Game Daze

Food takes a backseat to flash at Dave & Buster's.

Dave & Buster's 25735 First Street, Westlake Sunday through Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday until 12:30 a.m., Friday and Saturday until 1:30 a.m. Sunday brunch served 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. 440-892-1415.
Dave & Buster's Skee-Ball fuel: Ribs, omelets, and - Bananas Foster (from left). - Walter  Novak
Dave & Buster's Skee-Ball fuel: Ribs, omelets, and Bananas Foster (from left).
The Grand Dining Room at Westlake's Dave & Buster's is beautiful in much the same way that a catalog lingerie model is beautiful: artfully contrived and mostly inauthentic, but a scintillating piece of eye candy nonetheless. As is the case throughout the 58,000-square-foot entertainment complex (home to $15,000 billiard tables, tournament-quality shuffleboards, and the Million Dollar Midway, with its state-of-the-art games), no expense has been spared filling the room with impressive amenities. These include dark wood paneling, a striking black-and-white mosaic tile floor, and dazzling faux Tiffany lampshades. A gentle breeze, the lazy by-product of a bank of ornate, pulley-connected ceiling fans, stirs the fronds of potted palms. Vast expanses of mirrors reflect gleaming brass fixtures. And artificial logs inside a mahogany-manteled fireplace flicker warmly, even on a hot day. Surrounded by this stylized swank, a guest could be excused for momentarily thinking he had stumbled into a posh Victorian-era clubroom: The only things missing are the humidors.

The decor's elegant masculinity is probably intentional. Since its inception in Dallas in 1982, Dave & Buster's Inc. has grown into an international, publicly traded company with more than 30 locations, including Columbus and Cincinnati. The company's literature clearly defines its target audience -- affluent, entertainment-seeking males, ages 21-44, who spend an average of $17.50 during each of their 10 annual visits, on games (46 percent), drinks (20 percent), and food (34 percent) -- and it only makes sense that the surroundings would cater to their tastes.

Still, money doesn't spread itself around, so the corporate minds have employed a few design tricks to help separate guests from their ready cash. For instance, patrons at the bar (with its 20 muted television sets, tuned to sports and news), the dining room, or the billiard tables won't find a restroom without venturing into the Million Dollar Midway. And once there, the marketing gurus must figure, the temptation to whip out the wallets will prove impossible to resist.

From a patron's perspective, such tactics can contribute to a subtle but pervasive sense of being manipulated, and it helps make D&B's feel no more intimate or personal than a trip to an amusement park. As a result, particularly in a region where gracious restaurants and bistros abound, savvy gourmets may not feel compelled to rush here simply for the dining adventure. On the other hand, for those who have come primarily to play the games and then find that the starship piloting, dinosaur dodging, and race-car driving have left them peckish, meals here are generally good-tasting, satisfying, and reasonably priced conveniences, even if service can be less than doting.

Although the Grand Dining Room offers the only opportunity for a quiet sit-down meal, the full menu is actually served anywhere in the complex, including gameside and in a noisy little "diner" in the middle of the midway. All-day options range from pepperoni pizza and chicken wings to grilled mahi mahi and sirloin steak, neatly plated on bright Fiesta Ware. Many dishes (like chicken nachos and mesquite-peppered rib-eye steaks) display a contemporary Southwestern flair, while others (chicken tenders, hamburgers, and potato skins) are all-American bar food. In general, the dishes we ordered were flavorful but never spicy, despite the presence of the occasional jalapeño or poblano pepper. However, kitchen manager Glenn Hixson and his staff could probably cut back on the salt: Our meals left us hitting the Aquafina bottles all night long.

Nonetheless, a weeknight dinner got off to a fine start, with appetizers of crisp fried mushrooms in a light tempura breading, served with a creamy soy-spiked dipping sauce; and mildly spiced grilled steak quesadillas, a bit light on the steak perhaps, but still bursting with flavor. We followed them up with a full rack of meaty barbecued pork ribs, glazed with a perky sweet-and-peppery Jack Daniel's sauce and sided with a massive mound of creamy mashed potatoes; and with a less-successful sirloin steak, shellacked with the same good sauce, but so tough and chewy that we reviewed the Heimlich maneuver before we started passing it around the table. An understated honey-chipotle sauce and a lively avocado pico de gallo saved our third entrée, an otherwise bland filet of grilled mahi mahi, from being boring. Thanks to the garnishes, as well as a bed of buttery red beans and rice and a bundle of crunchy, well-seasoned baby green beans, the dish turned out to be clean-plate-club good, as well as a relative bargain at $12.95.

On the other hand, a 20-ounce draft of Dortmunder Gold set us back $5.60. The snazzy, laminated drink menu also highlights margaritas, martinis, and assorted fruity potions, like Mai Tais, Fuzzy Navels, and Cape Cods -- all listed without prices, and probably for good reason. In any case, diners should be aware that two drinks could just about double the cost of a meal and even necessitate a trip or two to D&B's conveniently located ATMs.

A small Sunday brunch menu includes four versions of Eggs Benedict, several steak-and-egg creations, and a handful of tempting Tex-Mex-style items. Among them, the D&B Breakfast Burrito -- a hefty concoction of scrambled eggs, cheese, ham, mushrooms, green onion, and poblano peppers wrapped in a tender flour tortilla-- was moist, savory, and substantial, with an aromatic garnish of fresh cilantro, and sour cream, guacamole, and spicy salsa on the side. A fluffy omelet, filled with fresh, sautéed spinach, shiitake mushrooms, and sharp Asiago cheese, was delicious, although its accompanying toasted English muffin was unbuttered and dry. Happily, a side order of hollandaise, while not particularly outstanding, was nice enough poured over the muffin and added some richness to a side of ho-hum fried Potatoes O'Brien. Strips of hickory-smoked bacon, an à la carte item, were slightly sweet and crisply fried, and not at all dry. And for sheer Sunday-morning indulgence, piping-hot french toast, generously topped with chunky pineapple sauce, chopped pecans, powdered sugar, and whipped cream, was hard to beat. A veritable week's worth of sticky sweetness on a plate, the dish was so good, we didn't even miss the warm maple syrup that the menu promised, but our server failed to deliver.

Brunch service begins at 11 a.m. But while the menu prominently promotes alcoholic eye-openers like Mimosas and Bloody Marys, D&B's liquor license keeps them dry until 1 p.m. This seemed to come as a surprise to our Sunday-morning waiter, who took our 11:30 a.m. drink orders only to reappear with the bad news: Our Kir Royale drinker was completely out of luck, but for our Bloody Mary fan, he proudly produced a virgin Mary! The low-octane blend of mix, olives, and ice (which we never would have ordered in a month of Sundays) showed up as a $1.95 charge on our bill, and when we made small, complaint-like noises to a roaming manager, he brushed us off. "That's not our fault," he laughed. "Talk to the City of Westlake about it!"

Presumably, the folks in the front office know how the game should be played. But in the dining room, some staffers still ain't got the moves.

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