And those coin-operated machines with the clumsy-looking claw hovering over a pile of cheap-looking toys? Don't waste a quarter! "No one ever wins anything," my father would sneer, dragging me away from them. "They're a total scam." And since I'd never seen anyone pull a toy out of one of those contraptions, I believed him.
All of those childhood memories came back to me when I spotted one of those grab-a-toy games while wandering through the "Million Dollar Midway," the maze of flashy, clangy old-fashioned arcade amusements and high-tech video machines at the center of Dave & Buster's.
Wyandotte County's Dave & Buster's is, like the other 49 locations in the Dallas-based chain, a combination restaurant and carnival arcade. Pitch Night Ranger Jen Chen calls the joint "Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups," which is a truer description than my immediate reaction it felt to me like a Disneyland casino. But casino slot machines pay off erratically in cash; the more innocent games at Dave & Buster's spew out "prizes" in the form of paper tickets that can be traded for stuffed animals, troll dolls and other cheap geegaws.
The mechanical claw's steely fingers were poised over an array of shiny watches and bracelets. "I'm going to try this," said my friend Bob. Lou Jane and I watched him swipe his plastic "Power Card" at the bottom of the machine to activate it.
"No one ever wins playing these," I warned him, sounding exactly like my father as I watched the claw spastically lurching up and down. I had to look away until Bob maneuvered the claw to clutch a silvery-looking watch up and over the drop shoot. He gloated with victory.
A minute later, Lou Jane was wearing the watch, and Bob had moved on to another machine. He immediately scored 1,000 tickets on a variation of a "Wheel of Fortune" game enough tickets for a couple of small toys from the bizarre little gift shop called The Winner's Circle.
After sauntering through the dozens of interactive games on the Million Dollar Midway, I half expected a couple of the dining room's menu items to reflect traditional carnival foods corn dogs, funnel cakes, lemon shake-ups. But that was crazy thinking on my part. Dave & Buster's isn't trying to lure the mulleted Santa-Cali-Gon Days crowd into its fun emporium. Kids aren't even particularly welcome here. (The under-21 set must be accompanied by a parent.)
The main dining room (described as "elegant" on the company's Web site) has some surprisingly gracious touches: tile floors, beautiful glass light fixtures, tablecloths and linen napkins. When Bob and Lou Jane and I sat down to dine, we were fussed over by Kent, a handsome and knowledgeable waiter. ("He's too good to be working here," whispered Lou Jane between sips of a potently sweet green apple martini. "He should be at the Capital Grill.")
Kent explained that one of the most popular appetizers is the cheese-fondue fries. In this hilariously snobby version of good ol' cheese fries, a pile of puffy, waffle-cut fries are sided with a ceramic "fondue set" a tiny pot perched over a burning tea candle. (It's so darn cute that Dave & Buster's should sell it in The Winner's Circle.) The menu said the molten orange cheese was American and cheddar I'd note that the emphasis is on American sprinkled with bacon bits and chopped green onion. Another appetizer was one of the oddest ethnic combinations ever, a Philly cheesesteak eggroll. This concoction is unknown in both Philadelphia and Beijing, I can assure you. But if Kent is correct, it's already a hit in Wyandotte County. And why not? It's as tasty as a freshly fried corn dog.
We all shared a thickly dressed, teeth-gratingly sweet apple salad and moved on to our main courses. Bob thought he'd scored another prize with his tender ribeye steak, generously slathered with a Jack Daniel's barbecue sauce. Lou Jane dug her claws into the shrimp combo platter. Half of the fried crustaceans were covered with a crunchy (and sugary) coconut crust; the others were more plainly breaded and fryer-dunked. "I can't remember the last time I ate a plate of French-fried shrimp," she said.
Probably the same day she last played skee ball, I thought as I nibbled on my grilled havarti-cheese-and-pesto sandwich, which didn't taste half as good as it sounded on the menu.
The dessert tray is nearly as large as a Tilt-a-Whirl and artfully arranged with shiny plastic reproductions of the featured Dave & Buster's desserts. The real edible sweets are all made in some big commissary somewhere, but they arrive in Wyandotte County looking very pretty. We shared a slab of the chocolate silk pie and a slice of the fudgy layer cake, along with one of D&B's "signature" desserts: a basket of freshly made doughnut holes, dusted with sugar and served warm with two little plastic cups of dipping sauces, chocolate and mixed berry.
"They don't taste like they were just fried," Lou Jane noted after biting into one of the pastry balls. "Maybe they just microwaved them."
So our meal that night didn't win any culinary prizes. It was satisfying enough, even imaginative in a couple of cases. But it didn't set off any bells and whistles, mostly because the menu was heavily influenced by other midrange, casual chain restaurants, especially T.G.I. Friday's.
A couple of days later, I returned with Rich and Judy. We sat in the less glamorous area off the bar so Judy could puff on cigarettes between the gloppy Caesar salads and our dinners. While she smoked, Rich and I pondered a strange black box that sat on the table. "It's the speaker for all the TV screens in the room," explained our server, pointing out a volume knob and a button that could be punched to display an array of digits. When I asked how many TV screens were in the joint, she just shrugged. "A lot."
Judy had hoped for a ribeye but, alas, another server came out to deliver the bad news that they were out of ribeyes that night. She settled on a peppercorn sirloin, which came out sizzling hot, topped with a spoonful of salty Boursin cheese and a jumble of fried onions. Judy thought it was very good, particularly after she scraped everything off the beef.
Rich, who has a weakness for cheeseburgers, couldn't resist the temptation of "Dave's Cheeseburger Cheeseburger," a double-stacked burger with American cheese and mesquite-pepper seasonings. He eats his meat well-done, so I thought the burger was flavorless but he liked it. At our server's suggestion, I ordered a bowl of linguini dripping with a mildly seasoned "Cajun Alfredo" sauce heaped with chunks of blackened chicken, mushrooms and chopped tomatoes. It wasn't bad (even if fettuccine Alfredo's creator, Alfredo Di Lelio, is probably spinning in his grave) but it needed a little something. Like a Philly cheesesteak eggroll.
That night, our server informed us that we were lucky because we'd come on a weeknight. "On weekends, sometimes there's an hour wait for a table."
I felt like I'd won something.