LIKE NEON GRAFFITI SCRAWLED across the nightscapes of shopping malls, the signs of chain restaurants are magnets for appetites stimulated by TV commercials. The chains vie for diners' dollars by offering lots of happy faces and bottomless bowls of pasta for $7.95; dozens of shrimp for about what they would cost at a supermarket; Bloomin' Onions and Shrimp on the Barbie; and glistening spareribs made irresistible by the catchiness of the "Baby back, baby back, baby back" jingle.
Olive Garden, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse, and Chili's are commercial presences during the early-evening news, but unlike upscale dining chains like Smith & Wollensky, Fleming's, and Legal Sea Foods, they are almost never reviewed by food critics and so get to paint their own rosy pictures on television.
The chains are not without critics in the restaurant business. Several Washington restaurateurs have banded together to form the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA). The group's founder, Bob Kinkead, claims that independent restaurants are being threatened by the chains.
That he is the chef/proprietor of the very popular Kinkead's and its Tysons Corner offspring, Colvin Run Tavern, might make his protestations a bit suspect. After all, Kinkead's averages 450 customers a day, a figure the chef has claimed for much of the last ten years. It doesn't look as though Kinkead's has lost many customers to Red Lobster or even to the nearby Legal Sea Foods. Kinkead's establishments would seem impervious to assaults from the casual-dining chains.
Is Kinkead crying wolf? When asked, he could not name a member of CIRA that had closed--or was in danger of closing--because of the chains. He then accuses chains of "pilfering creative ideas" from independents but laughingly admits that independents do more pilfering from each other than the chains do from them. The pilfering example he offers is Maggiano's Little Italy, whose setting and gargantuan portions of Italian-American fare were inspired by Carmine's, the original feed-'em-till-they-bust place in New York.
Two areas should be of concern to independents facing increasing competition from chains: the availability of competent people to staff kitchens and dining rooms, and rising rents. Independents in the fine-dining category have less to fear than the more moderately priced independents: From line cooks to sous chefs, Kinkead's takes its pick of kitchen talent because a stint in this national-class restaurant is a résumé booster. As for floor staff, the best servers aspire to find a post where the money is.
The real threat of upscale chains, Kinkead says, is the chains' ability to pay just about any rent in high-demographic locations, thus raising the benchmark for rents. This can have one positive effect on the urban restaurant scene by forcing independents to pioneer less desirable neighborhoods. Ten years ago, Jaleo was a rare bright light of comfort in a neighborhood of abandoned buildings. Today the lively tapas restaurant is a landmark in Washington's most exciting restaurant neighborhood. If Jaleo were starting out today, it's doubtful that it could afford the current going rate for rent in DC's Penn Quarter.
A visit to an Outback Steakhouse at the Arlington Forest shopping center reveals that the independent lambs seem to be quite comfortable lying down with the corporate lion: In the same block-long span, a Thai restaurant, a Philippine place, and a pizza-and-sub carryout have been doing good business for years. Maybe an Olive Garden or a Red Lobster is poised to move in as soon as one of the independents starts to renegotiate its lease. But this is not so different from what happened along Seventh Street between G and H in Chinatown, where Legal Sea Foods and a Ruby Tuesday have taken the place of Golden Palace and the original Eat First.
What is most troubling about the casual-dining chains is that their food, which, in most instances, is mediocre at best and abysmal at worst, reflects the tastes of that segment of the dining public that packs their dining rooms. One can only conclude that most of these restaurants are better at preparing convenience foods in their kitchens than their patrons are at microwaving them at home. The only exception is the Outback Steakhouse, where the rib-eye steak is notably superior to a similar cut of beef most of us can buy at the average supermarket.
Addresses and phone numbers listed are for the location where meals were sampled.
RED LOBSTER: LITTLE SHRIMP ARE CHEAP AND LIVE LOBSTER IS GOOD
At 35 years old, Red Lobster is the elder statesman among the casual-dining chains. A seafood behemoth with 678 branches in the United States and Canada, its TV commercials promote seafood gluttony made irresistible by bargain-basement prices. Shrimp get a lot of play in Red Lobster's spots: The chain tempts prospective diners with the likes of Shrimp by the Dozen, in which the bait is a plate of four dozen shrimp, each dozen prepared differently, for $18.99.
