Just as Paris is the world-renowned birthplace of haute cuisine, Times Square has become the cultural epicenter of theme dining. Within a radius of a couple blocks, one can see Jimi Hendrix's guitar, travel to Mars without the aid of President Bush, and even come face-to-face (or hand-to-ass) with a pre-gubernatorial Terminator. But sadly, many theme restaurants have not been able to stand the test of time. Oh WWF Restaurant, we hardly knew ye! Fashion Café, you could not survive the endless stream of bulimia jokes.
Although many of its peers have fallen, the ESPN Zone restaurant in Times Square has consistently packed them in since its opening in 1999. And unlike most of the "restaur-tainment" establishments in Times Square, ESPN Zone is known to attract local sports fans in addition to throngs of tourists.
Entering the four-story complex, a walkie-talkie-wielding maitre d' directed us to the second floor with all the charm of a Montreal Expos usher. There, the hostess informed us of a thirty-minute wait for tables.
We could wait in a line reminiscent of airport check-in, or get a handy beeper to alert us when our table was ready. Instead of corralling ourselves like veal behind the vinyl rope, we grabbed our beeper and headed upstairs. The fourth floor opened up into a gigantic sports-themed arcade that would regress even the most jaded Columbian into a hyperactive prepubescent joystick jockey. Think Tron meets a Dalton Bar Mitzvah.
We bought game cards--a fairy tale Flex Account for air hockey instead of laundry--and began our meal. First off was a delightful aperitif of Basketball Shoot-out. The NASCAR simulator served up a splendid amuse bouche that cleansed our palates before moving on to the Slap Shot Challenge. The quarterback simulator really brought the meal full-circle, leaving the whole team satisfied.
There are several dining areas to choose from: The Studio Grill on the ground level is the largest and least thematic spot in the restaurant. The Bristol Suite, named after ESPN's hometown, fulfills everyone's lifelong dream of being magically transported to central Connecticut. But the centerpiece of this complex, which is worth the extra wait, has to be The Screening Room. Several booths are arranged in supper-club fashion before an Orwellian video wall projecting a dozen or so sporting events from around the nation. It has all the excitement of the sports book at the Mirage, without the palpable sense of desperation (ESPN is owned by Disney, after all). Buttons in each booth tune into the audio from a specific screen. Conversation is highly discouraged. It's a couch potato's dream come true; I can only imagine the focus groups that helped contribute to the video screens above the urinals.
And did I mention they have food? It's not very good. Think overpriced Applebee's. The best thing I can say is that they don't resort to cheesy sports-themed puns for all their dishes--with the glaring exception of the Sudden Death Brownie. It's hard for a restaurant critic to say, but in the world of restaur-tainment, sometimes the food isn't the main event. The Big Dance is this Super Bowl Sunday, and there's no better place to watch the game.