How Many Burgers, TVs, and Hot Waitresses Can a Single Block Support?

The answer lies beneath a 25-ounce mug of beer at Sixth and Pine.

I'm no idiot. I can read the signs. When three of them, marked "Grill," appeared on the same block in the past three months, it was like the universe telling me to eat more burgers, watch some football--or think about out-of-town visitors for once. Tap House Grill, Daily Grill, and the newly reconfigured World Sports Grille, all chains of varying degrees, have conquered the same city block around Sixth Avenue and Pike Street, mere steps away from Niketown and the long-standing Fox Sports Grill. More important, they're all one block from the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, which regularly disgorges enough conference attendees onto the surrounding streets to create an Ann Taylor fashion parade. There's clearly money to be made from the badge wearers—in 2005, says the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau, the average convention delegate spent $116 a day in our city (compared to $60 for the average tourist). But do the new grill(e)s hold any appeal for the rest of us? Should visitors even go? This week I emptied the Weekly's expense account to dine at all three grills. I considered getting more into the spirit of the hood by wearing khakis, a blue chambray shirt, and a name tag, but when I held up the outfit in front of the mirror, I had to admit that my ego just wasn't that strong. In August 2007, the GameWorks Grill became the World Sports Grille. A July 23, 2007, article in the Nation's Restaurant News reported that pressure from competitors Chuck E. Cheese's and Dave & Buster's is strangling business at GameWorks' flagging 19 locations. The Sega-owned company is aiming to up its food and drink revenue by retooling itself as a chain of adult-oriented (ergo, grill-E) casual restaurants. The first WSG concept launched in Detroit, and Seattle followed a month later. The philosophy statement on World Sports Grille's new menu, which reads like the box copy on a Chinese pirated video game, starts out, "The world is a wonderland of races, raw materials, and traditions." That's right, there's a world of flavors to savor at WSG, such as black-bean burgers and Thai chicken pizza with broccoli and ginger. The 21-and-over area is cordoned off from GameWorks' play zones, and though the occasional bell or yelp can be heard, diners mostly seem focused on several of the dozen flat-screen TVs hanging around the room. "You want some snacks with your drinks?" our waitress asked, setting the tone for the night. I scanned the room, and most of the tourists around us were accompanying their beers with a plate or two in front of them. A sign? If so, we ignored it, ordering apps, entrées, and 25-ounce mugs of beer. Whatever wonderland of raw materials and traditions World Sports Grille's corporate chefs are working with, if they're planning on rolling out this concept around the nation, they'd better do some serious market testing. I've eaten less sloppy, more carefully considered food at Chili's, TGI Friday's, and Applebee's. Our soggy Buffalo wings were drowning in oil. A steak-and-Brie pizza looked as if the ingredients had been dropped on it from a ladder, and my companion aptly named the flavor "shades of Boyardee." While the pasta in the sesame-lamb noodles came out properly al dente, the noodles were coated in a shiny sauce that tasted like halvah, ginger, and corn starch. In fact, the sandwich I ordered as a joke, the Szechuan pork burger—no, it's not a pork burger, but a beef burger topped with pork, as well as bok choy, lettuce, and tomato—turned out to be the best dish of the lot. This despite the fact that the sandwich was falling out of the bun into a pool of grease, the hunks of pork reminded me more of a shredded Slim Jim than cheap Chinese, the bok choy melted into the bun, and the burger came out well, well done. Props to our waitress, though, for keeping an eye on the table, bringing out more napkins, and noting just when we'd hit the last sip of beer. I was masochistically itching to try a dessert of four brownies with four ice creams and four sauces, but the waitress brought out the check before we were done with our entrées. I looked up surprised, but she explained, "I just rang you up now so you can get the happy hour discount on your drinks," which cut our liquor bill in half. We thanked her, took the check as a fortuitous omen, and hauled out of there. It's no surprise that three-quarters of the diners at Tap House Grill, which opened in May in the old Planet Hollywood space, were straight (-appearing) men. The giant underground warehouse—decorated in a handsome palette of copper and chocolate—is dominated by a bar