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Dinner at Shooters is all about the views.

Cleveland's lakefront, Alaska's legs -- two of the best things about Shooters. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Cleveland's lakefront, Alaska's legs -- two of the best things about Shooters.

There's an old adage in the restaurant business: "The better the view, the worse the food." That is to say, spectacular or exclusive scenery is often compelling enough that diners will overlook meals of inferior quality in exchange for outstanding surroundings.

Whether it's considered descriptive or predictive, the phrase is a pretty cynical assessment of the relationship between restaurateurs and patrons. Still, diners who've been around the block a few times will confirm that, in most cases, it holds at least a little water. Consider how hard it is to find a good meal in Niagara Falls, say, or on the rim of the Grand Canyon (and yes, there are a few restaurants there). Locally, we may have discovered the ultimate example a few years back, aboard the Nautica Queen, one of the popular dinner-cruise ships plying the Cuyahoga River and the lakefront. Standing on the observation deck, summer breeze in our hair, arms wrapped around our honey as the lights came up in Our Fair City was as moving, in its own way, as watching our kid hit a home run. In fact, every Northeast Ohioan should be forced by law to take part in this activity at least once per annum: The boost to civic pride would be immeasurable. But the food served on the floating buffet line? The less said about that, the better.

All of which brings us to Shooters restaurant, bar, and entertainment complex, the venerable anchor of the West Bank of the Flats and keeper of what is undoubtedly the most glorious view anywhere along the length of the entire crooked river. From the restaurant's deck, dock, and indoor-outdoor dining rooms, it's a straight shot down the broad mouth of the river and into Lake Erie, with a view of Five-Mile Crib bobbing in the distance like a bath toy. Even in the dog days of August, the water gives up a cooling breeze, and watching its dancing, dappled surface is hypnotically relaxing. Beyond the site's natural endowments, the man-made attractions are equally intriguing. There are lighthouses and lift bridges . . . trains and planes . . . sailboats, jet skis, kayaks, and ore carriers. There are stubby, grubby, but irresistible little tugboats chugging by; sleek million-dollar Italian yachts tying up to the dock; and mammoth lake-going vessels, like hellish floating factories, belching smoke and bellowing as they make the bend and glide up the river.

If all that isn't enough, there's also the whole human-interest thing, extending from the buff, golden party people on the dock to the tourists at the nearby tables, slowly sinking beneath the weight of cameras, maps, diaper bags, and an average of 2.4 cranky children. (The restaurant, incidentally, is equipped with high chairs, booster seats, and kiddie menus, and is thoroughly family-friendly.) While Shooters' lunch hours are relatively serene, evenings bring with them a host of entertainment opportunities, including karaoke, dancing, and live music, and even if you are too young or too old to care about making the scene, the people-watching here is sublime.

So amid all this loveliness, it comes as no surprise that the food never quite keeps up. In fact, management seems pretty up front about the fact that the Shooters experience isn't about fine dining at all. To wit: You'll look in vain for the executive chef's name on the large laminated menu; instead, logos of vendors like Pepsi, Tyson, McCain, and our own Orlando bread company pop up from the pages like the tiny advertisements that they are.

In a weird way, we found it refreshing to encounter a restaurant that comes right out and tells diners that the french fries are frozen and the salad dressings are bottled, as opposed to those dining rooms (few, but despicable) that try to pass off prepackaged products as their own. Yet, while cooking has apparently been made as easy as possible for the Shooters kitchen staff, gaffes abounded, including a risqué Chicken Caesar Salad that was allowed to leave the kitchen without dressing and an otherwise good-tasting spinach dip that arrived at the table stone cold.

The far-ranging menu, with enough different types of foods to bring even a first-rate kitchen to its knees, doesn't help matters. Among the starters, for instance, items range from shrimp cocktails to chicken strips and calamari to quesadillas. For main courses, there are cheeseburgers and filet mignons, fettuccine Alfredo and fried perch, grilled salmon and Hawaiian pizza, as well as assorted soups, salads, sandwiches, and stuffed baked potatoes. Offer that kind of variety in a restaurant that serves as many as 1,000 covers on a summer Saturday, and quality is almost bound to suffer. Maybe that's why the meat in a Philly-style steak sandwich was tough as shoe leather and the salty "teriyaki glaze" on the Hawaiian pizza tasted more like plain soy sauce.

Still, if we discovered nothing on the menu that was a match for the scenery, neither did we come across anything that was downright unwholesome. The greens in our Caesar salad, for example, might have been served naked (save for an avalanche of shredded cheese), but they were nonetheless reasonably fresh and crisp. A 14-ounce strip steak might have been a bit gristly, but it was properly cooked to order and good enough that we asked to take home the leftovers. And while Shooters' "signature" onion rings were flaccid, boring little numbers, jumbo Alaskan king crab legs -- the signature entrée -- were meaty and sweet, and must have measured at least 16 inches from stem to stern.

Most entrées include a choice of potato (waxy baked, watery mashed, or those frozen french fries) and a generous portion of routine but well-handled fresh mixed vegetables, with the usual carrots, summer squash, broccoli, and cauliflower. A basic tossed salad can be added for $1.95, and warm, soft, garlic-and-oil-slathered Orlando rolls fill the breadbasket. But although diners are likely to leave the table full, their wallets may be considerably emptier: Entrée prices can be steep, and even without alcohol, dinner for two can easily top $75.

Those minding their pennies should also note that parking in Shooters' lot ranges from $3 to $10, depending on the time of day; and after 9 p.m. on summer weekends, newcomers must fork over an additional $2 cover charge. And here's another little surprise: Dinner isn't served on the glorious outdoor deck after 7 p.m. on warm-weather Fridays and Saturdays, so that chairs and tables can be removed to accommodate the evenings' festivities. In fact, beginning at around 7:15 p.m. one Saturday night, we watched in disbelief as staffers snatched away the market umbrellas from occupied tables and marched them off into storage. "But we're still eating!" one party wailed helplessly, as the shade was stripped from their table.

So here's our advice. On those perfect sunny afternoons, when the lure of the water is irresistible and you crave a little excitement, go to Shooters. Suck up the parking fee, sit at one of the outdoor bars, nurse a Long Island Iced Tea, and savor the view for an hour or two. When you've finally had enough, catch the water taxi to the East Bank and take an easy stroll to the Watermark, where you can have a first-rate meal. The view isn't nearly so good there. But the food, predictably enough, is great.

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