"I Am Not a Cook!"

Nixon's, 2501 East Camelback (Shops at the Esplanade), Phoenix, 852-0900. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Dinner, Sunday, 4 to 11 p.m.

A grateful nation remembers its first president as the "Father of Our Country." He's famous for saying, "I cannot tell a lie."

Americans remember their 16th president as the "Great Emancipator," the man who saved the Union and freed the slaves. He's famous for saying the government must be "of the people, by the people and for the people."

The country remembers the 37th president as "Tricky Dick." He's famous for saying, "I am not a crook."

On February 15, we celebrated Presidents' Day, a few days before George Washington's birthday, a few days after Abraham Lincoln's birthday. The leadership, principles and integrity of these two giants once inspired us.

Nobody, however, is opening up a restaurant these days and calling it "Washington's" or "Lincoln's." That's because, in our postmodern, disengaged, wryly ironic, dumbed-down, cynical fin de siecle age, the two men are so, well, yesterday. It's 1999, and who needs heroes to instruct us anymore? It's so much more entertaining to follow the lives of celebrities.

Let's face it: We're living in an upside down, inside out, image-is-everything world. It's a world where "personality" has replaced "character," self-esteem is prized over actual achievement and the concept of shame has disappeared entirely. Once upon a time, schools, cultural centers and even cities proudly named themselves after Washington and Lincoln. The way things are going, though, in 20 years, my grandchildren could be living in a small Arizona community, renamed Jerry Springerville. They'll be attending Latrell Sprewell High School where, no doubt, Linda Tripp's moving memoir, How Come Nobody Wants to Be My Friend?, will be required reading.

I guess if you're going to name a restaurant after a dead politician in these decadent, premillennial days, Nixon's the one. This place aims to attract the good-time crowd, most of whose formative period spanned the years of Reagan's senility, Bush's inanity and Clinton's infidelity. To them, Nixon probably seems cool, in a dark, Darth Vader sort of way.

And I understand the appeal: Unlike our last three presidents, Nixon wasn't stupid, inept or publicly horny. He had the good sense not to commemorate the Nazi war dead, he didn't throw up on Japan's prime minister and he didn't unzip his fly in the Oval Office.

Instead, he prolonged the war in Vietnam, kept an enemies list, railed against Jews and minorities, directed illegal break-ins, obstructed justice, used the IRS and CIA for criminal ends, and subverted the Constitution. So why not open a hip new restaurant and watering hole, set it in the trendy Esplanade at 24th Street and Camelback, and call it Nixon's?

Hey, if it catches on, maybe we can look forward to a new industry concept--restaurants themed around notorious rulers who ran their countries into the ground. I can see it now: a before-movie bite at Pol Pot's (Khmer Rouge jacket, $265), dinner at Papa Doc's (try the voodoo chicken), and a post-Suns-game beer at Saddam Hussein's (motto: "This Scud's for you").

I suppose I might have gotten more into the lighthearted spirit of the place if the food had been better. But Nixon's has played us a dirty trick. For the most part, the kitchen dishes out the kind of fare that only a Young Republican could love.

Just about everyone, however, should love the way the two-story Nixon's looks. A mural over the downstairs bar recalls the famous painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware." But instead of the general at the helm, ski-nosed Richard Nixon is in command. The troops on board are also gone, replaced by ex-presidents, their first ladies, Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger. Quotations, famous and infamous, are inscribed on the walls: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" (Barry Goldwater); "Man's ego is the fountainhead of all human progress" (Ayn Rand); "It depends what the meaning of 'is' is" (Bill Clinton). Vintage newspaper front pages and magazine covers recall the good old days of the Nixon era: the Kent State shootings; LBJ's decision to step down; Nixon's resignation. In the men's rest room, meanwhile, the urinal is tastefully decorated with decals of Castro and Charlie Manson. The women's toilets are decorated with stickers of Saddam and OJ.

Upstairs, the lights are dim, and the sturdy wooden booths are adorned with old-fashioned coat hooks. You can almost imagine that you're in the back room of a D.C. bar, plotting with E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy to break into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex. The music system, pumping out the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and the pounding disco rhythms of "A Fifth of Beethoven" and "Night on Bald Mountain," adds to the 1970s verisimilitude.

