ROCKVILLE PIKE doesn't really need December. Any night of the year, it's the Coney Island of Montgomery County, a carnival midway strung with headlights. The plazas light up like bumper-car rinks, reflecting the brief, fluorescent aurora of franchised good cheer. The yowls of in-store stereos hang over the malls like the recorded wails of spook houses; and the traffic rides so close, crawling and halting in unison, that there is a queasy sense of motion even at stoplights, the stomach-jerking illusion that one car is slipping backward as another rolls up.
Nevertheless, the holiday season pushes Purchase Pike to new heights (or depths); and not coincidentally, drives even ordinarily temperate commuters into the arms of the mix monde. A reasonable response. But even there, it helps if you can maintain a certain sardonic humor, because a brew-thru tour of Rockville Pike is like a time warp into decorator hell. If we'd just invested in Victoriana replicana, or even a re-chromer machine, we really would be recession-proof.
Incidentally, we're ready to declare a boycott of shopping malls in which each individual store's loudspeakers do PA battle with the canned carols from the atrium. In fact, let's expand malls' musical horizons. Demand some Kwanzaa beat, music to revive the savaged breast. Or, as one of our T-shirts reads, "Let's sing something in Hebrew next year."
FRIDAY ISN'T A DAY, it's a state of mind; and although they've never formally articulated it, the TGI Friday's folks are dedicated to the proposition that the DayRunner can be overruled. And to a remarkable degree, the Friday's in Rockville has succeeded in its mission -- not because of any particular novelty in its menu or decor, but because it has hired a notably attractive staff and set them to work making patrons feel valued.
Like all Friday's, this one is heavy into wood and "storefront" advertisement boards and leaded glass (the glassed-in telephone booth is cleverly divided into two triangular stations, one a half-level higher than the other; but not so cleverly, there is no wall between them, and the doors are more attractive than accessible). The menu is classic Friday's, too, which is broad enough to accommodate both hearty and healthy appetites.
However, the Rockville Friday's is smaller than many of its franchise brethren (including the one in Greenbelt) or its kissing cousins nearby -- Houston's, Bennigan's, Fritzbe's, etc. This actually works in Friday's favor, since a smaller room seems friendlier and allows for better service. Employees not only introduce themselves in a natural fashion (no "I'm Winnie and I'll be your bartress tonight") but make a real effort to remember your name from visit to visit -- the hallmark of a good local tavern. And frankly, a local tavern is something Rockville has a hard time fostering.
The final polish is the happy hour food, which is not just varied (carved ham sandwhiches, hot pasta) but often personalized. Mini-wok versions of chicken chow mein (Rob's is crunchier, but Kristine's szechuan version is great, and comes with chopsticks) are sauteed up one or two servings at a time and hand-delivered to customers. Now that's good service.
TAYLORED FOR THE TIMES: At the other end of the service trend is the once-jammed Oscar Taylor's, which is noticeably quiet these evenings. Could it have something to do with the less-happy hour policy, which has taken the free nibblies off the bar except on Friday (which, perhaps not coincidentally, remains packed)? As a back-handed complement, Oscar Taylor's has replaced the hors d'oeuvres with half-priced buffalo wings, laden potato skins and fried onion rings -- nothing any of those Holiday ESPREfolks are apt to find a good excuse for indulging in, post-workout. This isn't so much recession thinking as recessive thinking -- to save a few bucks on crudites and lose a few hundred on bar tabs.
FATTY'S & FRIENDS: There's a more cheerful, expansionist philosophy evident up the Pike at Fatty's, the government/Metro center's own beer bar-cum-rendezvous nook (and one of the few Rockville spots that might qualify as a local joint). Fatty's has become so robust that it's knocked out the walls into an adjoining corridor, and now seats a lively 270 patrons. It's easier on the eyes, too, without all that rec-room paneling and, apparently, with a little stronger smoke-ventilation system. (We do sorta miss that strange news board, the one that mixed sports scores and headlines with astrological capsules; it was a perversely likeable bit of vox populi among the pettifoggery.)
Conversely, as the club is enlarging, owners Bob and Patty Wills are dieting. This is no joke: If they're not careful, those mugs with Fatty's mug may have to be redesigned.
THE MIRACLE HALF-MILE: More than 60,000 cars chugging up and down Rockville Pike every day, and you think we notice one missing car? Well, we do -- at least when it's a maraschino cherry-red 1950 Studebaker Champion.
Yes, greasers and geezers, the blunt-nosed beauty that served for three years as the living logo of Studebaker's has disappeared from its parking space in front of the Days Inn at Congressional Plaza. But it hasn't been booted; it's merely moseyed across the Pike into the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, where it stands in splendor in the corridor. And a good thing, too, since the parking at that complex is notoriously awful. At least it has a Metro stop in the rear.
The whole soda shoppe stage set that is Studebaker's has been moved, in fact, into the former Chaser's, replacing the latest "theme" bar there, a sports playground. The happy-hour buffet remains generous but curiously tasteless, though for a $1 cover how much should you expect from beef stroganov? The kids (there is no other way to describe them) who work at Studebaker's remain cheerful and, considering the Fonzie fantasy it promotes, improbably wholesome. And they still bounce out from behind the bars to the front of the DJ booth to saddle-shoe their choreographed "Shotgun" number. However, the only real bit of nostalgia therein is the fact that these dancers may have heard the Jerk described ("wave one hand in the air . . ."), but they've obviously never seen it done. Or they learned it watching Arsenio Hall. Somebody get out there and show them what spinal cracker really means.
PREVIEW REVUE: The Triangle Club of Princeton would be just another undergraduate theatrical troupe if it weren't for its list of alums: Founded a century ago by Booth Tarkington, it turned romantic F. Scott Fitzgerald to comedy (temporarily, anyway), introduced architecture major James Stewart to acting, and communicated the acting bug to Jose Ferrer. Each musical production is all new, all original; this year it includes a teenage mutant ninja cockroach kickline that should alone be worth the price of admission -- $20 advance reserved, $15 general admission, $8 high school students. The performance is at Bethesda's Landon School, 6101 Wilson Lane; call 703/660-6848).