It's all in the game at Dave & Buster's

Clutching to my heaving bosom the beeper I'd been issued at the Front Desk, I solemnly regarded the spectacle before me. A bank of TV monitors, each bearing the imposing legend "Video Redemption System," glowed back at me. Seldom, thought I, as I teetered on the very precipice of hell, has a woman stood in such sore need of redemption as myself. But before I could determine how these machines might provide it, my beeper commenced buzzing. Redemption would have to wait. Our table was ready.

My accomplices and I had awaited this moment at Dave & Buster's for nigh unto two hours. This had given me plenty of time to droop at the bar and contemplate the situation. Dave & Buster's is a national chain of entertain-o-plexes that I have heard described as "Chuck E. Cheese for adults" and "casinos for the Religious Right." I concluded that mere words could not adequately express the epic scope of the ordeal in progress.

Three hours earlier, the gang and I had decamped for Riverport, that blister on the arse of the world that Dave & Buster's calls home. A wrong turn off the Earth City Expressway had necessitated an emergency phone call for directions. The D&B representative at the other end was herself too confused to pinpoint her location exactly, but perseverance is the Posey-Smith motto, and after a few illegal U-turns the vehicle lodged itself in the one remaining parking space in a lot the size of Guam. Although Dave & Buster's provides tram service for the ambulatorily challenged, we uncramped our extremities by hoofing it the mile-or-so to the door. I reveal no secrets when I admit to having suffered a certain wilting of the spirits while navigating this ocean of steel.

As the doorman shook us down for IDs, we oozed into a structure resembling a small shopping mall, whereupon I obtained some printed materials from a handy kiosk. One of these was a list of rules sternly prohibiting many of my favorite pastimes: snuff, chaw, solicitation, loitering and "loud and/or abusive language." My inner profligate was briefly discouraged until I ascertained that Dave & Buster's seems to vigorously endorse the less innocent vices of smoking and drinking. Moreover, children are given the heave-ho at 10 p.m. A glossy brochure titled "A Navigational Guide to the largest dining and entertainment extravaganza in Missouri" alerted me to "Points of Interest," which, if you are so constituted that 55,000 square feet of billiards, video games and Skee-Ball elicits from you screams of joy, were many.

After our long drive and parking adventure, the news that a two-hour wait separated us from a table in the Grand Dining Room hit us hard. The decadent corporate glitz of Dave & Buster's had thus far failed to impress me, and I would have bagged it at this juncture had not my RFT deadline loomed large on the horizon. It was in the line of duty that I marshaled the troops. "Come," I urged, "let us hie to the Million Dollar Midway, where we will serve out this unjust sentence."

Mine is not a sporting mentality, but the sheer scale of the adjoining game room provoked in me a faint gurgle of awe. A glittering cavern, anchored by an enormous racetrack bar and devoted entirely to arcade games of every description, stretched out as far as the eye could see. Its chief attribute, the pure excess of the thing notwithstanding, was a sort of excruciating chaos. The place swirled and throbbed like a hangover after a three-day debauch in Vegas. Convulsing glassy-eyed between endless rows of big-screen monitors were hordes of woozy revelers. Aglow in the garish pulse of flashing neon and deafened by an indescribable din, they staggered under the weight of armfuls of hard-won coupons, redeemable at the Winner's Circle for such precious booty as D&B stuffed piggies, D&B backscratchers and D&B Anxiety Bricks. My favorite attraction was a horse-race game, requiring the player to mount a vaguely equine-shaped apparatus, stand erect in the stirrups and engage the hips in a highly suggestive humping motion. Nobody did this without looking stupid.

By the time my posse secured stools at the Midway Bar, we were more than a little peckish, and there was still over an hour to go. Negotiations with our genial barkeep put us in possession of libations and an order of nachos. Of the latter there were exactly 12, putting them at roughly four bits a chip — a mite steep, considering how soggy and lukewarm they were. Nevertheless, we wolfed 'em like a pack of starving hounds (although I despaired of the guacamole, which lacked character). The bartender was quite a card. "Sorry you didn't like those nachos!" he chortled, expunging the empty platter from our midst.

At last our table in the Grand Dining Room shimmered into view. This was a posh enclave richly appointed with Tiffanyesque light fixtures, much dark wood and white linen. We hove grateful posteriors into our seats and bespoke a plate of potstickers from our sullen teenage waiter.

On the subject of potstickers I offer four urgent words: Go to Shu Feng.

The reader will be no more shocked than I was to discover that, subsequent to the regrettable potsticker snafu, the rest of the meal was a shining example of its kind. Fodder inspired by corporate marketing schemes generally fails to effervesce, but Dave & Buster's has achieved the impossible: unintimidating, well-cooked, attractive food that appeals to the proletariat even while approaching the tasty. Our charbroiled sirloin was impeccably garlicky and grilled precisely to the specified degree of doneness. The subtle chicken piccata displayed a judicious balance between lemon and caper. Festooned with chicken and red onion, the Hawaiian barbecue pizza was of the sweetish school but singularly toothsome, if you go in for that sort of thing. Green beans were crisp, mashed potatoes fluffy, and I do not exaggerate when I say that the barbecued pork ribs, so tender the meat floated up from the bone as if ascending to heaven, were some of the best I've had in recent memory. The only blot was the Cobb salad, which, in addition to an ill-advised sprinkling of chopped pickle, failed to arrive with dressing.

This brings me to the sullen teenage waiter. My Navigational Guide promised "service by some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet," but I'd lay odds that whoever penned that drivel had never crossed paths with this brooding youth. Doubtless he was shell-shocked — it was 10 p.m. by this time, and if the obnoxious specimens at the next table were any indication of your typical Dave & Buster's roustabouts, the lad had clearly been through the wringer — but his lack of intuition effected a couple of mild irritations. He was a trifle snippy during an exchange concerning pineapple on the pizza; he did not produce the aforementioned salad dressing until we'd nearly finished our dinner; and three of our six knives were positively crusty.

The mercifully quiet drive back to the metropolis occasioned the following reflection: If redemption was to be had, it lay in the vast distance that would forever more separate me from Dave & Buster's.

DAVE & BUSTER'S, 13857 Riverport Dr., 209-8015. Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Sun. Entrees: $5.95-$16.95.

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