Our entrance is more dramatic than expected. We take one step in the door at Dave & Buster's, and I come toe to toe with a grim-faced guy built like a Hummer.
He's dressed all in black, including a snug polo shirt, black cargo pants cinched above the ankle and what appear to be military-issue boots for keeping all those middle- and upper-middle-class Roseville residents in check.
He looks me up and down like a snarling junkyard dog through a chain-link fence, and just as I think I'm going to have to go all Jason Bourne on this dude, his clenched jaw loosens and he grunts something that sounds like "hello."
We're in. How endearing.
A couple of hours later, I will wonder why this restaurant known as Chuck E. Cheese's for adults needs quasi-military security guards for a roomful of exceedingly well-behaved patrons. I wanted to ask D&B about this, but the manager doesn't do return phone calls.
This might be the time to say I'm not necessarily proud of being here, what with my commitment to the slow-food movement, organic and sustainable foodstuffs, creative cooking, local cooking, a modicum of what we'll call sophisticated living and a style of sit-down dining that brings people together for good conversation and unhurried, enriching experiences.
Here, I'm suddenly in the middle of a dining room, bar and arcade in the massive, sprawling retail sector of Roseville near the Galleria. The area is "designed" entirely around the big, bad automobile.
Showing us to our table is a hostess who is chewing gum. The scene encompasses music, laughter, folks with gazes fixed on bright video screens and the continual din of sound effects – crashing, shooting, kicking, punching, blowing stuff up.
Dave & Buster's is a cultural phenomenon, and I'm a student of culture. As a writer and a critic, my role is to observe, synthesize, analyze, sort, explain. I read the New York Review of Books. I subscribe to the Atlantic. I have the TMZ app for the iPhone. I pepper conversations with words like "zeitgeist," "postmodern," "schadenfreude" and "Lindsay Lohan."
Shooting basketballs one after another at a hoop or rolling a ball up a ramp into a hole is something I rarely feel like doing. But at D&B, with the prospect of racking up points that I can redeem for really worthless prizes such as a stuffed monkey or a Proctor Silex coffeemaker, it is irresistible.
Further, there's a simple satisfaction, after nibbling on hot wings or devouring teriyaki steak, in ambling over to the arcade, grabbing a plastic gun that resembles a semiautomatic weapon and pretending to shoot people in the face.
This national chain of restaurants recently opened its 55th location in Roseville, at the upscale and stylish Fountains shopping center. Success came instantly.
Though we rarely review chain restaurants, the buzz about Dave & Buster's led us to wonder what makes a successful national chain attract customers.
One thing chains tend to do better than independently owned restaurants is the honing of a concept. Another is the training of employees to thrive at customer service.
Despite Dave & Buster's lowbrow, chaotic concept, the unexceptional food offerings and all that razzmatazz in the arcade, we were delighted to discover something instantly endearing: It has one of the best servers in the Sacramento area.
This server, Stacy Rodriguez, is so personable, sincere, observant and efficient that we were floored. She could manage a restaurant tomorrow. She could also be promoted to head of staff training for any chain. She's that good.
Throughout the night, she made everything look easy, and she always said the right thing, explaining in detail, when we asked, why we might want to opt for the white sangria over the red and what specifically she likes about the chocolate cake for dessert.
But even Stacy can't make the menu seem as if we're dining at the French Laundry or Alinea. The food is straightforward, with plenty of chicken, ribs, steaks, burgers, a few tasty but overdressed salads, along with a decadent and admittedly delicious baked mac-and-cheese with chicken and bacon offered as an entree. It's for those who believe vegetables are overrated.
Much of the food was better than expected and cooked properly. Here, a combo meal means a choice of entree and a $10 gift card for the game room – all for $15.99, $17.99 or 19.99, depending on the selection. The build-your-own soft tacos ($17.99) consisted of an extra-large platter of ingredients, including very tender steak that made for tasty tacos we can safely recommend.
The teriyaki sirloin steak ($16.89) was more tender than you'd think at this price point, with a sweet sauce that we'll call teriyaki-ish. It was also perfectly medium-rare as requested. It's another good bet on your way to the arcade.
The Black Jack BBQ Chicken and Ribs ($19.99 with the game card) was my choice on our second visit, and I got mixed results: The ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender while the boneless chicken breast was overcooked, minuscule and about as easy to stomach as Ben Stein.
The chicken tenders called Goldfingers included a helpful "EAT" icon on the menu signifying them as a D&B favorite. That's exciting, and we are suckers for contrived excitement. So we ordered those and were stopped in our tracks – who knew bland and chewy could be such a crowd-pleaser? We're giving them our own icon: "INEDIBLE."
The chocolate cake ($7) Stacy told us about, layer by layer, was indeed a nice choice for dessert. It was so large that we took half of it with us.
And sure, we could sit back and say that the video arcade is for chumps and that this experience represents the worst of the soulless suburban experience, except that we, too, got caught up in the fun. We played air hockey for the first time since junior high. And not since "Rock the Casbah" and "867-5309" on early MTV had we experienced the simple, addictive intensity of Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man.
Understandably, the wait time was too long for the games with guns, so we took Stacy's advice and tried Typhoon. You sit in a reclining chair that resembles the cockpit of a jet fighter and enjoy a simulated ride without having to do anything. Your chair sways and shakes and dips, with wind blowing on your face, as you stare at a video screen that takes you on a semithrilling ride complete with explosions, close calls and enemy combatants who act like you've wronged them.
At the end, the chair stops, you get up and you have a smile on your face. Maybe you're a tad embarrassed that you enjoyed yourself, your stomach is only mildly unsettled, you have a hazy sense of the zeitgeist of postmodern suburban intimacy and, turns out, you haven't blown too much money.
Kinda like the D&B experience itself.
DAVE & BUSTER'S
1174 Roseville Parkway (in the Fountains shopping center), Roseville
(916) 772-3400, www.DaveandBusters.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday
Full bar? Yes
Overall: 2 stars (fair)
Sure, it's a chain, and the menu probably was designed by committee with a little help from the legal department, but this place does what it proposes to do – serve you fun food and show you a good time with an array of video games that bring out the 11-year-old in everybody.
Food: 2 stars (fair)
Where else does a combo meal mean food and credit to play video games? Several of the items on the menu were quite good. D&B knows how to do a tender steak, and the mac-and-cheese will win over the curmudgeons. Maybe go easy next time on the salad dressing. The Goldfingers chicken pieces were more collector's item than edible food.
Service: 3 stars (good)
We're going to average this one out. Lurking in this suburban chain restaurant is one of the best servers in the entire Sacramento area. On our other visit, the service was merely acceptable.
Ambience: 2 1/2 stars (good)
It's a nice, big room, tastefully decorated. There's no getting around the fact that this is an arcade. But let's tone down the "Men In Black" quasi-military security guards. I'm not sure I saw a single patron even close to misbehaving.
Value: 2 stars (fair)
The combo meal feeds you and gives you $10 to play video games. Not bad. But the prizes you can "win" are incredibly cheap and cheesy. What's more, there is an electronic theft detector where the prizes are kept. Do people really steal ugly pillows and stuffed monkeys?
Noteworthy: If you want to go old-school, you'll find Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga video games; i.e., they're easy. There are also air hockey and basketball, and we even took a stab at Space Invaders. Plenty of modern games involving shooting. If you just want to sit back and enjoy, try Typhoon (preferably not right after you devoured the mac-and-cheese).