P.F. Chang's continues to reign as a Plaza hot spot.

House of Toys 

P.F. Chang's continues to reign as a Plaza hot spot.

So many restaurants thrive on the 79-year-old Country Club Plaza that most people probably assume it's always been that way. But I suspect that the 36 restaurants within the Plaza's fourteen square blocks may be the highest number yet. Until the 1970s, the Plaza was better known as a place to shop.

Flash back to when the Depression hit town. In the early 1930s, all the busiest and most popular restaurants were firmly established downtown. The only places to eat on the Plaza were Clare Martin's Plaza Tavern and Veeder's Café. By the 1950s, Martin's Tavern had become the snazzy Putsch's 210 (where Fedora is now), and the neighborhood boasted Neuman's Delicatessen, a couple of unassuming diners, a lunch counter at the Woolworth's store and a sandwich shop in the bowling alley.

Over the past two decades, downtown has lost its cachet as a restaurant location, and the Plaza has taken up the slack. In fact, restaurants have slowly taken over much of the traditional retail space: The old Swanson's store is now the Cheesecake Factory, the former Macy's was subdivided to make room for the Canyon Café, and Mi Cocina took over the Alaskan Furs location.

An even older furrier, Gerhardt Furs, was renovated to make way for the ill-fated Fountain Café. Then, three years ago, the space became home to the wildly popular P.F. Chang's China Bistro. Although it serves comparable dishes, P.F. Chang's couldn't be more different from its closest culinary neighbor, Bo Ling's (on the less-vibrant south side of Brush Creek), or from the Plaza's nearly forgotten House of Toy, which specialized in old-fashioned American-Chinese dishes like egg foo yong and chop suey.

Neither Bo Ling's nor P.F. Chang's sells those dishes, simply because American taste in Chinese food has changed. So has our taste in ambience. Sure, the city is still dotted with mom-and-pop operations characterized by hanging paper lanterns and Chinatown tchotchkes scattered around the dining room, but they're on the verge of extinction. The Arizona-based P.F. Chang's (the initials are for creator Paul Fleming, the oilman who made millions with Ruth's Chris Steakhouse franchises) is taking on the little Chinese joints in the same way that McDonald's Ray Kroc outwitted independently owned drive-ins -- Kansas City once had dozens of them -- by revolutionizing the system so that newer seemed cheaper, tastier, faster and better.

Despite a very few Asian decorative touches, P.F. Chang's looks more like a 1940s nightclub than any traditional Chinese-American restaurant. Suspended light fixtures float above the room like illuminated drums. The floors are polished wood, the music is contemporary pop and the sassy servers speak fluent English. Customers don't have to deal with a language barrier by pointing at an elaborate menu and saying, "I'll have number 44." The quick-witted servers can ratchet up those tabs by enthusiastically suggesting an appetizer or two or any vintage from the sophisticated wine list.

Selling Chinese cuisine in such a completely American venue is a savvy business maneuver, but it rubs some diners the wrong way. My well-traveled friend Julia likes the food at P.F. Chang's but hates the restaurant. "It's too slick, too trendy, too popular," she says. "It's not a real place."

But it's real enough. P.F. Chang's is packed every night, with long waits for a table. People love it precisely because it is slick, it is trendy and you can see one or two local demi-celebs (such as mayoral wanna-be Stan Glazer preening on his way to a table, or radio talk-show hosts, or a former big-time coke dealer) on each visit.

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