As a recovering smoker, I have some sympathy for nicotine addicts who still need to light up in a restaurant after polishing off a plate of chicken-fried steak or a double cheeseburger. I even defend their rights when the occasional anti-tobacco zealot calls in to the "Restaurant Critics Panel" on KCUR 89.3's Walt Bodine Show to scream about smokers in what I imagine to be the same tone that Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr uses to describe the U.S. military.
But even I have my limits. I reached them a couple of Sundays ago when a friend and I decided to gamble on the inexpensive Sunday brunch at the Argosy Casino's recently renovated Terrace Buffet. It was a bad bet, and not just because most of the food was lousy. It was because the entire dining room -- even the nonsmoking areas -- smelled like a stale ashtray.
The place had kind of a Twilight Zone quality anyway, thanks to over-the-top décor that appeared to be going for the appearance of a Tuscan trattoria. With arbors twined with silk wisteria and faux grape leaves, it came closer to the set design for a community theater production of The Barber of Seville. It's attractive enough -- and a vast improvement over the charmless dining room that preceded it. But there's that lingering, acrid fragrance of old cigarette smoke that makes even this theatrical setting as oppressive as some flea-bitten saloon.
How can anyone enjoy eating in this environment, even if you can fill your plate as often as you like with pizza, sushi, impossibly tough "prime rib," chewy pancakes, revolting-looking mussels, overcooked fried chicken, tasteless melon, and soft-serve ice cream? And all for $13.85!
My friend, an unrepentant smoker, complained about the smell more than I did. And even though he insisted that the spread was "the worst brunch food ever," he kept getting up and filling plates in an attempt to, he said, "find something ... out of all the potential choices." Ultimately, he did.
"The coconut cream pie is all right," he confessed. "But it's just as good at the Town Topic, and the breakfasts are better."
Cheaper, too. But just as smoky.