TURF 'N' SURFIN' SAFARI
Feeney's, 6314 North 12th Street, Phoenix, 274-9700. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10:15 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11:15 p.m.
There's no accounting for people's tastes. And I don't mean likes and dislikes that stem from differences in class background or levels of education, like preferring opera to rap, MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour to Wheel of Fortune or wine to beer. I mean purely subjective, individual desires. For example, I have many friends who, without being threatened at gunpoint, like to drive to mosquito-infested woods, hike around all day lugging camping equipment and sleep on the hard ground inside a tent. These are otherwise sane people who can afford to vacation at a San Diego oceanfront hotel with room service. I see it at my health club. I dutifully drag my weary body there because with all the eating I do, I'd acquire my own zip code if I didn't. When I finish my regimen, I feel like the guy who bangs his head on the wall again and again. Why does he do it? "Because it feels so good when I stop." Me, too. Yet some fellow exercisers swear that the chemicals released by their brains after strenuous hours lifting weights and pedaling nowhere stimulate indescribable waves of pleasure. Even though I don't attain it, I don't doubt that some outdoor types and fitness freaks reach a genuinely exalted state of well-being from their activities. In the same way, I know there are many folks who get unparalleled enjoyment eating at popular surf-turf-and-salad-bar restaurants like Feeney's and Bobby McGee's. But, as with camping and exercising, I can't figure out why. Both establishments date from a generation ago, when a hunk of meat, a slab of fish and piles of build-your-own greenery meant festive dining. But it's not so much the tired menu and concept that squelch my enthusiasm these days. It's the unexceptional nature of the food itself. A former Cork 'n Cleaver, Feeney's doesn't lack fans. On the sweltering night we visited, the parking lot was full. The hostess confirmed that summertime business has been great. And diners clearly aren't coming to gaze at the decor, which is more or less nonexistent. Prints of waterfowl and scattered fake plants impart all the pizzazz of a dentist's waiting room. Because most meals come with the choice of soup or salad bar, we passed up the dull appetizer list. Fried zucchini, fried mushrooms and shrimp cocktail, I suspected, weren't going to send us into transports of delight, anyway. Feeney's boasts, "Our salad bar is the best in Phoenix, bar none." That's quite a stretch. What's remotely exceptional about the familiar tubs of iceberg lettuce, spinach, cherry tomatoes, macaroni and potato salad, broccoli or three-bean salad? Has this salad bar undergone a single change since 1965? Even the wonderful low-cal, housemade lime-cilantro salad dressing can't help much--it's like putting a silk tie on a guy wearing an undershirt. The homemade soups are a mixed lot. Cream of broccoli is thick enough to stand a spoon in, and it's extremely rich. Seafood chowder, on the other hand, has all the briny flavor the Sonoran Desert is famous for. And don't bother dipping the bread in--it's already as soggy as a sponge. Just as with the salad bar, the menu plays a little fast and loose describing the meat. Feeney's says it offers "choice prime beef," but that's misleading doublespeak. A very small percentage of beef--the most heavily marbled, flavorful and expensive--is graded "prime." Restaurants that serve prime beef are right to trumpet that fact. Almost all other restaurant beef, however, is "choice," a cut below prime in quality but perfectly satisfactory. Calling beef "choice prime" doesn't mean anything. The excellent New York steak survives the name-calling. Prepared "Greek style," it came sizzlingly charred with garlic, lemon and oregano, a juicy, tender slab. The same Grecian turn also enhances the lamb chops. The steep $22.95 tag, however, isn't very cuddly. The combo deals are also overpriced, particularly since Feeney's has cut back on the goodies. Although the paper menu by the hostess's station offers a platter of top sirloin and prime rib with crab legs, the "and" in the hardbound menus has been rubbed out and replaced with an "or." The price, though, is unchanged. And though I can live with less food, the top sirloin didn't make the living easy. It's not in the same class as the New York steak, tougher and more gristly. Nothing wrong with the succulent Alaskan king crab legs, though. Feeney's doesn't seem to have its heart in the fresh catch of the day. The indifferently broiled orange roughy sported no distinguishing marks. The institutional mound of rice pilaf didn't signal undue kitchen attention, either. Along with the soups, sauces and salad dressings, Feeney's is also proud of its homemade desserts. I'm unimpressed. Mud pie, fudge-slathered ice cream on a cookie-crumb crust, came half-melted. Grasshopper pie didn't get anyone's taste buds hopping. Dinner for four at Feeney's set us back more than $100, without drinks. I can't say, though, we got a C-note's worth of pleasure. Some dining experiences are timeless. But the time for this disappointing surf-turf-and-salad-bar old-timer seems to have come and gone. Bobby McGee's Conglomeration, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale, 998-5591. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m.
