Cafe Reviews

FERN CORRESPONDENT

The singles-bar scene isn't exactly my home turf. The last time I made a serious foray was before Danny Partridge started dating. But I'd heard the scene at a couple of Valley after-work mating grounds could jump-start anyone's battery.

So on a recent Friday night, I dragged along my friend the psychologist. His expertise, I reasoned, could overcome some otherwise significant handicaps in scouting the babes: Between us, we have four kids, two wives and one head of hair.

Houlihan's at Biltmore Fashion Park and T.G.I. Friday's at Scottsdale Galleria are stamped from the same moldthe Tiffany-style lights, the brass railings, the cutesy wall decor of posters and old signs. Even the menu and prices are virtually interchangeable. Both places seem as calculated and mission-oriented as Operation Desert Storm. But there's enough variation between the two, in concept and in execution, to create massively different results.

We got to Houlihan's at 8:30 p.m., too late for happy hour but early enough to snag a patio table next to the lounge. This is the Phoenix link (there's also one in Mesa) in a large corporate chain of Houlihan's headquartered in Kansas City.

The joint was jumping. The deejay was playing Eighties and Nineties hits with pounding backbeats to stir up the young women streaming onto the dance floor. (There are at least twice as many women here as men.) To ease ourselves into these unfamiliar waters, Doctor Freud and I decided on some preliminary rounds of eating and drinking.

No one drinks bourbon and water here. The menu drinks are colorful, sweet and laden with alcohol. They come daintily embellished with little umbrellas. Our waitress apologizes for their feminized appearance (the bartender made her bring them that way, she said), but after downing them we could feel our self-esteem growing anyway.

The appetizers have enough fat to fell a mastodon, but they're scrumptious and filling. Fried mushrooms are eight huge, breaded caps stuffed with an herb-garlic cheese mixture. Those wishing to further shorten their lives can plunge their mushrooms into the accompanying horseradish mayo dip. The Cajun shrimp are crisply fried critters, spiced with creamy, peppery sauce.

Momentarily distracted from the food, drink and fashion parade he had been enjoying, my pal realized with a start that he'd been out for several hours without checking in at home. He grabbed his cellular telephone and reassured his wife, all the while projecting the air of a man disposing of a huge block of stock. Out of such good intentions can complications develop.

Two women at the next table decided they had urgent calls to make, too, and they sweetly asked to use the telephone. Of course we obliged, and in a few minutes the small talk commenced.

But just as we were congratulating ourselves on being two wild and crazy guys, the tall blonde stood up and looked at us intently. One hand rested on her hip, an unlighted cigarette poised between her fingers. Her other hand swirled her drink, and she took a slow sip. Smiling knowingly, she said: "Do you guys' wives know you're here?" And she headed off for greener pastures.

It was time to put the psychologist to work. "Were we unconsciously giving off `taken' signals?" I asked. Was there Cajun shrimp batter still on our chins? Or was she politely brushing us off because we're, well, follicly challenged?

"How should I know?" he replied. "My specialty is disturbed children." Lunching at Houlihan's is more than the difference between day and night. While women patrons again far outnumbered men, these were chic, prosperous matrons on the prowl for nothing more adventurous than light, California-style cuisine. Burgers, steaks and fries are available, too, but I didn't see anyone order them.

In keeping with the light spirit, I ordered grilled yellowtail tuna on a dense focaccia bun (almost ruined by a glop of mayonnaise that I scrape off). Not too filling, but very tasty. And there was a generous portion of French fries-adequate, but not great-to offset the health benefits. But my wife hit the menu jackpot. She started with baked-potato soup, a creamy mix of potato chunks with the skin still on, crumbled bacon, scallions and grated cheese.

