Yes, there have been some successes in this Disneyesque genre. But we're talking about a mouse who wears a baseball cap and encourages children to eat pizza while they play arcade games or perhaps a clown with red hair who hawks hamburgers that have dubious nutritional value. In the family-entertainment and fast-food meal replacement world, I have no quibble with such brand representation. But I have yet to see an eatery that wants to offer a true sit-down experience take this approach and work it to advantage.
Case in point: Peyton's Place in the new Crowne Plaza, located not-so-strategically across from Sawgrass Mills, if you consider that it's hard to see from the main road. According to the prose on the menu, the restaurant is coined for the Peyton family, who are "descendants of British nobility, and said to have close ties to such colorful historical figures such as Lady Godiva and Marie Antoinette." Specifically, Peyton's Place honors "John B. 'Buzz-Saw' Peyton, a bit of a black sheep, true, but one who carries on the fine Peyton tradition of good ole' Southern Hospitality" whose "keen intellect and wise homespun ways have caused world leaders, sports figures and entertainers to seek out his counsel over the years."
The décor reflects the myth: The pictures on the walls range from Buzz-Saw playing John Hancock and signing the Declaration of Independence to him crossing the Delaware with George Washington. Apparently, Buzz-Saw also enjoys a "thirst-quenching drink and watching good sport in the company of his many friends." This translates to a multitude of TVs broadcasting NASCAR races -- kind of an anachronism if you take the thrust of the theme as seriously as Buzz-Saw takes his beer -- the noise of which echoes, like the rattan chairs scraping the tiles, off the pastel-hued floor.
Naturally, Peyton's Place is constructed, like all theme restaurants, on a foundation of good-spirited fun. But on the scale of cute, Peyton's Place falls about as short as a child with a pug nose does of a long-lived modeling career. As for his "many friends" and "Southern Hospitality," we were just about the only potential pals in the place on the evening we visited, and it still took the bartender 15 minutes to acknowledge our presence and slide a brown ale in our general direction.
Service improved once we got to a table, though I would have been shocked had the waitress not been attentive and friendly given that we were her only table just about all evening long. Indeed, she informed us that the four-month-old eatery was almost always this quiet. I'd venture the location, in the back of the hotel off the main road, isn't helping attract would-be Buzz-Saw buddies. But if you go strictly by a meal, which starts off with warm, just-baked rolls and concludes with sweets like a candied apple crisp and down-home strawberry shortcake, it's a shame more folks haven't ventured forth.
In fact, many of the preparations here tasted homemade, a boast that this "casual-gourmet" eatery makes in its press releases. Clearly, the chunks of blue cheese in the dressing that accompanied crisp wings had been mixed in with a generous hand. The crabmeat stuffing the buttery mushroom appetizer contained less filler than the norm and offered good, garlicky flavors. I was also impressed by the potato salad, made with sweet young potatoes and good-quality mayonnaise with judicious amounts of onion and celery, that came with the hamburger -- though it's simple to make, most restaurants order this type of extra direct from the factory.
On the other hand, the lack of business is starting to tell in some of the fare's freshness. It's a good thing the potato salad was so filling, because the hamburger it partnered was a hunk of spoiled meat. Ditto for a 12-ounce New York strip steak, rank with refrigerator age rather than dry age. The glitch that occurred when we ordered it should have given us a clue: Though the menu claims the kitchen will custom-cut larger portions at $1 per ounce, the server informed us this practice had been halted because carnivorous customers had thus far been few and far between. To her credit, the waitress was horrified by the spoilage and deleted the item from the check, replacing it with rosemary-scented pork chops at no charge. Smothered with peppers and onions, the chops were a bit chewy but a welcome flavor replacement over the steak and burger.
When the meat's bad, I usually hold no high hopes for seafood, but in this case, the shrimp and fish proved that a purveyor had visited the back door recently. A "scampi trio" provided us with mahi-mahi, jumbo shrimp, and a boneless breast of chicken, all dressed in a butter-garlic sauce. Although we could have used a bit more seasoning and a lighter touch of fire on the shrimp, this was a pleasant dish. Another main course, chicken Française over linguine, was a little too slick with shortening and a touch too tart with lemon, but again, the pounded chicken was moist, and the portion was pleasing.
Still, I would stick with less high-end fare. For instance, the rock shrimp bisque, served in a bread bowl, is a delicious bargain for $3.95. Pair it with an order of fried mozzarella half moons, a good, crunchy example of fried cheese, or a caesar salad that exhibited a favorable Parmesan cheese-garlic crouton ratio and you can get out of Peyton's Place for less than $15. You may not, as the menu asserts, become Buzz-Saw's "friend for life." But when there's nothing much going on and no one else to hang out with, all told, Buzz-Saw isn't that demanding a companion.