Serving Hard Time

Hard Rock Cafe, 2621 East Camelback, Phoenix, 956-3669. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight.

Today's multiple-choice quiz: Which statement best explains the phenomenal success of Hard Rock Cafe?

a) Hard Rock Cafe celebrates the accomplishments of the great musical artists of our time. At this shrine for true rock believers, devout fans may reverentially ponder the meaning of a Judas Priest outfit, complete with accessorizing chains, preserved under glass like the Shroud of Turin. Other worshipers may prefer to stand respectfully before Madonna's rhinestone bra, or to genuflect in front of a jacket that, it is believed, Elvis may once have tried on.

b) People connect with the "Save the Planet" theme. Hard Rock Cafe may be just a restaurant, but it's reassuring to know that the organization is committed to protecting whales and preserving the rain forests. The happy-hour menu is printed in vegetable inks on recycled paper. "Environmentally safe" hand dryers, which replace paper towels in the rest rooms, help preserve trees. And you can depend on it--you'll never find spotted owl or snail darter on any Hard Rock Cafe menu.

c) The souvenir shop gives ordinary folks an instant shot of self-esteem. Who wouldn't feel good walking around in a pair of boxer shorts ($12), a polo shirt ($30) or a biker jacket ($260), all embossed with the Hard Rock Cafe name and logo?

d) Diners adore the food. "Good old American cooking," says the menu, prepared with "no preservatives, additives, MSG, antioxidants, colorings or artificial anything." At last, we locals can rest easy, confident there's one place in town where we don't have to worry about colored Buffalo wings, MSG-enhanced tuna fish sandwiches, antioxidized burgers or unpreserved root beer floats.

e) No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

Unless you chose "e," you're probably going to need a large dose of anti-hype medication to keep from someday stepping into Hard Rock Cafe. My advice: If you feel the urge to visit this high-powered marketing concept aimed directly at the drooling Mcmasses, lie down until the feeling passes.

The agony starts as soon as you arrive. Hard Rock Cafe doesn't accept reservations. So, if you come here somewhere around a normal lunch or dinner hour, you can be sure of one thing: By the time your vibrating buzzer goes off, alerting you that your table is ready, it won't be a normal-length lunch or dinner hour. That's because this place has been built cleverly small, so it doesn't take that many customers to back up the seating time.

The agony continues once you're seated. Pounding, pulsating, high-volume rock--Aerosmith, Madonna, Offspring--perpetually spills from the music system. Conversation is impossible. Just thinking is difficult. Even the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi couldn't chant enough "Om"s to relax here. This isn't fun. This is pain.

However, the agony and pain you've experienced up to this point do serve a purpose--now you're prepared for the food. The menu crows about how everything from sauces to salad dressing is made from scratch. That's commendable, at least in theory. Unfortunately, the reality is that Hard Rock Cafe's fare still manages to range from wretched to mediocre. This is not a range to feel home on.

Take the appetizer basket of onion rings, which aren't at all to my liking. They're greasy, covered with a thin, unpleasant, oily batter. Tupelo-Style Chicken isn't much of an improvement--breaded and fried chicken fingers whose appeal is directly proportional to the time you've spent waiting for a table. The accompanying apricot dipping sauce, however, is a pleasing touch.

Hard Rock Cafe hasn't become a global phenomenon by pushing any culinary frontiers. If the place were named after the fare instead of the setting, it could be called "Joe's Diner." Expect burgers, salads and sandwiches, along with a sprinkling of beef, chicken and fish dishes.

Probably the best thing here is the steak sandwich, a decently tender piece of grilled, sliced tenderloin served on a crusty sourdough roll. The cafeteria-quality fries alongside, though, make me suspect that no one in this kitchen spent the morning peeling fresh spuds.

The barbecued chicken and ribs won't inspire cartwheels of joy, but they are serviceable enough to tamp hunger pangs. The somewhat scrawny bird comes marinated in lime, which furnishes a mild taste boost. The meaty ribs are aided by a sweet watermelon-barbecue sauce that has a noticeable follow-up zing. The routine burger, meanwhile, has no distinction whatsoever.

Don't look to the fajitas for any dining pleasure. The shrimp model features eight tasteless crustaceans, heaped on a lukewarm skillet covered with oversize chunks of tomatoes, peppers and onions that haven't been sufficiently cooked. Maybe the London branch of Hard Rock Cafe can get away with serving fajitas with no sizzle, but that won't work here in the Southwest. And while it may seem like overkill to bash this dish further, duty compels me to point out that it came with over-the-hill tortillas, tough and brittle around the edges.

You'd think salads would be a pretty safe bet. And the grilled vegetable salad, which brings together asparagus, zucchini, corn, tomato and avocado tossed with romaine, is well-thought-out. The problem is the "special vinaigrette dressing," which is sour enough to curl your cutlery.

