But a handful of fancy restaurants -- the American, EBT, Café Allegro, to name a few -- treat every night as though it were a special occasion: The ambience is elegant, the service polished, the menu intelligent and sophisticated. No restaurant consistently excels at all of those elements like the Peppercorn Duck Club. The food snobs I know rarely mention this 21-year-old institution when they're blathering on about the newest and hottest places. So many other restaurants have opened in the last two decades that the dining room on the Hyatt Regency's second level -- once a major draw to the Crown Center complex -- has gone from being one of Esquire's "100 best new restaurants" to being nearly forgotten.
"It was so incredible when it opened," remembers my friend John, one of the restaurant's original waiters. "Anyone who was anyone ate there. Everyone! High-society snobs, visiting dignitaries, even the lady who writes the 'Dear Abby' column!"
John thinks the 1981 collapse of the Hyatt Regency's skywalks permanently tarnished the glamour that had surrounded the Peppercorn Duck Club. But the hotel's food-and-beverage director begs to differ. "The Peppercorn Duck Club's popularity helped put the hotel back on the map," says the personable Nassy Saidian, who started his career as a host at the restaurant in 1982. "Even when people weren't staying in the hotel, they came to eat at the Duck Club."
Twenty years later, the place still has a potent allure, even though it could use a facelift and a live pianist instead of tinny piped-in music.
"It's elevator music! So ordinary," complained my gorgeous friend Carmen. We were squeezed into a cozy banquette that faced out onto the spacious dining room, which gets periodic fabric and carpet makeovers but still has too many relics of Reagan-era "style," such as shiny brass trim, ghastly light fixtures and even uglier artwork.
Carmen, who works in the beauty trade, couldn't understand how the Peppercorn Duck Club could be so attuned to exquisite little touches -- fresh flowers on each table, gold-embossed matchbooks personalized for each table's host, a sumptuous coffee service straight out of the Ottoman empire -- while ignoring the big picture.
"I love the big dessert display and the brass rotisserie," Carmen said, "but everything else is pure airport lounge. Except him."
The him was a tall, broad-shouldered, wasp-waisted, dark-haired European manager who handed us menus (Carmen took hers as if she were accepting an Oscar), bowed slightly and stepped away. Carmen unfolded her napkin and gave me a sly look. "Now that's the kind of décor every restaurant needs."
When it comes to service, few restaurants (and even fewer hotel dining rooms) can match the seamless attention that the veteran staff at the Duck Club gives each table. Some of the waiters have been working the room since it opened -- and it wasn't intended to be a refined "club" as much as an orgy of good eating. Until last year, the lavish "Market Island" display in the center of the dining room offered a combination of prepared cold salads (including a dungeness crab concoction that I still crave) and chilled appetizers. Saidian stopped setting out that spread at dinner ("Fewer people were choosing it," he says. "We did a survey"), but it is still a popular lunch destination; I sampled almost everything on it one lazy afternoon and waddled out in a stupor induced by fresh mozzarella, smoked salmon and roasted-duck salad.