The first time I visited the Pink Pony, following its floor-to-ceiling overhaul earlier this year, I was distracted. Where was the slightly shabby lounge singer, cracking us up with tacky renditions of ancient Pet Clark hits? The cozily dark bar, straight out of a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster film? Where was the fun of visiting an old Scottsdale steakhouse?
In the end, mostly disappointed by near-miss appetizers and entrées, I left wondering, The Pink Pony's main draw, for decades, has been its scruffy sentimentality and dependable steak dinners. In a town full of upscale restaurants offering New American cuisine, we don't need another.
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Closed last summer for renovation, the Pony, added to Scottsdale's Historic Register in 2004, reopened in February. New owner Mark Shugrue, who runs restaurants in Sedona and Lake Havasu, gutted the more-than-60-year-old dining landmark, trading up tatty history for sleek lines and smooth surfaces. The Shugrue Pony offers the much-favored, loft-inspired open floor plan that seemed so new and daring -- blownout ceilings! exposed brick! fun lighting fixtures! -- 20 years ago.
An open kitchen at the back is fronted by an eight-seat chef's table; the main dining room is all tuck-and-roll leather banquettes and glossy wood-paneled walls offset with industrial sand-blasted masonry and exposed ductwork. The zinc-and-marble-topped bar, formerly on the north and now on the south side of the building, is overwhelmed by typical giant-screen TVs blasting sports events and two dozen beer taps.
The restaurant's new design takes a sidelong glance at its own past by incorporating token décor from the old place: The bar is hung with the hand-drawn caricatures of famous baseball players and other pro-ball memorabilia from the old days, and the Pony's familiar pink-inset wooden doors have been transformed into a collapsible wall on the front-end open patio.
For those of us who like our steak dinner tucked into a bit of Old Town history, it's not enough.
This missed-the-point problem carried over to the Pink Pony's menu, where every item -- appetizer, entrée, dessert -- paled in comparison to its accompaniment. A dry-as-dust pork chop appeared all the more bland when served in a puddle of nicely gritty, subtly cheesy Parmesan polenta. An unremarkable platter of barbecued beef ribs (Where's the smoke? Where's the tangy kick of tomato?) arrived all but buried in a colossal pile of crispy, superbly crafted homemade tater tots served with a side of creamy garlic aioli that made me want to holler, "Hold the ribs!"
(I didn't order the Debris Pizza. Please, chefs everywhere: Stop with the debris, already. This is not New Orleans, and the idea of food made from your kitchen leftovers is no longer kicky and fun.)
While I was pondering the value of obliterating yet another local landmark, and wondering what to say about sides that trump their entrées, an email arrived in my editor's box from the Pony's publicist telling us that executive chef Donald Fawcett and his staff had been fired. Also gone are the pastry chef, the general manager, and the local food sources. Apparently, while I was carping to myself about the death of the old Pony, other diners were complaining to management about the disappointing food.
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SHOW ME HOW
Out for coffee in Central Phoenix the next day, I ran into a friend whose family are longtime Valley restaurateurs who made their name with a small chain of nostalgic, neverchanged steakhouses. "Have you been to the new Pony?" I asked her.
She shrugged. "I don't see the point," she replied.
Neither do I.