A long strange trip

There’s plenty to like about the Hard Rock Café. The walls are a shrine to the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, crowded with instruments, framed costumes, posters, gold and platinum records, and other memorabilia, much of it featuring local talent that struck it rich. The food and drinks are American classics, formulaic but entirely edible. Young people may think they’ve been transported back to the good old days (we brought a couple of youngun’s along who enjoyed the trip), although the truth is that the Hard Rock Café resembles the old clubs about as much as the Rain Forest Café resembles a real jungle.

Let’s face it, baby-boomers: the clubs where we first heard these songs were smoky dives with cheap beer, greasy food and sound systems with more volume than fidelity. Did we love it back then? Hell yes! Would we go someplace similar today? Hell no! Authenticity isn’t the only virtue. Sanitized nostalgia is OK. And just think, with 108 locations in 41 countries, you can go around the world and eat from the same menu.

The food is casual American. Lots of things are fried, everything is well-prepared, nothing pushes the envelope. Portions are generous; the co-diner found a chicken wing appetizer with a side of coleslaw to be plenty for dinner. The wings were meaty, you can choose the intensity of your BBQ sauce, and they come with a blue cheese dipping sauce. We liked both the steak and chicken fajitas. The meat was nicely seasoned and seared until charred on the outside, and it is still sizzling — along with its accompanying grilled onions and peppers — when it’s set before you with plenty of guacamole, sour cream, shredded cheddar and diced tomatoes. Blackened chicken pasta missed on the “black” part, but it had a fiery jerk rub, which was nicely juxtaposed with the pasta in a creamy Alfredo sauce. A pulled-pork sandwich, called "Pig Sandwich," was smoky and lip-puckering with a strongly vinegared BBQ sauce. For bottomless pits, there is a 20 oz. pork shank or an 18 oz. T-bone steak. There are plenty of variations of burgers (including a veggie burger), salads and sandwiches.

Located in the lobby of Compuware’s new downtown office building, the Hard Rock Café has been a hit since opening in November. On a Friday night, with a live band scheduled, we waited an hour and a half for a table. In the partly occupied building, there isn’t much to do after Borders closes. No reservations are accepted.

Eventually we ended up with a front row table for a live concert by a Royal Oak band called Tripper. (A real Tripper fan asked how we got the table; our daughter’s boyfriend shrugged and said, “Lucky.”)

Service at the Hard Rock is studiously friendly. The manager stopped at our table and asked, "Is everything OK? Do you have napkins?" The servers are always smiling, and they always agree with you. (Except one: I couldn’t convince her that pico de gallo is salsa. We agreed to disagree and she said, “I’ll get you what we call salsa.”)

Plenty of cocktails with cutesy names like “Lovely Rita” and “Howling Wolf,” mostly in the tropical rum-and-fruit-juice family. We happened upon Mardi Gras night; two blondes in high white boots and plaid mini-mini skirts passed out beads, and a fruit-juice-and-Southern Comfort cocktail was on sale for four bucks.

Slogans are another cornerstone of Hard Rock’s corporate plan. “Save the Planet” appears on your take-out bags. “Music for Life” is over the front door. Personally, I found it hard to whip up the enthusiasm I once felt for “Make Love Not War” for something like “Love All, Serve All.”

Desserts are mostly over-the-top sweet, sweet concoctions, such as dessert nachos with tortilla chips tossed with cinnamon sugar, covered with fresh fruit, shredded coconut, ice cream and chocolate and caramel sauces. I did think it was cute to watch our teenager sharing a malt with her boyfriend.

Our teenaged daughter enjoyed our night out. She loved the band and she loved the food. And she loved that we picked up the tab.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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