Hidden Valley Haven

This longtime favorite is still serving up fun and good food

The Hidden Valley Inn is a truly a Tucson landmark. With its wild-West décor, a menu featuring delicious red meats and live music heavy on country, Hidden Valley Inn is what people back East imagine all Tucson restaurants to look like.

John and I popped in on a busy Saturday night. Hidden Valley only takes reservations for parties of eight or more (and there were plenty of those there that night), so we sat in the Red Garter Saloon nursing a beer and a glass of wine while we waited for our table.

The bar is decked out like a movie saloon, complete with swinging doors. A huge mural of a steam engine pulling in to old-time Tucson is painted on one wall. Antiques are everywhere! The only thing missing is Miss Kitty. I can't say our first bartender would've passed Miss Kitty's standards for customer service--he was actually kind of rude and certainly slow--but the other young man behind the bar more than made up for his partner's weaknesses.

If you visit with kids and don't feel comfortable in the bar, tour the dioramas that line the lobby walls, depicting comical Western scenes, complete with moving parts and hand-carved figurines. You'll be amazed at all the details. There's also a game room and a small room with kiddie rides.

Our wait wasn't long, and we were escorted into the Hayloft, which is Hidden Valley's immense dining hall. It's a barn of a room with a 20-foot-high ceiling that has exposed wooden rafters. Saddles, saws and surreys line a mezzanine that completely surrounds the room.

Large parties filled the tables. A lone musician/singer was belting out tunes from Marshall Tucker to "Happy Birthday" (every birthday person got their very own rendition). The wait staff was moving like a well-oiled machine. While one might think all of this would be overly loud and distracting, it wasn't. Instead, all that activity created a wonderful, fun atmosphere.

In spite of covering several tables with large parties, our server was at our table in just a few minutes with a large smile and a great attitude. She took our order and rushed off to help other servers bring food to another table.

John went with a full rack of Hidden Valley's barbecue pork ribs ($20.99) and a jumbo shrimp cocktail ($8.99) for an appetizer. I ordered the 18 ounce T-bone ($20.99) and a tumbleweed ($5.99), which is the restaurant's version of a bloomin' onion.

Other menu choices include Italian, Mexican and seafood entrées. The kids' menu goes beyond burgers. Youngsters can pick from a shrimp dinner, prime rib, hot dogs, mac 'n' cheese and more.

We watched the "show" unfold in front of us. Off to the side was a party of 16 senior citizens celebrating a 70th birthday. Directly in front of us was a family consisting of a grandmother and grandfather, several other adults and four kids ranging in ages from 7 or so on down to a baby. Further down was another family party, again with three generations of folks. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, was having a great time.

Our appetizers arrived, and I couldn't believe the size of my tumbleweed. It was easily big enough to keep a large party happy. Piping hot, the breading had a perfect crisp to it with nary a drop of grease and just the right amount of seasoning (not too salty, if you know what I mean). The onion inside was all soft and sweet--a wonderful balance of taste and texture.

John's shrimp weren't so jumbo, and the presentation was pretty simple--one of those chilled metal soufflé cups that were used back in the '60s. But the cocktail sauce was fantastic. It really packed a wallop from a healthy dose of horseradish. It was just how we make it at home.

The appetizers were whisked away just as our salads arrived. There was nothing fancy about the salads, but the blue cheese dressing was different. It was vinaigrette with tons of crumbled blue cheese. Very good!

The steaks also arrived with perfect timing.

My steak was a tad underdone, but not so much so that it needed to be sent back to the kitchen. Damn near an inch thick, it filled the plate with just enough room for my foil-wrapped baked potato (served with healthy dollops of butter and sour cream, of course). The steak, in spite of its "doneness," was tender and full of flavor. Seasoned so as not to over power the natural flavors of the beef and mesquite grill, it was an ideal Western-style steak.

John's ribs were the highlight of the evening. The ribs, too, had been cooked over a mesquite fire and were topped with a hickory-smoked barbecue sauce that was a nice change from most of those ketchup-based sauces found elsewhere. The beans on the side were also top-notch. John ate every last one of them.

We ordered the grande chocolate cake ($5.59) for dessert. We had to take it to go, as we were totally satiated from the wonderful meal. It was so big that we ate the sinfully delicious dessert for two days.

Lunch proved my theory that a restaurant works much better when the place is busy. We went on a Sunday and found the place practically empty. We also discovered that only dinner-menu items are served on Sundays.

John ordered a cheeseburger with fries ($6.99), and I went with the prime rib and a baked sweet potato ($14.99). I also ordered a side skewer of grilled shrimp ($4.29)

Service was sketchy--they forgot to bring my salad, and communication among the multiple servers was nonexistent. John's burger was overdone, and the fries were just short of cold. But my prime rib was tender and juicy, and the sweet potato was a nice touch. The shrimp were fair--nicely flavored but small. All in all, if you want the true Hidden Valley Inn experience, go for dinner.

A discussion of the Hidden Valley Inn wouldn't be complete without a mention of The Crystal Palace, Hidden Valley's entertainment venue. Reservations are needed for the dinner shows that range from celebrity impersonators to magicians to the Sons of the Pioneers. There are also matinees. Call ahead for info.

In many ways, an evening at The Hidden Valley Inn is like a trip back in time. It was a "concept" restaurant before the concept of concept restaurants ever came about. But there's also a sort of '50s feel to the place--a time when food and fun, not trends, were the reasons why people went out to eat.

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