Stay for dessert? Why not? After all, Manuel Noriega held out against ear-splitting rock-music assaults for weeks on end. Surely, you can hold out another 15 minutes. However, I'm not sure the light, uncheesy cheesecake is worth a quarter-hour of anyone's time. If you do linger, you're best off with the richly frosted chocolate cake or the megacalorie fudge-brownie/vanilla ice cream shake.

With its long waits, endless din, wham-bam, move-'em-out service and borderline food, Hard Rock Cafe is to sociable dining what Bosnia is to multiethnic brotherhood. You won't catch me in either place.

Sidney's Pizza Cafe, 8260 North Hayden, Scottsdale, 922-9009. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.

You need a pore-cleansing facial, a French manicure or a foot massage and exfoliation. But you're also hungry, and crave a Chinese chicken salad, a pizza or a plate of pasta.

In the old days, you'd have to go to a salon to get your body work and a restaurant to take care of your appetite.

Not anymore. At Sidney's Pizza Cafe, a Minnesota minichain that's branching into the Valley, you can have your lips waxed one minute, and stuff a pizza through them the next. That's because this place is a combination "wellness center/gift boutique" and restaurant.

There's a thin line between bold entrepreneurial plans and crackpot marketing schemes. Only time will tell on which side of the line this high-concept venture will fall.

I can't judge Sidney's massage or pedicure skills, but I can judge what's coming out of the kitchen. And for the most part, it's very good.

This is an unusually well-designed place, gleaming and airy (maybe too airy--wait 'til the owner sees the first air-conditioning bill). There's an enclosed stone fireplace in the middle of the main dining room that may not look as inviting in July as it does now. Look for lots of light wood and an eye-catching, copper-and-teal color scheme. Paper placemats on the table strike a casual note, while cloth napkins remind you that you're in Scottsdale. I'd get rid of the piped-in light-rock music, though--the acoustics here already amplify normal restaurant clatter and conversation to Sky Harbor runway-decibel levels.

Sidney's fare will appeal to most local taste buds and wallets. Everything's made from scratch, and everything's less than ten bucks. Certainly nothing on the menu is exotic enough to frighten anyone away. It sticks to the basics: soups, salads, pizzas, calzones, pastas and rotisserie chicken.

The homemade bread gets meals off to a good start. Both the crusty rosemary-onion loaf and fresh honey-walnut bread meet every quality standard.

So do the soups, which may be the best items here. The chicken-pasta soup's richly flavored broth, seasoned with pepper and dill, could have come from my mother's kitchen. Big hunks of chicken breast, carrot, parsnip, celery and egg noodles add to the pleasure. The zesty minestrone is just as tempting, thick with white beans, Swiss chard, tomato and zucchini, along with a dollop of pesto.

Salads come in two sizes, so they work either as appetizers or entrees. The Chinese chicken salad is a hash of lettuce, carrots, onions, cilantro and thin noodles, topped by outstandingly moist grilled chicken. The only drawback: a sweet-and-sour ginger-sesame dressing that's almost pure salt. The Southwestern grilled vegetable salad--sweet potato, corn and pepper, mixed with tortilla strips over a bed of romaine--is a better option, especially if you're watching your sodium intake.

The ten-inch pizzas won't remind you of what you used to eat in the old neighborhood. For instance, the crust has a touch of sourdough and rye, as well as a bit of honey. The toppings are pure '90s, too. The Mediterranean pizza, topped with artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta cheese, is undeniably tasty. The calzone, however, isn't. Its brittle crust enfolds too much air and too few ingredients.

We had mixed luck with the pasta.
The wonderful angel hair with tomato, which you can gild with goat cheese for an extra 95cents, sports lots of basil, garlic and olive oil. The pappardelle tossed with wild mushrooms, pancetta and asparagus would have been scrumptious if it hadn't been drenched in an ill-conceived soy chicken broth.

Carnivores will have to make do with plump, juicy rotisserie chicken. It's good enough for me. The Proveneal model, zipped up with lemon, garlic and herbs, is one of this town's top spinning birds.

The signature dessert is apple pie pizza: baked apples sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar on a buttery crust, topped with warm caramel sauce and premium vanilla ice cream. It's yummy. Less thrilling is the giant, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie heaped with ice cream and hot fudge. This cookie is simply way too dry.

There aren't too many Scottsdale restaurants where budget-conscious diners can get quality fare. At Sidney's Pizza Cafe, you may even save enough to get that upper-leg wax treatment you've always wanted.

Hard Rock Cafe:
Grilled vegetable salad
Steak sandwich
Barbecue chicken
and ribs combo
Chocolate cake

Sidney's Pizza Cafe:
Chicken-pasta soup
Mediterranean pizza
Apple pie pizza


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