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OUT TO LUNCH

Compared to Flat Pennies, the menu at the six-month-old Stars comes up short. Still, this self-billed "sports garden" isn't a bad spot for lunch--especially if you're a big guy who regards a plate of ribs and a platter-sized salad as a midday snack. Although Stars is owned by nine real stars--sports figures Brian Fisher, Jay Humphries, Mike Pritchard and Steve Sewell, to name a few--the setup is more sports gallery than bar, with a comfortable, fun, casual feel that includes a few whimsical touches such as the small televisions nestled in the walls at the end of each booth.

The understated atmosphere was intentional. "We didn't want this to be a typical sports bar, like a Jackson's Hole," says general manager Bob Crowley. "We didn't come down here because of Coors Field. We wanted this to stand on its own." But the supercharged staff does its bit, too, as do a few winning dishes I've found on the menu. The Ruffin's Reuben ($6.50) is a tasty if sloppy take on the classic; the corned beef was excellent but haphazardly sliced so that huge, jagged portions stuck out from under the pumpernickel, where the meat kept company with flawless Thousand Island-soaked sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. The chicken burrito ($6.75) was football-sized, with a mean, clean-tasting green chile smothering the flour tortilla wrapped around Spanish rice, cheddar, jalapenos and chunks of intensely flavored, mesquite-grilled chicken.

After that dish, though, the kitchen chickened out on flavor. The grilled, slightly dry breast in the chicken sandwich ($6.50) was unexciting, and the additions of honey Dijon mustard and Jack cheese didn't do much to spice things up. The boneless chicken wings ($5.25) came with great dressings--a rich ranch and a zesty blue cheese--but the wings themselves were rubbery and dry. The lemon chicken ($7.95) was mediocre, and the chicken fettuccine Alfredo ($8.50) wasn't worth finishing, much less discussing.

An order of the Danish baby-back ribs ($11.95) brought a heaping portion of nice meat, but the heat-free barbecue sauce was bland and the side of "Ma Crowley's" baked beans blander. Blander still were the steak fries that seem to come with just about everything. The real loser, though, was the Bronco burger ($5.50), as raw as a second-round draft pick on the first day of training camp--even though I'd asked for medium-rare--yet somehow cooked to a crisp on the outside. And those were some of the more delicate items on the menu.

Stars would do well to take a hint from its winning decor and lighten up its lunchtime offerings. Crowley says the owners have been talking about creating a lunch menu that would appeal to businesspeople looking for a quick bite; I say they should do that yesterday if they want to give Stars a sporting chance at a second season.

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