THE GOOD NEWS is, pool has lost its panache. No more (well, fewer) cigarette advertisements and soap opera fantasy sequences featuring long languid bank shots and low glances. No more (well, less frequent) suggestions by male restaurant yentas that women patrons "look their best" deep into the bridge position. And positively no more bulgy homoerotic cycle racks from hell at the defunct Iron City.
But what pool has given up in pomp, it has more than gained in circumstance. Billiards is back to being a pastime rather than a performance (always a better idea); and one of the best places not to make a big deal about who breaks and who benders is at Shootz in Bethesda, a mixed-milieu cafe whose cheery, cheeky parody of a half-dozen retro and nouveau trends is only half the fun. The other is the primarily young-to-middle, non-noir, non-pin-striped and non-polyester crowd; and a particularly attractive and practical staff.
Shootz's decor is both attractive and allusive. For the billiard-parlor look, there's a plain and deceptively expansive polished wood bar, classic green-felt tables and Conran's/retro-tech green shade and chrome lamps overhead. For the pseudo-deco, a few restrained fillips of neon tubing and terra-cotta colored walls whose decorations, at first glances slender wooden grilles, turn out to be generous racks of cues.
The centerpiece of the main room is a small but endearing salute to the social graces -- an overstuffed leather armchair and sofa in front of a deco-tech hearth enclosing a real wood fire. (Shootz's lounge thus also wins Doctor Nightlife's First Fireplace Award of the '90-'91 season.)
There is also an outdoor area, a sort of English-basement patio out front, that manages to make you feel attached to the cafe rather than the traffic -- a first for Bethesda bistros.
Shootz is, as it says, a cafe rather than a restaurant, with a somewhat limited bar and a short but varied menu that reflects the same eclectic humor. (At least, we think that's what's going on here.) There are also several menu trends taking fun pies in the face here, including New South (pulled pork barbecue, dilled chicken salad), New Southwest (barbecued chicken with Monterey Jack cheese, lime soup, black bean chili) and Never-Never Land Southwest (a "Chinese sweet and sour chicken burrito"). The monkeyshines reach King Kong class with the Frito Chili Pie, a great-gape version on traditional nachos; and a wiseguys' wonder, white pizza topped with lasagna.
There's even a nod to the revived diner craze with the Pronto Pups (a fabled and often fatal Southern corn dog on a stick) and a truly spectacular malted milkshake, plus pies, sundaes and splits.
Nothing on the menu tops $7.50, which is also the cost of one of the best lunch specials around: For $7.50, you get a sandwich, a soda and a half-hour (each) of table time, so for $15 two people can have their break and eat it, too.
Table time generally runs $10 an hour, although "prime time" Friday and Saturday, 7 till 2, is $15 up to four players.
Other fringe benefits include a smoke-free game room (the one without dinner tables), Mark Twain posters whose sale benefits children's charities and an admirably forthcoming staff who will tell you such tidbits as (1) in seven minutes it will be draft-for-a-dollar time and (2) that the free happy-hour buffet is so good you should quit driving yourself crazing trying to decide what to order. And in fact, it is.
The only thing is, that framed photo of women in a long languid bridge position hanging in the ladies' room . . . oh, well, at least it's Chanel.
Incidentally, we've noticed food and beverage establishments are still fumbling for a nonsexist term for those hardy souls who deliver your orders. "Waitrons" is often too hip (although there are some real zombies out there), "wait staff" is only too suggestive ("server" can be too); and "wait folk," while affectionate, seems inappropriate for more formal spots. We're willing to take suggestions. (Personally, we think of all purveyors of fine food and spirits as heroes.)
DIAL-A-DEMENTO: Ever since the Pheromones' "Jailhouse Iraq" made Dr. Demento's Top 5, and he announced their 800 number, the upwardly-phobile pair has been getting some really strange calls -- like the ones from the guards at a Michigan juvenile detention center, who reported that their inmates really rock out to the Pheromones! And a scientifically misguided college coed from upstate New York called for a bottle of their perfume. Dial 800/448-4686 and try it yourself.
Better yet, drop by the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church to see the Pheromones as they host an alternative cabaret for now times -- a sort of rally against the angst in our ranks.
"Live! at the Cedar Lane Stage" ($12.50; 800/448-4686) also features Jamy Ian Swiss ("The Kid Creole of card tricks . . . both visible and risible" -- we said that for a laugh); the rollicking guitar-violin duo Whiskey Tango ("A phrase, a statement, a floor wax" -- they said that for a laugh) and the Fresh Victims comedy troupe (they'll say anything for a laugh). The bill is completed by the urban-cowgirlish common sense of Tracy McDonnell and the Estrogenics, the latest generation of Blue Shift, about whom we've also said lots of things for a laugh. And they're worth it.
TRASH FLASH: The novice but soon-to-be-notorious Ubangis, a frantic '50s jocks-vox sleazy frathouse punk-rockabilly described by co-founder "Your Pal" Brian D. Horrorwitz as "Little Richard meets Stiv Bators" -- trashy but not offensively offensive -- doubles with kissing cuzzins the Wanktones Saturday at d.c. space ($5; 202/347-1445).
The Ubangis have strong bloodlines, so to speak: "Horrorwitz" (would you use your real name in a case like this?) is a member of the cool-ghoul Date Bait headed by Kim Kane, who is still a Wanktone though no longer a Slickee Boy; and lead guitarist "Stinky" Rob Hornung slugs out from Monsters from the Surf. The quartet is completed by drummer Johnny McBangi and rhythm guitarist Jason Thrust (yeah, yeah).
The bad news is pretty soon there'll be no Slickee Boys at all. After all those years of being Europe's favorite Washington band, the Boys are calling it quits with a grand slam weekend at the 9:30 club Dec. 28 and 29, featuring all sorts of past and current Slickees and siblings and strange stuff. Now we know the '90s aren't gonna be fun.