HOOTING MAY not be the right word to describe the reaction of most visitors to Hooters, Harborplace's new restaurant. Giggles and sheepish grins were more common among the curious clientele -- mostly men -- who came to lunch this week at the restaurant that opened Tuesday in the Light Street pavilion.
A predominantly Southern restaurant chain, and reportedly one of the fastest growing in the country, Hooters' claim to fame is its chicken wings and scantily clad waitresses. It was clear that the crowds during its first days of business hadn't come for the wings alone.
"We were just curious," said one banker who spent his lunch hour at the restaurant yesterday with three colleagues and preferred not to give his name. "The food was good," he added with a nervous laugh.
Hooters' waitresses wear short orange running shorts and white nTC tank tops drawn up tight under their well-endowed busts and knotted in the back. Their sleek pantyhose add a touch of glamour; their white running shoes suggest the all-American girl. Not one of them appears to be over 22.
It's an image more likely associated with halftime at the Dallas Cowboys' stadium than lunchtime at Harborplace, where family activities and upscale dining seems to have prevailed in the past. As one patron put it, "This might be considered a PG-13 kind of place."
Hooters apparently has built quite a reputation on this wings and breasts concept. It now has 46 restaurants, mostly in the South, and two of them at other Rouse Co. developments in Florida. In Addison, Texas, a Dallas suburb of about 9,000, a franchise is set to open soon, over the objections of Mayor Lynn Spruill.
"It concerns me that we are beginning to alter the flavor of our town," she says of the community that has banned bars and pool tables but that is home to about 45,000 workers by day. "This restaurant is certainly not family-oriented."
"You're drawing the late-teen, early 20s and mid-life crisis male," Spruill says. "I don't think a businessman would feel comfortable taking his wife there."
But the raised eyebrows don't seem to faze Harborplace management. "Harborplace is about fun and good times," says Kate Delano, public relations director of Harborplace and the Gallery, who says there is nothing about the restaurant that is out of keeping with the Harborplace tradition.
She says management expects families as well as business people to frequent the new establishment, although she adds that demographic studies indicate the chain's customers fall in the 25-50 age group.
"Maybe it's not for everyone," she concedes.
The division of labor in the restaurant is obvious: males sling the hash behind the counter; the young, shapely women are out front serving the customers. The few lasses not serving food are strategically placed at the entrance to hoola hoop for gawkers outside or just greet customers as they arrive.
Inside, a typical table of four is served by as many as three different women -- one to take your order and two to serve it. They bend to hear your order above the noise of the jukebox and stretch to clip it to a clothesline pulley that sends it to the cooks.
Hooters general manager Gary McCully says the Harborplace restaurant is "definitely going after the lunchtime crowd." He says downtown business people -- "men and women" -- are its target market. And he sees no reason why women wouldn't be as interested in eating there as men.
Expectations aside, 90 percent of yesterday's lunchgoers were male. One of the few women there was Debbie Bading, who walked over to Harborplace from the office with two women friends who also work downtown.
"I don't see anything wrong with it," she said of the parading pulchritude. "But I sure wouldn't bring my 13-year-old son and daughter in here. It's different seeing it on TV than it is in person."