Had the unique chance this past weekend to eat at both places on the same night (a long story). Although we'd been to both many times before, never did we do a "side by side" tasting. Here's the scoop - HP wins, hands down, although AJ's does an excellent job at what it does.
AJ's is a large, family-style dining hall, very crowded with lots of people waiting as they don't take reservations. They open at 4:00 and by 4:30 there is a 20 min wait. Lots of hokum, western memorabilia everywhere (stuffed bears, heads, enough lanterns to light NYC, etc.). Noisey. The food is, IMHO, unremarkable, at best. However, the value is exceptional. Sampled the pork ribs (huge portion but fatty and bland sauce), the fettuccine alfredo (not bad, but really needed salt, pepper, nutmeg and more cheese), the rib eye ($28, cooked charred rare as requested, but way too much Santa Maria seasoning). With any entree you get soup (ladeled from a communial iron pot) black beans (easily the best menu item, dark smokey flavor with hints of salt pork), and salsa. The drill is to mix the beans and salsa into your soup. The soup, incidently, is a veggie with a wonderful broth. This course is a meal in itself. Then comes the salad, an uninspired iceberg lettuce with a beet slice and carrot shavings. The blue cheese dressing was watery. We had to ask for ground pepper. The garlic bread was included, and the party seemed to like it although I didn't think the crust had enough character. The best part (aside from those beans) was the dessert - you get a choice of ice cream sundae, root beer float or selected liquers. Get the root beer float to go. The bargain is the "Extra Plate," which is the soup, beans, salsa, bread salad and dessert for $8.95. Can't beat that bargain, and ordering that allowed Mrs. Swift and me to go to HP after dropping off the old folks. The service was superb, warranting a 30% tip. 3 of our party of 7 were over 87 (with the attendant cognative problems) and our server handled them beautifully. AJ's is good for birthdays, large parties and families, but I wouldn't go there for a food experience.
Now to HP. No reservation, but at 8:30 the place was full and we had a 10 min wait. No Circus-Circus atmosphere like AJ's, but a sedate place infused with the aroma of red oak. No lanterns. Escellent martinis (AJ's come in a teeny-weeny glass). You start with a pretty much run of the mill veggie tray of onions, carrots, celery and radishes, but the radishes and green onions are ice cold and very crisp. Chose the soup, which was pinquinto bean with a hint of bacon. A good idea but the chef apparantly left his seasonings at home as they were bland with not even a strong bean flavor. As always the grilled artichoke ($7) was wonderful, nicely charred and with a great tomato ancho chile pesto sauce (which they now sell for home use). Ordered the 8 oz filet ($29) charred very rare. It was superb, beautifully charred dark, rare after the outside 1/4 inch and actually chilled in the center. Delicious. Opted for the fries as HP is one of the few places I know of that frys in lard (in addition to oil). Twice fried, the potatoes are crunchy on the outside and golden creamy inside. Sublime. Now, after 2 dinners, it was time to quit. Had to finish the Highliner Pinot, however. The service was attentive but not intrusive. HP is dark, whereas AJ's is bright. Completely different atmosphere and, if you're looking for a food experience as opposed to the best bang for the buck, it should get the nod over AJ's.