edge cuisine? You won't find it here. Area retirees tend to be armed with aging taste buds and delicate constitutions -- they're not looking for high-speed chases of culinary adventure. Old-fashioned, low-key meat-and-potatoes fare is their bag.
Hoping to enjoy dinner after 8 p.m.? Good luck. By 8, most of the neighborhood restaurants' kitchens are already closed. The dinner rush for Sun City's retirees is at 3:30; after that, these folks are lounging in their pajamas, perhaps throwing back a nightcap, getting ready for bed.
Yet, the Sun City area is evolving. Massive subdivisions have sprung up all around its edges, mottling bulldozed farmland with three-bedroom/two-car-garage American dreams. Young families line up at the brand-new Fry's grocery store at Litchfield and Bell; they stock up on nails and decorator paint at the new Home Depot just west of Grand Avenue.
At some point, quality restaurants surely will follow. But where can area residents enjoy a good upscale meal now? After 8 p.m., I don't know. But if it's before this weird witching hour, our far West Valley's new neighbors will do just fine with The Bistro, the cozy clubhouse restaurant on the edge of Desert Springs golf course in Sun City Grand. Open since 1997, this tony little eatery updated its menu this August, expanding past casual deli items to an array of contemporary American dishes. The result is a comfortably elegant experience that appeals to diners of all age groups.
The Bistro's an attractive addition to this resort-inspired community, sprawling beneath a hunter-green awning between the clubhouse's gift shop and tennis courts. Flagstone walls offset floor-to-ceiling windows with never-ending views of the golf course, lakes and two expansive patios anchored with fireplaces. On weekends, there's live music.
The views are positively mesmerizing, in an eerie Truman Show kind of way. There's a slender line of tile rooftops along the perfect, crisp edge of the golf course, then . . . nothing. Just empty sky stretching to what might be the end of the world, or a cleverly crafted movie set backdrop.
The menu offers more excitement. Lunch emphasizes sandwiches, but they're good ones, with creative offerings like a tasty pastrami club, stacked with high-quality pastrami, smoked turkey, peppered bacon, Boursin cheese, lettuce, tomato and leeks on toasted nine-grain bread. Served with good, hot fries and fresh fruit, it's a major meal for just $7.50.
Rib-eye melt is a little less successful, if only because the thinly sliced prime rib and Swiss are obliterated by mounds of roasted red peppers and ungainly slabs of caramelized red onion. A squishy, cornmeal-dusted Kaiser roll is delightful, however, spread with a low-impact horseradish sauce. The Bistro doesn't cut corners, either, using quality sirloin in its meat loaf sandwich. This is more an entree than a snack, topping crusty white bread with thin slabs of dense loaf, slathering it with innocuous brown mushroom gravy and smothering everything with crispy tobacco onions. If the meat doesn't fill you up, the leaden mashed potatoes certainly will -- these are the heavy, old-fashioned-style spuds many of us grew up on. The only problem with this dish? Perhaps in deference to its mild-mouthed clientele, The Bistro limits seasoning to do-it-yourself with salt and pepper on the table. Snore.
Things get a little livelier at dinner, with lots of garlic, lemon and rich butter pooled under an appetizer plate of chunked langostino (essentially small lobster). Not all dishes are noteworthy, but most are close: If the sweet Italian sausage mounded in stuffed mushrooms were more thoroughly cooked, this great 'n' greasy appetizer would be wonderful. As it is, the herb-spiked meat is raw in the middle, ruining its excellent baked mushroom base and tangy Asiago cheese topping on a nest of diced tomato, sliced black olive, fried onion and shallot skins.
The Bistro's signature soup is a tomato bisque, and this blend is a well-deserved mascot. Bisque is usually heavy, rich with lots of cream, but this version treats it with a lighter touch and adds lots of fresh, fat tomato pieces for a vigorous, basil-infused experience. A soup of the day, black bean, is another untraditional charmer, stocking zesty clearish broth with carrot, celery and whole black beans instead of the usual thick purée. Hint: a $3.25 bowl of soup dipped with The Bistro's delicious herb-flecked soft breadsticks and paired with the house salad makes for an enjoyable, low-cost lunch -- the $3.50 salad is huge, showering baby greens in sun dried tomatoes, black olives and diced red onion.
Value, in fact, is key in these parts, and it's delivered with a pasta dish of Maine lobster, Canadian snow crab, porcini mushrooms and fresh herbs in lobster cream sauce for just $17.95. Chicken primavera for just $13.95 is a surprise on its own, but here it's a virtual feast of big slabs of grilled chicken breast over penne, smooth feta and half-moons of zucchini. The menu lists a balsamic and herb cream dressing; it's actually light oil and herbs, yet with all the feta, who needs the cream?
Management probably doesn't get many complaints about any of the bargain-priced main courses, either. In what must be a tribute to the good old days, dinners here come complete with soup or salad -- such a wonderful tradition. The most expensive thing on the menu, in fact, is a lusty, eight-ounce filet mignon laced with brandy demi-glace on an herb crouton and partnered with potatoes and vegetables for $20.95.
I also doubt that management hears any unhappy comments about its reasonable $2 split-plate charge -- portions are massive, with a single dinner ample for two light appetites, should guests choose to share. Favorites include a sneaker-size pork chop, very lightly smoked, somewhat dry, but competently grilled under a brown sauce. In one lapse, the menu promises a Havarti cheese and pear stuffing, which is much more of an adventurous combination than the spindly bit of unidentifiable filler I find.
Lamb chops are another bistro staple, grilled to a juicy medium-rare turn as requested. I'm expecting two thick loin chops as listed on the menu, but am hardly disappointed to discover a half-rack of smoky, Frenched bones instead. An undercarriage of toasted banana bread stacked with razor-thin pecans is curiously effective; I've never seen this presentation before, but it's interesting, coupled with al dente saffron pilaf.
There's nothing offbeat about The Bistro's prime rib, though -- just good, predictable beef roasted and paired with Asiago mashed potatoes and cottage-cut zucchini, yellow squash and onion. But the meat is admirably lightly marbled, and studded with kicky grilled peppercorns. Even chicken breast gets special treatment, bringing two ample breasts seared in an eggy Parmesan batter, then topped with chopped tomato, red onion and olives in a full-bodied sauce of garlic, fresh basil and lemon.
The Bistro experience is so hearty and satisfying, it's a sad wonder that its desserts suffer so terribly. I doubt that these sweet shells are made in-house; if they are, they shouldn't be. Plantation pecan pie is nothing more than loose brown sugar and syrup cooked to a viscous mass, then scattered with sliced nuts. And white chocolate mousse cake resembles nothing more than pudding on a wet, dark chocolate crumb crust. Desserts sure look pretty, spiraled with whipped cream, fresh strawberries and chocolate drizzles, and that's where the pleasure ends.
The Sun City area is bustling, there's no doubt about that. It's an area that's ripe for interesting, quality-driven eateries. I've found a good prototype in The Bistro, and that's a proposition I can happily accept.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.