with 160 tap handles, staffed with a team of lovely women, and lined with a Circuit City's worth of flat-panel TVs. The global menu includes everything from sushi to steaks, wings to dinner salads. The less you spend, the better off you are. A spicy, unfussy jerk burger came out a beautiful medium, and the Bellevue Bank Roll (containing avocado, tempura shrimp, and asparagus) was much better than I feared. While the meats were all cooked to temp—poppy-crusted ahi was seared lightly on the edges but not cold in the center, and the "pub house" steak flashed a correct medium-rare red at its core—everything else, frankly, sucked. Our spinach salad with hard-boiled egg, roasted red onion, and bacon was sopping in a salad dressing so potent it tasted like salt whisked into balsamic vinegar. The steak came with a "mushroom demi-glace," a bouillon-y murk whose salinity buoyed aloft a couple of mushrooms like swimmers on the Red Sea. Same thing with the weird reduction sauce on the ahi, while the accompanying wasabi mashed potatoes cured my hay fever. As one friend summed up, "They're certainly not afraid of flavor here." What did surprise me was the beer knowledge of the servers. Tasting our way through 3.75 percent of the taps, my guests and I started with a round at the bar, where the bartenders were able to field "Is this beer light?" or "Should I have X or Y?" questions without pausing to think. Then we moved to a booth in the dining room (separated from the noise of the TV speakers by a glass wall), and got much more vague food-pairing advice from our servers. "What should I have with a steak?" returned "Something dark and malty," which describes a minimum of 20 of the beers on the list. All the brews, from the Leavenworth Whistling Pig Hefeweizen to the Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest, tasted fresh, and I'd go back to the bar for pints and bar snacks. But Tap House could have achieved with 40 taps what they've done with 160, and made it easier to provide the level of service diners pay for. The Daily Grill, an upscale chain restaurant that opened on the ground floor of the expanded Sheraton Hotel in June, did not have the same problem. Our waitress uttered the dreaded phase "company policy" when asking for our IDs after we ordered wine, but she had clearly been trained on the points of service from aperitif to dessert; when the food runner delivered our food, lifting a metal lid off each platter as he placed it on the table, he immediately noticed that the proper knives were missing from the table and rushed them out before we'd stopped rearranging our napkins. All the tables received visits from the assistant manager and the manager, just the touch to assuage the executive ego. You can tell the Daily Grill is a chain from the shiny edges of the insta-retro decor and, above all, the massive menu, which means to please all of the people all of the time. But this chain, founded in Los Angeles in 1984, falls on the class end of the spectrum one step down from McCormick & Schmick's and five steps up from the mysteriously packed Cheesecake Factory. The Daily Grills define their retro-tude through silhouettes of silent-screen movie stars painted on the awning and mosaics of framed black-and-white photos on the walls. Those touches are almost overkill, since the chain's classic bent comes through most successfully in the dark wood booths, checkered floor, and creamy, diffuse lighting. The food I'd call solid. A salad of romaine lettuce and endive spears came properly dressed in a bold balsamic vinegar augmented with chunks of Gorgonzola and crunchy caramelized pecans. The crab far outweighed the cake in the puck-sized crab cakes, served with a white wine–butter sauce. The soy-lemon marinade on a perfectly cooked skirt steak amped up the beefiness of its juices. The finesse that I expect of independent bistros that charge the same prices was missing—shoestring fries tasted like they'd sat under a heat lamp for a while, the filling in a chicken pot pie came up soupy and underwhelming—but in the balance, the steaks, salads, and service made for a respectable choice in the classic Americana vein. Give me a juicy per diem, and I'd be pleased to drop the cash here—that is, if I didn't know that Tom Douglas' restaurant multiplex or all the Pike Place Market restaurants were just a five-minute walk away. Price Check TAP HOUSE GRILL

Bellevue Bank Roll $9.95

Jerk burger $8.95

Poppy-crusted ahi $24.95  DAILY GRILL

Romaine-endive salad $8.50

Skirt steak $21.95

Crab cake entrée $25.95  WORLD SPORTS GRILLE

Spicy wings $7.99

Szechuan pork burger $9.59

Steak-and-Brie pizza $11.99  jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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