On the one hand, there are hotel rooms: square spaces of blissful solitaire, something so comforting about all that beige wallpaper and chintzy bedding and toiletries-in-miniature, getting happy over cable TV and instant coffee pots and tiny wall-mounted hair dryers even though these are pretty much things you've got waiting for you back at your real home. Hotel rooms always seem to elicit a feeling of muted joy.
On the other hand, there are hotel restaurants: cavernous, oversized eateries with difficult little plastic packets of honey and jellies and cream, cookie-cutter businessmen keeping company with their complimentary copies of USA Today, an ambience of such manufactured pleasantness that you're likely to start crying at any moment.
The Marquee Café, the most recent dining establishment to open under the roof of the Central West End's Chase Park Plaza hotel, tries to be something more: a stop-in place for some reliable light fare whether you're a neighborhood resident, a registered guest or someone who's just come out of the Chase Park Plaza Cinemas down the hall. Towards that end, the menu is as obvious as it is predictable, a panoply of items that sound fancy but are actually just well-disguised comfort foods: Caesar salad, club sandwich, salmon fillet, stuffed portobello mushroom.
What's more, in what seems like an attempt to engender a fun, unique dining experience, many of the offerings are given cutesy, Hollywoody names, such as "Field of Greens Salad" and the "LA Story Veggie Sandwich" and the "Last Tango in Paris Cheese Tasting." (But it's really not unique at all, is it? It's really nothing at all different from what the marketing demons at T.G.I. Friday's dream up every day of their questionable lives.)
In more carefully constructed "ambience," the background music is an endless loop of Top 40 singles past and present: Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun," Cyndi Lauper's "All Through the Night," that "Put Me In, Coach" song (played just a bit too loudly, perhaps to give the solo diners something to distract themselves by?). The visual accompaniment to all this is a series of black-and-white head shots adorning the walls, pictures of faded celebrities who have stayed at the landmark hotel: a Backstreet Boy or two, Ben Vereen, Charo, Phyllis Diller.
And so, try as they might, there it is all the same: contrived conviviality that borders on the disheartening. Do you know how glum-making it can be to eat a Captain Nemo's Tuna Salad Sandwich while Charo smiles down over you and Avril Lavigne wails in your ear about how things can get so complicated?
The folks at the Marquee Café did get one thing right. The food is perfectly fine -- though mostly devoid of any star quality. Starters are flavorful across the board, thanks to their heavy dependence on various fatty ingredients. But when the most creative appetizer going is the bacon-wrapped shrimp, you know you're not exactly a witness to culinary genius.
The chicken quesadilla and the aforementioned portobello mushroom (stuffed with a garlic cream and an artichoke mousse) are done right and nothing more. The Marquee nachos do hold the distinction of being one of the most daunting mountains of Mexican goodness you'll ever see. They come topped with two melted cheeses, chili, sour cream and guacamole; smartly, the corn chips are toasted before the onslaught, so they maintain their crispness right down to the bottom of the bowl.
And that ridiculously named cheese plate? Well, it's got Gouda on it, which kind of knocks off course the whole jokey Last Tango in Paris moniker (Gouda is Holland's most famous cheese). Get past that editorial misstep, though, and what you've got is an artfully presented and fresh-as-the-morning-dew smorgasbord of goat cheese, Boursain, Gouda, water crackers, French bread and fruit. (Kudos to the kitchen for sending out the cheeses at room temperature, making them easier to spread and more pungent in flavor. It's amazing how many restaurants forget to do that.) Order the plate with a couple glasses of chardonnay after a Friday-night movie next door and you have just impressed the pants off your date.
The main courses (I'm sorry, "Main Attractions") encompass standard blue-plate fare and slightly more upscale entrées: burgers, chicken-salad sandwiches, beef tenderloin, fish and chips, and so on. In two visits to the Marquee, I sampled five of them, and the only thing I can recall worth a damn about any dish was liking the waffle-style fries that came with most of them. If we must get technical, the club sandwich was rather pedestrian (though, as a friend pointed out, aren't all club sandwiches?), the salmon fillet was nicely tinged with a light, sweet glaze and the kitchen pulled off the neat trick of charring the tenderloin on the outside while still accomplishing a pinkish medium on the inside.
Desserts! I have things to say about desserts -- I'm sorry, "Encores" -- which rotate daily. The absolutely wonderful Bourbon Street chocolate bread pudding is both silky (the warmed milk-chocolate sauce, almost fonduelike) and rustic (crusty, crouton-sized chunks of bread). The pumpkin-orange cheesecake is a huge mistake; I can't recall a dessert more downright weird-tasting than this. The red-velvet cake was dry to begin with or just served stale; either way, a letdown to us red-velvet lovers, though the cream-cheese icing was good enough to scrape off the cake and eat on its own. The cherry cobbler (served à la mode, natch) couldn't look or taste any more homemade.
Who knows why every waiter at Marquee is a guy in his early twenties, but the outcome of that is nervous, apprehensive, occasionally amateur service. During one visit, our server arrived with arms full of the second course while we were still clearly working our way through the first. Drinks were sometimes forgotten, and miscommunications abounded with regard to dishes that were unavailable on a given evening. The ensuing awkwardness from all these little issues can be uncomfortable, like being on a blind date.
Whether or not the Marquee Café smoothes out its glitches, the question remains: Just what purpose does this place suit? What makes a restaurant worth the visit, beyond ending one's hunger? What turns a few plates of food into a meal, an experience worth repeating?
Such intangibles are near-impossible to quantify, but here's a start: Charo ain't the answer.