Cafe Reviews

When Plush Comes to Shove

Some pretty funky history is happening in downtown Scottsdale these days. Since the opening of The Velvet Room in late March, the Old Town neighborhood has been jettisoned back to the 1940s and the "Golden Age of Jazz." The supper-club concept has been reincarnated here, pairing the evening meal with soulful jazz music and black-aproned waiters serving refined plates to -- wonder of wonders -- a clientele that still dresses up for dinner.

In a welcome departure from the pulsing nightclub collection that has infested the area, the ambiance at The Velvet Room is sophisticated, the live entertainment masterful, and the setting genteel. Its retro theme plays superbly, appealing equally to young night crawlers and mature social diners. Half of the treat at this sultry joint, in fact, is the people-watching -- parades of ambitious 20-something poseurs blending with uncomfortably aging lounge lizards, all dressed to the nines.

The place could be -- should be -- a huge success.

Unfortunately, the fare served at The Velvet Room lacks the same panache as its surroundings. The menu reads well, but the goods fall far short of what I expect from such a polished-looking operation. Somebody, please, hand-deliver this review to VR's executive chef Patrick Casey right away -- he needs to hurry back into his kitchen and figure out just what in the world his staff is doing to the food.

Casey should take the criticism as tough love. The Velvet Room has so many elements in its favor, in fact, that I find myself trying to justify its faults as my companion and I trudge through dinner one evening. This place is so cool, I gush. I'd come here all the time, except I'd stick to cocktails, bread and desserts. I really do like the club, I explain, except for the food, and . . . and yet, I am here for a restaurant review. Food counts. Nifty setting or no, I have to say that this sustenance is pretty sad.

The Velvet Room's location alone is enough to bring tears of nostalgia to longtime Valley diners' eyes. Housed in the main hall of the former Trader Vic's, the restaurant summons loving spirits of the colorful Polynesian restaurant that was a Fifth Avenue landmark for almost 30 years before it closed in the spring of 1990. I celebrated my high school cotillion dinner there. The tiki-tressed eatery with its umbrella-capped cocktails attracted actors like Robert Mitchum, John Forsythe, Elke Sommer and Paul Newman; yet the celebrity I miss the most is Eric Denk, the restaurant's charming manager from 1980 to 1990. He passed away in 1993, and was a gent with true, old-style Arizona class. If Denk were in charge of The Velvet Room, I have no doubt that the menu wrongs would instantly be righted.

After a decade away from Trader Vic's, the current architecture remains comfortingly familiar to me. A few years after closing, the restaurant space was carved into a mini-mall including shops for that king of kitsch, Valley jeweler Gilbert Ortega. The only artifact surviving the gutting supposedly was Trader Vic's signature 15-foot outrigger which hung from the ceiling of the very same space that is now The Velvet Room (where the boat is now, I don't know, but I hope it found a happy home).

Yet surely those are the original, elaborately carved ceiling beams above my head, I comment to my server. Not only is he unaware of the significance of his employer's location, however, he's never even heard of Trader Vic's. Anywhere. Amazing.

Another message to Velvet Room management: Hold a staff meeting. Quickly. Impress upon your employees the importance of this landmark location. It'll make your older crowd (the ones who usually visit before 10 at night) feel warm and fuzzy. It'll make your younger guests (the ones who swarm the place from 10 until the wee hours) feel immeasurably cool. Plus, it will give your servers something to talk about with customers other than apologizing for the poor dining experience they're about to undergo.

The first sign that The Velvet Room needs some finesse comes when I make reservations. I'm told three times -- three -- during the short phone call that there will be a two-hour time limit imposed on our dining party (VR's policy Thursday, Friday and Saturday). When I call Friday evening to say I'm running about 15 minutes late, I'm warned that my "time allocation" will begin at my appointed reservation time, regardless of when I arrive.

Now, I completely understand the mandate, given The Velvet Room's entirely delectable lineup of live music. It makes no sense for the restaurant to encourage cocktail squatters when it could be turning tables for dinner. But I'm feeling guilty even as I check in with the hostess, and that's no way to begin an enjoyable evening out. The embarrassment turns to smugness, though, as over several visits I experience some of the longest lapses in service to be found around town. The two-hour time limit should be imposed on the kitchen, not us.