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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Dive! for Food and Some Special-Effects Frolicking

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Prepare to dive,” a man barks over the public address system. The room darkens. Red lights flash. In the portholes, water bubbles furiously. Dozens of video monitors go black, except for cross hairs and the word DIVE . The 3-year-old girl at the next table looks about anxiously. Her mother, impervious, is trying to figure out what to do with the puff pastry stoppering the “bathysphere” bread bowl of beef stew. Calm as a stewardess in turbulence, the waitress drops off another Coke. “We have reached periscope depth,” the p.a. announces. “Captain,” asks a youthful voice, “what do you see?” In answer, Johnny Nash sings, “I can see clearly now . . . “

Groans at my table. This is our second dive of the evening. A shy friend turns bright red. “This restaurant makes me embarrassed to be a human in the ‘90s,” he says.

The first dive occurred shortly after we walked through the heavy front hatch and were sitting in a lounge off the bar waiting for a table. We played with a periscope, which actually gave us a spy’s eye view of Santa Monica Boulevard. On video monitors, fish and sea turtles swam, and a fat guy belly-flopped into a swimming pool. We admired curved steel girders, and the convincing, insulated underwater ambience of this extravagant postmodern simulacrum of a submarine. (Director Steven Spielberg and Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg are investors.)

Dive!--this restaurant-cum-theme-park--seems designed for people who want maximum entertainment from their surroundings. For some reason, the menus are sprinkled with puns and quotations from Byron, Whitman, Shakespeare, Sting. “Put your talent in your work and your genius in your life.” That’s Oscar Wilde.

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Besides such wit, the menu also offers food: starters, salads, wood-roasted entrees, those peculiar stewy things served in hollowed-out bread loaves and, of course submarine sandwiches.

Sturdy Dive! fries are delicious, as are the crispy threads of “angel hair” onion rings. But the assorted dipping sauces we try--homemade ketchup and barbecue sauce, black olive sauce and Cheddar cheese sauce--are each worse than the next.

The kitchen has a wood oven and a propensity for throwing just about anything into it. Roasted mushrooms have a good smokiness, but a roasted artichoke stuffed with Brie, overdone and under-inspired, proves a questionable venture. Our terrific waitress, Jane, takes it off our bill. A special entree, oven-roasted salmon steak, loses points for dryness.

The meat in the chicken salad is also overdone. Caesar dressing is too gummy to soak into croutons. A grilled vegetable salad, minced so that all the ingredients are the size of the corn kernels, would be better if the vinaigrette weren’t so sweet. Better stick with the subs.

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My personal favorite is the big, juicy Italian meatball sub with a sauce that’s essentially a ratatouille. For five dollars more, the brick oven Tuscan steak sub offers considerably less pleasure. Vegetarians have good luck with both hot and cold subs: one cold sandwich stacks goat cheese, sauteed spinach, roasted peppers and tomatoes on a black olive baguette, which is actually a bit too bready. The hot sub combines meaty grilled portobello mushrooms with arugula, red peppers and thin purple wisps of marinated onions.

There is also a wide selection of beef, chicken and tuna “sub-burgers” and hey, ground ahi patties aren’t so bad.

I’d pit the lemon bars stuck in white chocolate mousse and the S’mores against any dessert in California for their Leviathan size and sugar content.

Like the other lavishly appointed theme restaurant franchises that seem to be popping up in the ‘90s--Thunder Road House, House of Blues--Dive! is fully merchandised. T-shirts, baseball caps, dog tag necklaces and five different jackets are sold at the shop by the front door. Want a souvenir menu? $5.

* Dive!, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 788-DIVE. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Full bar. Valet parking. Dinner for two, food only $22-$56.


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