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Dead End 

If you're headed to the Central West End for dinner, read this before choosing C. Whittaker's

Within five minutes of arriving at C. Whittaker's, we were scrambling to secure a last-minute reservation at another restaurant. Why the backpedaling? We had become uneasy about the restaurant's cleanliness when we entered the grimy vestibule and followed our host across a deeply soiled path in the dining-room carpeting. As we surveyed the pulverized croutons, stray chicken bones and bits of limp lettuce littering the floor, we were handed menus in plastic sleeves paved with a film of greasy fingerprints. But it was a visit to the unisex restroom that prompted our urgent calls to other restaurants. A relative in the food-service business had told us that if a manager neglects sanitation in the restroom, the kitchen is probably unkempt as well. At C. Whittaker's, the toilet seat was splattered. The garbage can overflowed with refuse. The handle on the paper-towel dispenser had broken off, and black electrical tape had been wound around the metal rod in a makeshift repair. Most repugnant of all, the perimeter of the filthy tile was hemmed with dirt, and a foul accretion of God-knows-what was trapped in the corners.

Now, if you think this isn't the most appetizing way to begin a restaurant review, we can attest that it's an even less palatable way to begin a meal. In its 2001 Restaurant Industry Forecast, the National Restaurant Association observes, "In recent years, more restaurant operators have begun to pay more attention to restaurant design, décor, and atmosphere in their establishments ... [it's the] new -- and perhaps final -- frontier in the battle to make their restaurants stand out in the crowd."

In addition to its squalidness, C. Whittaker's interior is hopelessly passé, perhaps dating back to the original Madonnalithic era. The Formica side tables in the main dining room are white with black squiggles. The bottom half of the wall is covered with an industrial black fabric that looks like the upholstery in the trunk of an old Buick. The top half is wallpapered, and a length of chrome serves as a chair-rail molding. The seats are patterned with pastel brushstrokes, like impressionist paintings on vinyl. Customers can also sit in the bar area or on the patio, which is usually packed tighter than a slaughterhouse holding pen.

Unable to find a reservation elsewhere, we decided to make the best of it. We ordered a bottle of wine, and the waiter promptly tipped over my glass. With no apology, he left us to sop up the mess with our napkins, and we had to ask for fresh ones. He replaced the spilled fumé blanc with a glass of house table wine, which we later discovered had been added to the bill. At our request, he removed the dripping stack of appetizer plates but did not bring dry ones. When we requested them, they arrived dirty. The server's blunders are forgivable, but his cynicism and contempt are not. This kind of high-handed waiter is the urban equivalent of the sniffing French maître d'. But instead of snubbing those outside the circle of café society, he heaps disdain on hapless squares who look suspiciously like SUV drivers or soccer moms. So much for tolerance and inclusiveness. Misfit conformists here are made to feel like an imposition. One night, we didn't choose our main courses quickly enough, so getting a meal became our problem. When we had finished our appetizers, we politely reminded the waiter that we hadn't yet ordered our entrées. "I know," he cooed, flashing me a saccharine smile. Chop-chop, sweetheart.

C. Whittaker's motley menu, euphemistically described as "eclectic," offers everything from pad thai to four-cheese fettuccine. It's as reliable and utilitarian as a set of all-season radials, constructed with seemingly little regard for what's fresh and ripe. Instead of crafting a limited menu of well-conceived dishes, recycling ingredients allows the chef to get more mileage out of them. Didn't know duck was versatile? Try it in duck-confit salad, duck-confit pizza, duck-confit sandwich and pan-roasted duck breast. Thought mayonnaise was just another condiment? Here it morphs into lemon mayo, lemongrass mayo, bleu-cheese mayo, sun-dried-tomato/basil mayo, horseradish mayo, artichoke-caper mayo and Creole garlic mayo (unless it's on a salad, in which case it becomes the fancified "Creole garlic aïoli"). The servers also lurched through descriptions of 10 or 12 specials, including half-a-dozen types of fish all prepared the same way.

Many of the dishes here fall into a category that my dining partner calls "soup food." Oversaucing a dish is an inexpensive way to increase plate coverage, which in turn improves customers' perception of value. Green-lipped mussels were so drenched in a bizarre Gorgonzola yellow-curry coconut sauce that the shells underneath might have been any color. Crab cakes had absorbed too much oil, as though the pan hadn't been hot enough. Chicken empanadas, petite crescents stuffed with green olives, raisins and bell peppers, left a pleasant impression of sweetness, with musky undertones of cumin. A soup special of gazpacho, oddly served in a tall coffee mug, had the processed flavor of V-8.

Among the entrées, we sampled a mixed grill of Certified Angus Beef and mahi-mahi so dry and stringy it could have passed for boiled chicken. Chilean sea bass, though, had retained the soft translucence characteristic of the fish. A pretty relish of diced tropical fruits and vegetables had been spooned over the fillet. Less memorable was a tub of bowtie pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and pale snow peas. A so-called pan-roasted duck breast had the desiccated quality of food that's done time in a warming oven. The waiter hadn't inquired how my guest wanted the bird prepared, and it arrived looking like duck jerky. Its delicate-sounding "orange honey tea sauce" had a bitter edge and more closely resembled country gravy.

After the meal, we were presented with the dessert tray, which always has a way of making even the most exquisite confections look like pathology specimens. The sweets at C. Whittaker's, purchased from a wholesale supplier, seem no less morbid when they're brought to the table. A slice of carrot cake was frosted with grainy icing, and the chocolate mousse was an anemic flesh color, with damp beads of condensation on its surface.

By our calculations, dinner at C. Whittaker's averaged about $25 per person, not including alcohol. For a tab that hefty, we could've dined down the street at Bar Italia or Zöe Pan-Asian Café, where food and wine are taken seriously and egos are kept in check. Best of all, clean restrooms are included in the price of a meal.

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