What's the difference between a restaurant run by an individual proprietor and one operated by corporate headquarters?
At first glance, none, if I could believe my initial impression of the Backstage Restaurant and Bar and Grady's American Grill. These two places, separated by only a few Scottsdale miles, seem to be fraternal twins. Both spots target couples and families looking for a casual meal out. The menus are closely matched. Both offer familiar appetizers like pizza or chips and dips; both feature grilled meats and pasta entrees. They keep the same hours. And they charge just about identical prices for their fare.
But these turned out to be surface similarities. It didn't take long for the differences to jump out.
Location is one. The Backstage operates in one of my favorite corners of the Valley, the area by Scottsdale Civic Center. From its second-story perch, the restaurant gives diners a stress-busting view of strolling pedestrians, greenery and fountains dotting the grassy mall. In a town where three quarters of the restaurants seem to overlook a strip-mall parking lot, the Backstage's setting is practically bucolic. It's a real plus.
The view inside the airy room is just as soothing. The look vaguely suggests rustic Italian. Murals depict pillars, vines and faux windows overlooking an Italianate countryside. Ornate grills are mounted on the walls, and the windows are hooked up to nifty iron tracks so they can be cranked open when the weather warrants. (Fresh-air fiends can also opt for the attractive misted patio.)
The Backstage's food is just as eye-opening as the scenery. From preparation to plate presentation, this kitchen is obviously not content simply to go through the motions.
Ever since Backstage opened about 15 years ago, its signature dish has been lahvosh pizza. The latest owners wisely haven't messed with tradition. The Armenian cracker-bread pizza comes in 20 different styles, from the smoked salmon and goat cheese model to the Thai chicken and rice noodle version. Two people could make a meal from the large size, while the small is perfect to share as an appetizer nibble.
So is the sahuaro dip, a zippy mix of spinach, chipotle pepper and garlic blended into melted cheese. Fresh chips help, and so does a remarkably fresh, fiery pico de gallo that tasted like it was prepared to order.
The alternative to appetizers? You'll have to tamp down hunger pangs with conversation. For some reason, the Backstage doesn't bother with a breadbasket.
Consider cooling off with some cold suds while you talk. The Backstage has put together a nice list of brewskis, about 40 bottled imports (check out Mamba from Africa) and microbrews (try lemony Celis White), and a half-dozen beers on tap. Or if you're into H2O, choose from six mineral waters.
The main dishes display an inventiveness, quality and heft that can make the prices look like misprints. Most of the entrees go for three digits, two of them to the right of the decimal point. Even though dinners come with no bread, soup or salad, you can safely count on the Backstage to give you your money's worth.
The pork chop certainly does. It's a first-rate, tender hunk of meat, grilled just right, gilded with a perky mint salsa. But even determined carnivores may be deflected from their purpose by the side of mashed potatoes. These are some of the best spuds I've had in town: thick, rich and flecked with pieces of skin.
The roasted half duck is another winner, especially when you factor in the very reasonable $11.50 tag. The platter features a leg, thigh and breast, the breast meat cut away from the bone and fanned across the plate. The duck is juicy, the skin is crisp, and it's all moistened with a rosemary-spiked fruit sauce. A mound of mashed sweet potatoes, broccoli and a couple of offbeat red pepper blini round out this very attractive dish.
The smoked chicken linguini hits you like a two-by-four. There's nothing very subtle about this heavy-duty mix of grilled chicken breast and pasta, coated with a strong-scented pesto sauce overflowing with sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts and cheese. If your taste buds have been aestivating during the summer, this plate will deliver a wake-up call.
Another pasta option also sports hard-hitting flavor punch. The penne arrabiata comes loaded with garlic, olives and peppers in a basil-tinged tomato sauce. But instead of arrabiata's usual sausage and bacon, the chef plays to the vegetarian crowd by tossing in buffalo mozzarella in their place. It works fine.