The genius of Bobby McGee's is that this chain's operators know they're in a culinary time warp. So they do everything they can to direct your attention away from the food. That's why the young staff wanders about in costume: Cleopatra, Davy Crockett on roller skates, Skully the Pirate, Elvis and Little Bo Peep. It also accounts for the themed dining rooms: one with Hollywood photos and posters, another made up like a ship, a hunting lodge and livery stable. You get lots of visual style, but not much substance on the plate. The architectural heart of the restaurant is the salad bar, which the rooms all overlook. After a couple of visits, I was ready to overlook it, too. Why do people rave about this salad bar? True, it looks great--large, colorful, well-tended--but it's more a feast for the eye than the palate. It's an apt metaphor for the whole Bobby McGee's experience. The usual salad-bar greenery and veggie suspects line one side of the table. The other side offers forgettable delights like "krab," marinated mushrooms, cheese cubes, mayo-lined pastas and pea with bacon salad. The Chinese-noodle salad tasted so "off," I told the manager it was spoiled. But apparently not: When I came back later in the week for another visit, the taste hadn't changed. Nothing special about the salad bar's soups, either. Clam chowder was all creamy texture, no whiff of the sea. The chicken rice could have come from a can. Even more than Feeney's, Bobby McGee's struck me as overpriced, coming up short in quantity and quality. The filet mignon and shrimp scampi combo featured a small amount of unexceptional meat, neither particularly juicy nor tender. The three measly shrimp with it rested in a caper-flecked, gelatinous butter sauce that couldn't have been rescued if it had been served by a waitress dressed as Lady Godiva. The regular-cut prime rib is eight ounces, but there weren't more than four ounces of edible meat in our serving. That's because this slab came dripping with fat and gristle. You needed the carving skill of a surgeon to liberate the beef. Nor was our mood improved by the massive, unpleasant-looking hunks of broccoli and cauliflower coated with a sauce management has the temerity to call "hollandaise."
London broil teriyaki suffered from a similar handicap. The top sirloin came nicely grilled to a charred edge, but my canines were no match for about a third of it.
The fresh-fish offering hooks you right in the wallet. I certainly didn't get 15 bucks' worth of pleasure from a smallish piece of charbroiled halibut and a scoop of heavily salted rice. Only one platter, I felt, gave us our money's worth. That was the ample pork ribs and chicken combo. The baby backs here were better than a lot of rib joints' models. This half rack showed up moist and meaty, grilled to a pleasing, crispy edge. The roasted chicken, half a bird, came punched up with lots of garlic. Why couldn't everything at Bobby McGee's have been this filling and this tasty? The restaurant contracts out for its desserts. Save your money and calories. You'll forget about sweets like the Snickers bar cheesecake and chocolate decadence cake the moment you leave. Try to resist, too, the blandishments of the promo card announcing the Brownie monster. It's just another gloopy-gloppy mess of ho-hum brownie, ice cream and hot fudge sauce. Bobby McGee's goes out of its way to be a fun, family-friendly place. Kids seem to love it, including my own. But they're not picking up the tab. To my mind, Davy Crockett on roller skates doesn't compensate for lackluster meals that can set a family of four back $75.
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