Then she moved on to the Santa Fe Cobb salad. This mammoth concoction looked like it was made by committee-everyone made a suggestion and no one had a veto. But it was good enough to make me want to come back. Among the ingredients we identified were lettuce, red cabbage, green pepper, turkey, tomato, black beans, corn, olives, bacon, blue cheese, red onion, mandarin orange slices, toasted tortilla strips and a lone sunflower seed. Dressed in a wonderful honey-citrus vinaigrette, the salad is a bargain at $6.25. Desserts ought to come with a syringe of insulin. The caramel nut crunch pie-ground Snickers bars in vanilla ice cream encrusted with cookie crumbs and slathered in caramel and hot fudge sauce-seemed right only for those younger than age 10 or bulimics. The cappuccino cake is an intense chocolate cake with espresso icing, surrounded by chocolate chip ice cream and hot fudge sauce. More overkill.

Much better is the cappuccino, pricey at $2.95, but a big, flavorful bowl-size mug topped with grated chocolate. The service at Houlihan's is a real plus and worth noting. The servers are knowledgeable, prompt and not pushy, even at a very crowded lunch hour.

I wish the same could be said about the service at T.G.I. Friday's at its newest Valley location in Scottsdale. T.G.I. Friday's has more than 100 outlets, three now in the Valley. The Galleria version aims to be a bit funkier than its upscale competition at Houlihan's, but instead it's just goofier. You can spot it right away in the servers. All wear garish, red-and-white-striped shirts to match the tablecloths. They sport beat-up hats. They are festooned with buttons urging patrons to eat and drink. They introduce themselves. And they think I'd rather talk to them than to the woman I invited.

When we got the appetizer of baked Brie, fruit and bread, my server opined that it looked real good. "Hey, maybe you can save me some if you can't finish," he added companionably. I gave him my fiercest glare, a look so menacing my children break out in uncontrollable fits of hysteria whenever I employ it.

When he took our plates, he picked up my greasy, cheese-laden knife and placed it back down on my paper napkin. Ugh. (Houlihan's has cloth napkins, and replaces used cutlery.) Our soup was a disappointment. It took too much banter before the waiter would reveal that Wednesday was cream of mushroom day. This concoction (made with canned mushrooms) was enlivened only by the huge lump of flour I found lurking in its depths.

For comparison's sake, we ordered Cobb salad. There was no comparison. It looked like it came from Salad Central-some lettuce, a spoonful of blue cheese, bacon, hard-boiled egg, turkey, an olive, grated Cheddar and some sprouts. The accompanying miniloaves had outworn their welcome in this world.

My entree was much more successful. Blackened Cajun halibut was a meaty slab of fish nicely seasoned, accompanied by beans and rice and slivered zucchini. There's no cappuccino here, so we settled for coffee. The waiter told us that the pie-in-the-sky dessert was the winner, but his judgment was no better than his service. It was merely vanilla ice cream in caramel-and-hot-fudge sauce, with a stale, blond brownie shoved in. As we left, we noticed the place was still barely a quarter filled. As I recall, the same percentage of Americans thought Richard Nixon was a superior president the day after he resigned, and about the same proportion think President Bush's economic plan will work. Apparently, while you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, you can bamboozle about 25 percent of them pretty darned often.

Unlucky at lunch, lucky at happy hour, that was my hope. But an after-work visit to T.G.I. Friday's brought the sad news that the place has no formal happy hour-no reduced-price drinks, no discounted appetizers, as at Houlihan's. It seems a strange oversight for a place pursuing the young, party-time crowd.

Even by eight o'clock on a Friday evening, the bar area exuded all the energy of my cat in August. With no disc jockey or dance floor, management entertains customers with loud, taped music and ESPN ski programs. Perhaps later in the evening it would pick up, we thought.

It did, but not much. There were fewer empty seats at the bar, the music was turned down to encourage conversation, and the sexes did seem to be mingling. But T.G.I. Friday's had no buzz.

A waitress confided that the new bar, Jetz, around the corner on Camelback, was draining away business, and a quick peek there showed the place packed to the rafters. Still, I thought, the problem could not be solely Jetz appeal. A much more likely explanation came to me after I spotted two T.G.I. Friday's waiters going about their tasks with green moose antlers perched on their scalps. T.G.I. Friday's is a faintly embarrassing place to pursue hard drinking, and a hard place to pursue serious mating.

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Howard Seftel