It's 6:45 on a Tuesday evening at Southport Crossing Drive. The parking lots between two adjacent restaurants are packed. Though we had to wind our way back to this little corner by a retention pond, we're still very much in sight of Exit 103 off I-65, where the hungry masses hurtle by, pondering their roadside stops to "refuel." Some of them will stop here soon; some are already pulling into the lots. The two restaurants are both chains. Both are owned by the same conglomerate, headed up mainly by Outback Steakhouse, Inc. Cheeseburger in Paradise is a themed eatery that in just about every element is an homage to Jimmy Buffet and his hit song. There's live music or karaoke most nights, as well as "Full Moon" parties. Island-inspired dishes include items with catchy names like the "What's Shakin', Bacon?" burger and the "Son of a Son of a Sailor" salad. Chocolate nachos are a popular dessert.
Carrabba's Italian Grill was founded in Houston in 1986 by Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola using many of Damian's mother's recipes for the dishes on the menu. It still features straightforward Italian favorites like eggplant parmesan and chicken marsala. Since it was franchised in 1995, it has spread to over 160 locations nationwide.
Cheeseburger in Paradise can squeeze us in. But it's a little more of a challenge at Carrabba's.
There's not a seat in the dining room, but they can put us at either the pasta or pizza preparation stations. Here, we can watch line cooks toss our pizza crusts skyward or hoist our pasta aloft above outsize sauté pans and licking flames. We jump at the chance.
Next to us at the counter where we sit on tall stools, a woman and her husband chat with the chefs, requesting more or less of certain ingredients in their pasta dishes. They're obviously regulars. They know exactly what they want and how they want it.
Applauding broken plates
I take the opportunity to interview the woman about her obvious love of Carrabba's. She loves the pasta, she says. She's never had a bad meal here. I ask her if she's tried some of the independent Italian restaurants around town. She says that they've tried Olive Garden, but they didn't like it. I persist. Has she been to Sangiovese? Amici's? Pauley's? It's on the Southside, too. She hasn't heard of any of them. If they aren't on the main drag, she admits, she's not likely to find them.
Despite the frenzy of the restaurant around us, our meal is surprisingly good. The sausage in the ziti with pomodoro sauce and goat cheese is chockfull of fennel and packs a good bite. The chicken and spinach cannelloni are creamy and bubbly from the oven. The aroma of basil cuts through the tang of a mix of cheeses. Bread with flavored olive oil seems a predictable gimmick, but the bread is crusty and chewy. Salads have been waiting for us in the cooler, but they're full of flavor and crisp greens. Good food can be had here, our waiter is attentive without being overly intrusive and we get our meal in good time for a decent price. Score a point for chain No. 1.
A couple of weeks later, we're on the other side of town but no farther from I-65. It's a Friday night this time, and Romano's Macaroni Grill is hopping. The wait for a table will be at least half an hour.
Here, the showmanship of a corporate concept restaurant is at high tilt. Over the din of dinner conversations, a waitress is singing "Ave Maria" to a half-appreciative, half-embarrassed table. Whenever a plate breaks - which is often - the staff and patrons applaud. Waiters and bartenders wear colorful purple, green or orange ties to match giant ones hanging on the wall. We see a little counter space open up at the bar. Finally, we can focus on getting a meal.
According to its Web site, www.macaronigrill.com, Macaroni Grill has been the top Italian chain in the Restaurants and Institutions' Choice in Chains survey for five straight years and the highest scoring chain of any sort for four years. In a typical survey year, over 2,800 consumers judge close to 100 chains.
Despite these accolades, our meal is a little humdrum. Pasta swims in sauce; pizza is obliterated by cheese. Salads are competent, and a big loaf of warm bread does have a good rosemary aroma to it. The bartender suggests I mop up my extra sauce with the bread. We take most of the pizza home, where it languishes in the refrigerator, forgotten. Strike one for the franchises.
Why are the chains packed?
For one, the chains have the locations. How many local eateries are even in stand-alone sites, let alone in sight of major highways, often with billboards telling you where to turn off? Could you blame a road-weary diner? Sadly, most independents have to rent space in pre-existing storefronts where they do what they can to make the place look lively and fun.
Chains also have familiarity on their side. Ads for Macaroni Grill run regularly on the Food Network and many other cable networks, emphasizing the authentic cuisine in a casual atmosphere. Diners joke, twirl pasta around forks, clearly having fun. Who knows if the food at No Name Bistro will be any good?
But location and name isn't enough. More than familiarity, these chains, especially this new breed of super chains, have a kind of studied ease. In almost every regard, they make diners feel at home. They point out special dishes on the menu - lighter items, low-carb specials. They don't fuss with dress codes, untranslated names for dishes or anything that would keep the diner from being comfortable.
Anyone who's dined at P.F. Chang's has endured the little speech about Chinese "pepper" and "salt" while the waiter mixes soy sauce and chili oil at the table. But narrative details like this work. They give diners a way to feel a part of the experience, not afraid of it. They add little touches at every stage of the game that make diners feel as though they are being thought of - even if from a distance. That bread and olive oil seems conceived almost specifically for each diner coming into the restaurant. Diners don't feel that they have to study up before they head out for dinner. The restaurant will do all the work - and isn't that how it should be?
But what of the food?
Thankfully, these new chains are also doing a better job of putting out good food. While it sometimes takes hunting past the bland standards, these places do have a more daring, fun, inventive cuisine and concepts than chain restaurants did a couple of decades ago. Sometimes the food is even made fresh at the restaurant. Some of the dressings at Carrabba's and many of the desserts at Macaroni Grill are made on the premises.
The chains aren't all just clones of each other either. Anyone who's been up to the new Clay Terrace Mall in Carmel has seen that Mitchell's Fish Market can serve up some really fresh seafood in a dapper, inviting space reminiscent of a mid-century supper club. Diners can even take home some quite fresh fish for their own meals as well - a daring move at a restaurant that should be concerned about doing the cooking for the customer. Ted's Montana Grill up the street carries through an Old West tavern theme quite expertly. Tables aren't crowded, the place smells like a campfire and you can actually hear yourself talk. Kona Grill is a particularly stylish chain with a lot of unusual Hawaiian and Asian touches. They have an entire section of the menu devoted to noodle dishes.
While it's easy to disparage the gimmicks of chains and write them off as bland wannabes feeding the uninformed masses, these chains often started as independent restaurants themselves. The companies who own them have done their homework, taken the quality of the food into consideration and, in many cases, put out menus and meals that rival some independents for originality and flavor. They've put their restaurants in the right places, and they've let the world know where they are. They may not always have the soul, the freedom and the creativity of the local eateries many of us have come to love, but with their overflowing parking lots, they are definitely worth giving a look.
The "big" chains
3815 E. 96th St. 569-7204
Buca di Beppo
35 N. Illinois St. 632-2822
6045 E. 86th St. 842-8666
659 U.S. 31 North 884-2822
Carrabba's Italian Grill
4690 Southport Crossing Drive 881-4008
1235 Keystone Way, Carmel 575-2200
Cheeseburger in Paradise
4670 Southport Crossing Drive 883-4386
14395 Clay Terrace Blvd. 566-1400
3550 E. 86th St. 814-0700
Mitchell's Fish Market
14311 Clay Terrace Blvd., Carmel 848-3474
On the Border
6001 E. 86th St. 570-9066
10299 E. U.S. 36, Avon 271-9160
49 W. Maryland St. 974-5747
8601 Keystone Crossing 815-8773
Romano's Macaroni Grill
2375 116th East, Carmel 582-1637
Ted's Montana Grill
14490 Clay Terrace Blvd., Carmel 569-8300