Desserts aren't nearly as imaginative. Mud pie is mutantly large, a huge mound of coffee and butter almond ice cream drenched with hot fudge sauce, whipped cream and almonds. It's a caloric way to gird three or four people against the trip back into the July heat. There's also a completely forgettable cheesecake alternative. If you're still hungry, you're probably best off ordering the fresh fruit compote.
The Backstage's setting and prices, as well as the variety and quality of the fare, make it a very pleasant Scottsdale casual dining option. My advice: Wait for October and sit on the patio.
Grady's American Grill, 10010 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 922-7005. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Operated by the same folks behind Chili's and Romano's Macaroni Grill, Grady's American Grill is fittingly set near the intersection of Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road, in the northeast Valley's growing chain-restaurant corridor.
Even tasty main dishes can't overcome the nondescript charmlessness that characterizes the corporate restaurant ownership. It's the kind of place I wouldn't mind spotting just off an interstate exit, while traveling on summer vacation with a car full of hungry passengers. But, in contrast to Backstage, I can't imagine too many locals getting particularly excited over the prospect of dinner there.
One of the principal obstacles is the somber design. A freestanding brick building surrounded by an acre of parking, Grady's has the festive look and feel of a Midwestern bank. Inside, dark brick walls divide the restaurant into several rooms separated by archways and windows. Corporate-approved paintings of flowers and Native Americans with flags line the walls. Unrelentingly loud country music also doesn't relieve the dour atmosphere. In short, Grady's is the kind of place that doesn't inspire thoughts that the good times are about to roll.
Certainly the appetizers won't make you see things in a happier light. Pizza Florentine, one of three pizza starters, comes perched on a tasteless cardboard wafer, lined with creamed spinach and scallions. The menu also promised an artichoke jalape¤o topping, but we couldn't detect it with either the naked eye or the naked taste bud. More disturbingly, this munchie arrived barely lukewarm. Could it have been pre-prepared, sunning under a heat lamp in the kitchen, waiting to be ordered?
Chips and dip are no improvement. The latter is a thick, gelatinous spinach and cheese blend, getting dinner off to a very heavy start. You're much better off edging into dinner with the salads that accompany most meals. Both the Caesar salad and fresh mixed greens studded with whole cashews are worth digging into, which is more than I can say about the second-rate loaf of white bread that shares the table with them.
Grady's, however, makes no mistakes with its animal protein. It's obvious that entrees are the part of dinner that receive the most home-office attention and effort.
Check out the New York strip, the most expensive item at $14.45. It's 14 ounces of pure beef, trimmed of fat and gristle. Juicy, tender and cooked exactly to medium-rare specs, it's completely carnivore-friendly. And most diners probably won't complain about the accompanying oversize, salt-crusted baked potato larded with all the toppings. But what turned my head was the vegetable--whole sugar snap peas. Somebody back at corporate has some creative juices.
Baby back ribs also got nods of approval. Credit the supplier with furnishing meaty specimens, and the kitchen for giving them an appealing, mesquite-charred edge. A thick, mild barbecue sauce also deserves some praise, as do the mound of sweet coleslaw and the crisp fries.
The fish of the day, mahi mahi, also turned out right, basted with butter and expertly grilled to the point of moist flakiness. And I like the idea that it comes in two sizes, so you can match it to your appetite. But neither the salty side of rice nor the unseasoned mixed vegetables merited a second bite.
Even the pasta showed some flair. Cajun pasta features a bucketful of crayfish heaped over ham-flecked linguini. Pay no attention to the menu advisory that it comes with a "spicy Cajun-style sauce"--you could feed this to a newborn. And at $8.95, you could afford to.
But corporate interest and intensity flag when it's time for dessert. The chocolate cake with ice cream and hot fudge is one-dimensionally sweet. Still, it's better than the awful bread pudding, a rubbery confection laced with white chocolate chips and a Jack Daniel's sauce that never got near a bottle of Jack Daniel's. The coffee's lousy, too.
Twenty years ago, Grady's American Grill might have been the biggest thing to hit the Phoenix restaurant community since air conditioning. I guess it's a measure of our dining-out progress that in 1995, it doesn't even stand out.