In the commercial, the shrimp fill the screen: plump, glistening, seemingly cavorting in their sauces. In reality, the shrimp are no larger than a woman's pinky finger. Sauce-moistened preparations--shrimp scampi and Citrus Shrimp in a Bag--are more successful than the dried-out mini crustaceans that are grilled on bamboo skewers or thickly breaded with crumbs and deep-fried. For a true bargain at Red Lobster, look for the jumbo shrimp dishes listed at the end of the Dozens of Shrimp menu. Order a dozen jumbo shrimp scampi ($15.99) or a portion of 18 in the same buttery preparation ($18.99) and you'll enjoy a double or triple portion of the same good-quality frozen jumbo shrimp at the same price that independent restaurants charge for a half dozen.
In the best seafood restaurants along the Eastern seaboard, the heaping combination platter of fried seafood is one of the glories of traditional American cookery. At Red Lobster, the assortment had the dull flavor of frozen seafood, no better than what one would find in a supermarket's house-brand TV dinner. The best that can be said is that it was not greasy; the worst, that its irregular cuts of fish had a strong, oily flavor, that its scallops were watery, and that its "clam strips" were so heavily breaded that they tasted more like hush puppies than clams. The "hand-breaded" shrimp were marginally edible and, as such, the best part of the dish. At $16.50, this Admiral's Feast gives you what you pay for.
Only a thin wedge of Red Lobster's menu is headed "Fresh Fish." Most of the restaurant's offerings receive cryogenic treatment, including the Farm-Raised Catfish, the Teriyaki-Glazed Mahi-Mahi, the Crab-Stuffed Flounder, the broiled flounder, and the Sam Adams Beer-Battered Fish & Chips. Judging from the two selections sampled from the fresh offerings, either the chain instructs its kitchens to overcook fresh fish to be on the safe side, or the cooks have no sense of timing. An order of broiled haddock was so dried out that it defied remoisturizing by its topping of citrus butter. The grilled halibut, slicked with basil-infused oil, was even drier; its garnish of arugula salad was spoiled by a "house-made vinaigrette" that tasted like a sweet-sour barbecue sauce without any discernible trace of herbs.
Red Lobster offers various preparations of frozen rock-lobster tails but also lets diners choose live Maine lobsters from a holding tank. A feisty, two-pound specimen perfectly steamed by the kitchen was the best dish sampled in two visits to this Red Lobster. At $37.99--or $18.99 a pound--it was $3 a pound less than you would pay at the Palm, which sells more live lobsters than any area restaurant.
Beer and soft drinks appear to be the beverages of choice for most of Red Lobster's patrons. For wine drinkers, there are eight whites, seven reds, one California sparkler, and three white Zinfandels to choose from. The Kendall-Jackson "Vintner's Reserve" Chardonnay ($26) and the Cambria "Katherine's Vineyard" Chardonnay ($30) make for pleasant drinking with both the jumbo shrimp scampi and the steamed live lobster.
Red Lobster, 513 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-532-7150.
AT OLIVE GARDEN AND ROMANO'S MACARONI GRILL, ITALY IS A FAR COUNTRY
Armed with the right recipes and trained in the proper techniques, authentic Italian fare should be a snap for line cooks in chain restaurants. But what is served at both Olive Garden and Romano's Macaroni Grill--two popular Italian chains--has only a passing resemblance to a dish one might find at a good Italian-American restaurant.
Among first courses like San Remo Seafood Dip, Hot Artichoke Spinach Dip, and Dipping Sauces for Breadsticks, Sicilian Scampi is the only starter at the Olive Garden that tempts an order. They turn out to be good-quality frozen shrimp--large, plump, and perfectly sautéed with a hint of garlic and a squeeze of lemon. They are presented atop thin slices of an institutional baguette meant to pad out the blank spaces of the large service platter.
Olive Garden does not accept requests for half orders of pasta as a first course, so a full order of Three-Meat Ravioli was shared to start one meal. The light, tender squares of pasta, stuffed with a mixture of beef, chicken, and sausage, would have been better had their filling been more incisively seasoned. Instead of the sage-butter sauce described on the menu, the ravioli were served sparely glazed with cream sauce plus a couple of spoons of very pleasant meat sauce at the center of the dish.
