“Just go through those doors and take a left,” the bartender chirps, directing me to the bathroom. She makes it sound like a simple journey, but it’s not. Dave & Buster’s is a coliseum of virtual experiences. There’s a “Show Room,” which hosts karaoke and a “Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre”; in the same room there’s also a 9-by-12-foot big screen on which sports figures appear life-size. You have to pay to get a spot at a table in the “D&B Casino,” but no real money is wagered and no prizes of any kind are awarded to victors. There are pool tables occupying two separate areas near the bar, which could be any neighborhood saloon except that it’s not in any neighborhood but on the third floor of White Flint Mall.

On the other side of the doors the bartender points me through is the Midway, a virtual amusement park where customers swing real golf clubs and baseball bats at images of balls that are projected onto images of playing fields. Plastic approximations of motorcycles, race cars, and snowboards are set up facing treacherous, computer-generated terrains so realistic you can almost feel gravity pulling at your organs even when you’re just watching. Which reminds me that I can’t locate the bathroom. If I could find just a sketch of a urinal I’d piss in it.

I should mention there’s a restaurant here as well, and it’s popular. Dave & Buster’s was conceived in Little Rock, Ark., born in Texas, and destined to come of age in a mall. The location in White Flint is D&B’s first operation inside a consumer mecca—it feels as if it takes up the space of an anchor tenant—and on busy nights tables are nearly as hard to come by as Tickle Me Elmos. Every time I go to dine in the “Grand Dining Room” I have to put my name in, and each time I’m told I’ll have to wait 45 minutes for a table—D&B-speak for an hour and a half. On Super Bowl Sunday, I’m fortunate enough to snag a small table near the bar; a man actually offers me cash to give it up.

That people are so willing to fuss for the food here is, at first, a wonder. The menu is T.G.I.Friday’s-chic—mostly bar food supplemented by trendy items like “gourmet” pizzas and dumbed-down versions of relatively adventurous dishes such as shrimp Orleans and pasta paesano.

Your best chance for averting disaster is to order conservatively; little creativity is used in preparing the buffalo wings, the nachos, the calamari, and the burgers, which is a good thing. When the bartender asks me, when I order a salad, if I like olives, I think she’s just making chitchat. But there are olives—the black, canned kind—all over my Caesar, and they don’t belong there. There’s a yellow film coating the spinach and artichoke dip, and it takes only one taste to confirm that it’s old. A waitress recommends the Hawaiian BBQ chicken pizza. She calls it “nifty”; I call it nasty, a train-wreck marriage of barbecue sauce, chicken, and onion topped with gouda and cilantro. The grilled mahi-mahi is brushed with a honey glaze that has no business on seafood. The blackened chicken pasta is gummy, and my friend comments that it tastes as if it came out of a box. It seems humorous to me that entrees like the shrimp kabobs (wrapped in bacon and disturbingly undercooked) come atop a “bed” of french fries, but then the fries are the best part.

I could go on, but I would be ignoring Dave & Buster’s main purpose. Customers don’t come here to eat, really. They’re here to wait.

The bulk of the customers gathers in the Midway to pass the time until the loudspeaker notifies them that their tables are ready. I was only an occasional arcade-dweller as a kid. What I remember from those days is my being marginally proficient at Defender, games’ costing a quarter, and lines being bearable. In D&B’s Midway, Defender skills get you nowhere. Coins aren’t of much use, either—the games accept cards, which initially cost a dollar and then must be credited with additional funds in order to work. And I see more people waiting their turn at games than actually playing. No one looks bored, however. There’s a bar. On D&B’s virtual racetracks, it seems drinking is encouraged.

The games themselves are impressive things to observe, although it seems logical that actually playing them is a major letdown; you shouldn’t expect more from a virtual adventure than the mere implication of fun. Watching my friend play a driving game, I’m more amused than he is. He’s near the lead by the end of his race, when his seat starts to shake as he veers off the road into the ditch. Cars rear-end him as he tries to re-enter the race. His seat shakes some more. Trying to make up ground, he floors it through the last two curves. Again, his seat rattles as he skids into walls.

He ends up finishing second, and I’m so impressed by his nervy comeback that I thrust my fist in the air. It’s an exponentially greater thrill than anything provided by the kitchen, but before I can even finish asking him if the game was worth the money, he interrupts: “No.”

Dave & Buster’s, 11301 Rockville Pike, “North Bethesda.” (301) 230-5151.

Hot Plate:

A few miles down the road from White Flint is Peter’s Carry Out. Despite what its name suggests, Peter’s is a neighborhood diner. When a regular arrives, a guy behind the counter is bound to shout, “There he is!” and then lean an elbow on the counter to ask, “What’ll it be?” Such clichés are charming, but so is the bilingual employee who engages Spanish-speaking customers and lets out a you-shouldn’t-have “ohhh” when I tip him a buck. I’m a sucker for the meatball sandwiches, but the corned-beef sub I get on the day Peter’s is out of meatballs is a beauty, too. It’s topped off with a tangy pile of slaw, and it’s a chore just to get your mouth around it. Best of all, ask someone here to make your fries extra crispy and they know what you’re talking about.

Peter’s Carry Out, 8017 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda proper. (301) 656-0480.—Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.