Buddy Ryan's Bar & Grill, 122 East Washington, Phoenix, 258-4646. Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Earlier this year, a large, round man swaggered into the Valley. He assured us that our years of wandering in the professional football wilderness were over. "You've got a winner in town," he announced boldly. Immediately, fans who'd almost never seen the words "win" and "Cardinals" in the same paragraph fell under his spell, buying season tickets by the tens of thousands. Some restaurant entrepreneurs also jumped on the Buddy Ball bandwagon. Heady with the sense of future gridiron victory, they hoped to cash in on Buddy Ryan's impending popularity by opening a downtown sports bar and naming it for the fabled coach, even before he'd won a single game. This may prove to be about as savvy a marketing move as launching a new blimp company and naming it Hindenburg Airlines. Can Buddy coach? The jury is still out. Can Buddy's partners cook? The jury is still out on that one, too. Before Buddy Ryan's, this spot was occupied by 122 East, a sports bar that crackled with all the energy of Forest Lawn before it expired from terminal emptiness. Can a bright-red awning splashed with the coach's name make the same concept work this time around? The place has been somewhat redesigned. A big bar still occupies the center of the room, encircled by overhead televisions so fans won't have to move their heads to catch the action. Wood floors and red-brick walls give the restaurant a clubby feel. Vegas-style sports boards update the odds on the games, while a stock ticker entertains the lunchtime crowd. There's surprisingly little sports memorabilia, just a shelf full of football helmets. And unlike Majerle's sports bar around the corner, where you can't escape action photos of Thunder Dan, Buddy Ryan's features no shots of the coach doing what he does best. But, then again, who wants to stare at a picture of Buddy throwing a right to the skull of a fellow coach whose play-calling displeased him? The men's room also signals the upscale-sports-bar image this place wants to convey. It's got an attendant, who passed one recent lunchtime watching Jenny Jones on his minitelevision and bemoaning the lack of tip-throwing men's-room traffic. Buddy Ryan's menu is as predictable as his offense. You can kick off with wings, nachos, stuffed potatoes and fried cheese--about as exciting as a three-yard run straight into the line. The artichoke and green chile cheese dip, though, is reliable, studded with lots of chunky artichoke pieces and a mild chile bite. The unsightly, less-than-fresh tricolored chips, though, should be cut from the squad. The Anaheim Chili Davis is actually a scrumptious nibble, a battered and freshly fried up green chile filled with shredded beef, cheese and corn, accompanied by a perky pineapple salsa. But at $7, it's also an expensive nibble--even a skinny defensive back could polish it off in a couple of bites. Ordering a salad is a much more cost-effective call. The grilled-sirloin model is perfect for conflicted, he-man appetites: lots of red meat and a pile of greens. The seared beef is juicy, tender and ample, and there's not a trace of iceberg lettuce anywhere in the bowl. In fact, there's no lettuce at all. The salad is fashioned from spinach, with shreds of cheese, homemade croutons and an excellent garlic mayo dressing. A basket of fresh focaccia adds to its charms. Sandwich fare is lackluster. And can I be the only one who thinks a $6 cheeseburger and a $7.25 cheesesteak just a tad out of line? Especially since neither did anything more memorable than fill me up. It was also obvious that the curlicue fries alongside hadn't just sprung from bubbling oil before they were ladled on the plate. What's the best defense against the calzone? Not ordering it. The only old neighborhood the bland version here could have come out of is Mr. Rogers'. It's way too bready, and it comes draped with a bizarre, squash-filled tomato sauce. Pizza, on the other hand, delivers. The crust may be a little too light, but the artichoke, spinach and red-onion toppings on the eight-inch vegetarian pizza provide a winning note. You can get more substantial fare here, but if the Bruce Kelly Drunken Shrimp is any guide, you may not want to risk it. The platter features six firm, good-size shrimp on a substantial heap of cappellini. Unfortunately, like talented running backs behind a bad offensive line, the shrimp and pasta can't go anywhere. That's because they're tossed with an off-putting sauce fashioned with beer and Cajun spices. Why get cute? How about a simple, long- simmered marinara instead? Two of the four desserts are whipped up in-house. Whipping may be appropriate for whoever's responsible for the mochacino mousse. It's a waxy-tasting chocolate mixed with strawberries and no detectable amounts of the promised Grand Marnier. The Buddy Sundae is somewhat better, a gloppy blend of ice cream, chocolate syrup and crushed Oreos. It comes in a Buddy Ryan hurricane glass that you can buy for an extra $4. Let's face it, if the proprietors wanted to emphasize the strength of their kitchen, they could have signed up Julia Child and placed her name out front. It's named Buddy Ryan's because the operators want customers to feel like winners. Ultimately, I suspect, the success of Buddy Ryan's is going to depend less on the quality of the food and more on the Cardinals' won-lost record. Hooters, 455 North Third Street (Arizona Center), Phoenix, 257-0000. Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