Romano's Macaroni Grill accommodates requests for half orders of pastas as a first course. The squares of dough that covered the Ravioli Bolognese were tender, but their beef-veal-pork stuffing was flat-flavored. The sauce, which inundated the pasta, was made unpleasant by a layer of oil that had separated and floated atop it. The plump, beautifully cooked shrimp in Romano's Shrimp Diavolo were overpowered by a sauce that seemed to have been made with equal amounts of tomatoes and garlic. The sauce could have been pleasant and authentically Italian-American with a quarter the amount of garlic. And forget al dente pasta here: The linguine over which the shrimp is served had the texture of noodles in a can of chicken-noodle soup.
Both restaurants offer the Italian-American classic, veal parmigiana--Romano's menu lists it as Veal Parmesan--and both base the dish on a breaded veal cutlet with the texture of mechanically tenderized cube steak, the cut used in the American South to make chicken-fried steak. The marinara sauce that moistens both the meat and its accompanying pasta is better at Romano's than at Olive Garden, but the veal was equally poor at both.
What is served at Romano's as saltimbocca is unknown in Italy by that name, and you won't likely find it at a decent Italian-American restaurant. According to the menu, this "saltimbocca" is a dish of veal cutlets with "smoked prosciutto" and spinach. The result is a plate of good-quality veal cutlets with a scattering of small squares of something that looks and tastes like bacon, and leaves of raw spinach. The platter is padded with a bed of cappellini noodles cooked to near mush.
The menu says that Pork Filettino is a specialty "inspired by Olive Garden Riserva di Fizzano, our restaurant in Italy." It is described as a pork tenderloin marinated in extra-virgin olive oil and rosemary and grilled. What was served was a dry piece of pork seared a dark brown on the bottom and grill-marked on top with a touch of pink in its interior. A slick of rosemary-flavored demi-glace failed to relieve the dryness of the dull-flavored meat. The garnish of roasted potato cubes with a dice of bell peppers had the taste of leftover hash browns.
Both restaurants are working hard to introduce their patrons to the pleasures of wine with a meal. At Olive Garden, the house red is the sprightly Principato, a soft, pleasant quaff at a very fair price by the glass. For the pick of the wine list, look for the Chianti Classico Rocca della Macie, a delicious steal at $26.
The house red at Romano's Macaroni Grill is a California "chianti" reminiscent of what used to be bottled in gallon jugs and labeled "Vino da Tavola," soft, round, red wines with a degree of residual sugar that were aimed to please the Italian-American consumer's taste for homemade wines. Served in tumblers at $3.99 a glass, it is a suitable accompaniment for the kitchen's better dishes. A bottle of authentic Italian Chianti, the easy-to-drink Gabbiano, which not so long ago was selling in the upper-$30 range at a high-profile steakhouse in the District, is a good buy on this list at $20.
In terms of setting, rough-hewn textures win the day for Romano's Macaroni Grill: Faux-fieldstone pillars and chandeliers of black-painted iron give it the look of a sprawling Tuscan farmhouse. Olive Garden sports as many black-and white photographs of the old country as Romano's, but it has a low-rent look.
Olive Garden, 3548-52 S. Jefferson St., Falls Church; 703-671-7507.
Romano's Macaroni Grill, 671 N. Glebe Rd., Arlington; 703-248-0000.
OUTBACK STEAKHOUSE: STICK TO THE RIB EYE AND YOU'LL BE HAPPY
What has made the Australian-themed Outback Steakhouse chain a hit is not Australian cooking but its ability to provide a couple with a good steak dinner, including a salad, a baked potato or French fries, and an enjoyable bottle of wine for about $75, which is about $125 less than they might pay for a similar meal at an upscale steakhouse. While the menu offers a New York strip, a porterhouse, and a filet, the best cuts here are the USDA Choice rib-eye steak and the roasted prime rib. Both are served off the bone, but the heavy marbling of interior fat for which the cut is prized produces a steak and a roast that are superbly tender and richly beefy.
The Ribs on the Barbie, tender and nicely flavored with smoke, are better than some served at restaurants that specialize in barbecue. But they cost the same $16.99 as the rib eye, and you get more pleasure with the steak. Forget the rack of New Zealand lamb--it was the least successful main course sampled at Outback. Ordered medium but served very well done, it arrived too quickly, making it seem that it had been precooked and reheated.