Although I can imagine Hunt and Liddy conspiring here, I can't picture them eating here. Even those hardened cons probably wouldn't have the stomach for it.

The all-day menu doesn't offer much in the way of appetizer munchies. That's a mistake, since Nixon's is such a comfy place to sit with a few pals over a cold brew. If ever a place screamed for wings, onion rings, battered veggies and fried mozzarella strips, this is it. Instead, the kitchen puts out a six-pack of baked clams, tinged with horseradish and coated with cheese and breadcrumbs. The chewy bivalves, though, are about as tender as H.R. Haldeman's heart. The beefsteak tomato salad is another less-than-formidable option. I like the garnishes--sauteed onions and crumbled blue cheese--and the vinaigrette, too. But a salad like this is only as good as the tomato in it, and the tasteless winter tomato we got should have prompted calls for a special prosecutor.

The grilled flatbreads are by far the best thing here, and definitely worth filling up on. They're served on a wooden board, right out of the oven, crisp and piping hot, and big enough for two people to share. I'm partial to the version topped with crab, goat cheese, spinach, mozzarella and tomato. You may prefer the model covered with chicken and mushrooms, or the one lined with tomato, asparagus, goat cheese and pesto.

The rest of the small menu focuses on sandwiches, salads and hot entrees. Most of them should be impeached.

Let's talk turkey. I suspect the turkey sandwich was made by Rosemary Woods. You remember her--she's the secretary who "mistakenly" erased 18 minutes of a crucial White House tape. This $7 sandwich was also missing something--turkey. There wasn't more than two ounces of poultry here, and believe me, I'm giving the kitchen the benefit of the doubt. This isn't a turkey sandwich--it's a sandwich turkey.

The carved-steak sandwich brings on plenty of beef. The problem is, it's so tough you might as well be chewing on the flank of a live cow. The grilled swordfish sandwich, meanwhile, didn't smell quite right, and the fish's texture didn't inspire confidence, either. If you're going to eat something here that comes between two pieces of bread, stick to the hamburger. Nixon's doesn't know how to spell the Tip O'Neil [sic] burger, but it does know how to cook it. You get about a half-pound of juicy beef on an onion roll, embellished with bacon, cheese, onions, lettuce and tomato. The accompanying French fries aren't made from fresh-peeled spuds, but at least they come directly out of the fryer.

The snoozy main-dish platters seem to target the Silent Majority--folks who don't care about what they eat. The fatty, chewy lamb steak comes from a part of the lamb that doesn't provide the best cuts. The minute chicken is aptly named--that's about how long it will take you to realize you should have ordered something else. It's a prefab piece of chicken breast, coated with breadcrumbs, then deep-fried and served with a third-rate lemon sauce. This entree costs $12, and I'd guess about $11.90 of it is straight profit.

London broil isn't much of an improvement. The meat is thin-sliced, but you'll still need the incisors of a wolf to tear into it. The grilled pork chop, gilded with pan-fried apples, is a better alternative. The salmon tastes exactly like every other piece of salmon you've ever had.

The entrees come with either routine mashed potatoes or a ramekin of cheesy au gratin spuds. Unfortunately, on every occasion, the potatoes au gratin were way undercooked. All platters also come with steamed green beans, which the kitchen somehow manages to get exactly right.

Greenery fans can get their fill from the Chinatown salad. While I don't understand the name--this salad is about as Chinese as Spiro Agnew--you do get a pleasant mix of lettuce, tomato, cucumbers, scallions and yellow pepper, along with a thin slab of fried chicken breast, all tossed in a light, peanut-accented vinaigrette. Would you like some bread with your salad? You'll have to fork over three bucks for garlic bread--Nixon's must be the only place in town that doesn't put out a breadbasket.

Don't waste your time hunting for a pastry chef, either. There's only one dessert here, a hot fudge sundae featuring nuts, whipped cream and cheap vanilla ice cream.

A word on the service. If you're headed to the next-door movie theaters, and your film starts in 20 minutes, this is the place to eat. Meals are served at the same leisurely pace you'd find at an Army mess hall.

This could be a fun spot. But unless the food improves, by next Presidents' Day, we may not have Nixon's to kick around anymore.

Crab/spinach flatbread
Swordfish sandwich
London broil
Hot fudge sundae



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