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Hooters is another sports-themed establishment that targets the downtown crowd. But I don't believe football is the pastime uppermost in most patrons' minds. That's because Hooters isn't your typical sports bar. It's a breastaurant. The folks behind Buddy Ryan's are really selling subliminal access to Buddy. Eat and drink here, is the message, and you, too, can be a part of the Cardinals. Hooters has a different subtext, and you don't need a Ph.D. in deconstructionist theory from Yale to figure it out, either. Eat and drink here, Hooters' message coos, and dream about having access to the good-looking waitresses. The message isn't very subtle. The waitresses (I saw no waiters) are outfitted in bright, tight and skimpy orange shorts, with white halter tops. None looks old enough to remember the days when airlines tried to get stewardesses to dress this way. Management has put a lot of thought into the nonhuman design, too. The music system pipes out high-decibel, endless hits of the Sixties and early Seventies--Stones, Motown, Beatles, Eagles. And why not? The eyes of the baby-boomer male clientele enjoy focusing on young female servers. Simultaneously bombarding the ears with the sounds of the guys' own oat-sowing youth helps make fantasies that much more plausible. Customers who fall out of the 30-to-49 demographic get no aural encouragement: If you want to watch football and ogle while listening to Glenn Miller or Gin Blossoms, you'll have to go elsewhere. How do I know that this place is more breastaurant than restaurant? I closed my eyes and imagined confronting the food served under different circumstances by, say, a New York City waiter. ("The clam chowder's not hot? Let me tell you something--the rest of the food ain't so hot, either.") Would Hooters draw the same kind of crowds? I doubt it. The waitress distraction, however, does have the salutary effect of keeping your mind off the less-than-sensational chow. It so happens that the clam chowder isn't hot, at least not throughout the bowl. The intermittent warm and cool patches indicated insufficient microwaving. But even a steaming, bubbling crock couldn't have made up for the lack of briny flavor. At about 40 cents each, the chicken wings are no bargain. They're meaty, but too thickly battered, with a distinctly out-of-the-drum air. A growing Florida chain, Hooters emphasizes seafood. This makes great sense when you operate in Clearwater. It's a bit more problematical in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. But the bowlful of a dozen reasonably tender steamed clams made for good munching. So did the crab legs. But I longed for something more, some crust of bread, maybe, to help fill the gaping appetite hole, big enough for a fullback to run through, that I still had. The fish sandwich did the trick. It's a huge, grilled slab of who-knows-what (the menu calls it "grouper's cousin") that sticks out a good six inches around the too-small hamburger bun it comes on. It's better than those horrifying, fried McFish sandwiches, but apart from its size, it's pretty innocuous. I liked the ham and cheese, served on a French roll. Thick strips of tasty ham and gobs of cheese combine flavor with substance. The half-pound hamburger is also serviceable, but a pricey $5.45, especially when you consider it doesn't even come with fries. On the other hand, when I think about the side dish of fries I ordered, that may be a blessing in disguise. Avoid the steak sandwich. A few weeks ago at Goldie's Sports Cafe, a north Scottsdale bar, I had a mouth-watering steak sandwich marinated in balsamic vinegar and served on fresh focaccia. The Hooters version indicates that the proprietors take more interest in the help's outfits than in the food. It's a fatty piece of untrimmed, oversalted and inedible rib eye. Even Las Vegas, the ogling capital of America, seems less crass than Hooters. After all, in the 1994 casino, it's not at all out of the ordinary to be served by cocktail waitresses old enough to be, well, my older sister. Maybe it's all just a matter of taste, about which reasonable people can disagree. But in both food and concept, there doesn't seem to be much hoot in Hooters.