Aside from the Bloomin' Onion--a guilty pleasure that is as crunchy and oily as the deep-fried onion loaf served in some Southern restaurants--there is little else to recommend among Outback's appetizers. If two crabcakes for $8.99 sounds too good to be true, you're right: Although they are mainly lump meat, their lack of flavor leads one to suspect that they are made from pasteurized crab from Asia; their topping of diced tomato and chopped basil only emphasizes the crab's lack of flavor. Grilled Shrimp on the Barbie, although drier than ideal, are slightly more palatable than the version served at Red Lobster.
The wine list offers 8 whites, 11 reds, and 3 white Zinfandels. For that fine rib-eye steak or a cut of roast prime rib, the very fairly priced Ravenswood "Vintner's Blend" Zinfandel ($23) provides a richly fruity complement. The Greg Norman Estates Cabernet-Merlot--at $30 the list's most expensive bottle--is an underflavored Australian disappointment: no grace, no guts, no style.
Outback is a Yank in Aussie clothing. Take away its prints of koalas and kangaroos and the boomerangs decorating its walls, and it could pass as a rough-hewn American saloon. For casual dining, its comfort level is high, and thanks to the volume-buying power of the chain it can offer quality steaks at prices that independent neighborhood restaurants cannot afford to match. In this case, for an all-American dinner of salad, steak, and a baked potato, an "Australian" restaurant is the best choice.
Outback Steakhouse, 4821 N. First St., Arlington; 703-527-0063.
CHILI'S: DON'T DO IT FOR THE BABY BACK RIBS
A saloon with a make-believe Tex-Mex accent, Chili's offers fajitas and nachos along with Skillet Queso and Margarita Grilled Chicken. But before one gets to the Boneless Buffalo Wings or the Grilled Shrimp Alfredo--just two of the non-Southwestern dishes included on the menu for the sake of regional diversity--one is confronted with a choice of variations on the theme of margaritas: straight up, on the rocks, or frozen. A request for a classic margarita--tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice, served in a salt-rimmed glass--results in a very good cocktail, far superior to the artificial-tasting versions served at some independent Tex-Mex cantinas. The base price for a margarita is $6.50, which is uptown pricing.
With the margaritas, a couple should consider sharing Chili's Southwestern Eggroll, a successful invention of its corporate kitchen--a mini burrito in a thick, lightly browned white-flour tortilla, densely packed with smoked chicken, corn, black beans, spinach, and a generous amount of jalapeño jack cheese. The tortilla wrapper is oil-free and the stuffing daringly spicy, to which the avocado-ranch dipping sauce provides a cool contrast.
Thanks to the TV commercial with its percussive jingle and close-ups of glistening meat, Chili's baby back ribs may be the best-known barbecue spareribs in the country. Sampled at the Baileys Crossroads location, they were marginally edible. Served at room temperature, they had a texture more associated with steaming than barbecuing. They were soggy under their blanket of sauce and lacked any crispy bits or even the faintest hint of smoky flavor. For honest barbecue ribs, you'd do better by taking a short drive to the Red, Hot, & Blue in either Arlington or Clarendon or to the Memphis Bar-B-Q Company in Ballston Common.
Chili's is not a good choice for fajitas: By the standards of Tex-Mex restaurants, such as the very good Cactus Cantina and its offspring, Lauriol Plaza, Chili's portion of grilled skirt steak is skimpy. The few pieces of beef on the cast-iron skillet lacked sizzle and juice, as though the meat had been grilled well ahead of the time it was to be served. The accompanying onions were nicely caramelized; the slices of green bell pepper were all but raw. For fajitas that are worth the trip, skip Chili's in favor of the Rio Grande Café in nearby Ballston.
If you're drinking margaritas at Chili's, the best thing to cushion the stomach is an oversize burger. The selection includes one with chipotle-chili sauce, bacon, and bleu cheese and another with sautéed mushrooms and Swiss cheese. It is a good burger, not overly compressed, fresh tasting and juicy enough that serious burger fans would enjoy it best with the simplest combination of garnishes: lettuce, tomato, pickle, and a slick of mayonnaise on the top half of the bun.
Chili's, 5501 Leesburg Pike, Baileys Crossroads; 703-379-2035.