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On the Chang Gang

At times, trendiness can be its own reward. That certainly seems to be the case at P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the sort of Chinese, sort of bistro, sort of Architectural Digest-style wonderland restaurant that opened up for business a little more than a month ago cater-cornered to River Oaks Burger Joint in Highland Village. Prior to serving their first meal, the managers of P.F. Chang's -- the Houston outpost of a chain that began in Scottsdale, Arizona, and has since spread to California; New Orleans is apparently next -- papered the city's nightclubs with the news of their imminent arrival. Getting the word out to partiers rather than gourmands might suggest that atmosphere is more important than food, and while the food has things to recommend about it, the truly fascinating thing about P.F. Chang's is the atmosphere.

On almost any night the restaurant is packed with revelers -- there's really no other word for them -- awaiting a table. Trend one: P.F. Chang's doesn't take reservations, which means a wait of an hour or two at peak time is not at all unusual. Asked whether people ever get upset by the wait, a server admitted that, yes, occasionally 120 minutes of heel cooling does cause some irritation, but that by the time the offended parties eat "they forget about it, because they have such a great time." Has P.F. Chang's ever considered reservations? No, the server cheerily replied, because so many people want to eat there, not all of them could get reservations. And that would disappoint the ones who were turned down.

Don't try to argue that no more people can eat without reservations than with (a full table is a full table); that's not the logic at work here. The logic is trend two: If you don't have to wait for it, it's not worth having. This trend has a correlative: If others aren't waiting impatiently for what you have, it's also not worth having. After all, what's the point of being beautiful and eating in style if nobody has their nose pressed up against the glass, wishing they were you?

Of course, you can avoid the wait by knowing about trend three: the table in the kitchen. The hot spot in California dining right now is the table next to where the chef is working. A few Houston restaurants have started to pick up on the idea, and P.F. Chang's is helping lead the pack. The table -- or tables, actually, two that seat eight each -- is tucked away behind the bar and in front of the food prepartion area. These Chef's Tables can be reserved, though they're much sought after and require booking many weeks in advance -- or so I was told, though one evening I cut short my wait by noticing the tables were empty and asking an accommodating hostess if I could leapfrog the crowd by sitting there. The supposed advantage of the table in the kitchen is that, in addition to seeing and feeling the hustle and bustle of the cooking in full swing, you can have private discussions with the executive chef. And all of that is true at P.F. Chang's, except that here the private discussions are more like shouting matches as you strive to make yourself heard.

Of course, it's no different anywhere else in the place. P.F. Chang's is not your typical small, friendly and intimate bistro. Despite an impressively imaginative interior design, which combines ancient Chinese statuary, hardwood flooring, rough limestone walls and carved limestone pillars with Oriental motifs, the totally open plan in which everything is visible makes it seem large and overbearing. The convivial crowds tend to be young, very hip, very loud and always in a party mood. Because the bar is such a draw (a bar in a Chinese restaurant? Don't ask), because the place seats 220 plus, because there are probably another 100 or so waiting at all times and because the ceiling is very high, the decibel level rises to where it is impossible to speak without shouting.

Despite all this, I have to admit that the server was right: By the time I left P.F. Chang's, little of this mattered. I did have a good time. Granted, if it's authentic regional Chinese cuisine that tempts your palate, there are plenty of places on Bellaire that do a whole lot better job. And granted, in the time you wait for your table at P.F. Chang's you could probably drive to Bellaire Boulevard, order, eat and be home. And further granted, it's peculiar to eat in a place that so boldly proclaims itself Chinese and see no Asian waiters, only one or two Asian faces in a sea of hundreds of patrons and only a single Asian face -- not Chinese, as it happens -- among the cookstaff. There aren't many chopsticks flying in P.F. Chang's.

Still, there is a Chinese heritage to the menu, which was created in part by Phillip Chang of Mandarin restaurant fame in Los Angeles and San Francisco; Paul Fleming (the P.F.), a New Orleans transplant with experience gained at a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, took Chang's food suggestions, surrounded them with some American glitz, and a hybrid was born.

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