Cheeseburger in Paradise has plenty to offerWhen is a chain restaurant not a chain restaurant? When there's only one of them, of course. Indianapolis, for many years now the official testing ground for national chains to be, has never, as far as I know, actually been the first to be graced with a new establishment. That distinction is usually afforded to Des Moines or Jacksonville. Until now, that is. Tucked away in an obscure corner of hospitality wasteland, visible from the interstate, but infuriatingly off the beaten track, Cheeseburger in Paradise glows in the dark like a lone beacon in a black sea, luring weary travelers to take a break from their perilous road trips.

Chef Todd Gonia

Why Jimmy Buffet and his partners, Outback Steakhouse, should choose to launch a new venture at this all-but inaccessible location is a question worth pondering for a moment or two. As a southside resident for thirteen odd years, I have always bemoaned the lack of anything really decent to eat in this part of town.

The opening of Cheeseburger in Paradise should help to alleviate the problem, except that, as a local, I find its situation infuriating. But this restaurant was not opened with the sole intention of attracting a regular clientele, I'm certain of that. Although a number of southsiders will doubtless take advantage of the late hours, unusual cocktails and unique menu offerings, this is by no means your average neighborhood lunch spot. By making the restaurant conspicuous only from the highway, and by adopting a theme recognizable to travelers from all around, not to mention situating it on one of the busiest interstates anywhere, the owners have essentially defined what chain restaurants are all about. I have no doubt that this venture is going to be an overwhelming success, because it caters precisely to the culture of the road and offers respite from the tedium of modern travel. Getting away from it all, taking some time away from reality, are themes that occur consistently throughout the songs of Jimmy Buffet.

This new restaurant, with its idyllic representation of Buffet's island dream-world, offers fans and non-fans alike a harmless escape from whatever they may wish to escape from. From the outside, Cheeseburger in Paradise resembles a large shack with a water tower and plenty of neon. Inside, a circular tiki bar dominates. There are a few booths around the bar, then restaurant seating outside the perimeter. A large mural of an island sunset covers one wall, while surfboards, flippers and island paraphernalia adorn the beams and rafters. The usual TVs play the sporting event du Jour, and the more-than-adequate sound system plays 70's classic rock, which sounds as if it's been piped in directly from FM drive time radio. You know, "Hotel California" and the like, which tells you exactly how old these guys are and who their chosen market is. This is a restaurant for the tail end of the baby boom and the beginning of Generation X, those of us who entered our teens when "Brown Sugar" was in the charts.

Be prepared to wait a while if you want to eat in the dining room. Even though some of the novelty has worn off (Cheeseburger has been open since August), there are still waits of 40 minutes or more, even on weekdays. On two recent visits, I have been seated within seconds at precisely the same booth in the bar, so if you don't object too much to cigarette smoke and noise, then this is a good alternative to sitting around in a cold lobby for hours admiring the surfboard decorations.

As I'm sure I've mentioned before in these pages, witnessing the enormous and immediate success of a restaurant such as Cheeseburger in Paradise necessarily induces mixed feelings. On the one hand, it's great to see a restaurant succeed, especially in these dour days of uncertainty, when having a good time is the last thing on a lot of folks' minds. On the other hand, it pains me no end to see hard-working independents really struggling because the average consumer, it would seem, demands outrageous portions, karaoke bars and flaming Tahitian Ladies.

The theme restaurant is like a magnet, and seems to be almost always successful, regardless of the quality of the food and service. Is it possible that people gravitate to such establishments, already brimming with character and verve, simply because they have none of their own to bring? Do people feel more comfortable in a cookie-cutter, pre-fabricated, atmosphere, rather than having to rely on their own ability to converse and create an atmosphere of their own? I think we should be told.

Fortunately for prospective diners at Cheeseburger in Paradise, the quality of food and service shouldn't be too much of an issue. Almost everything my friend and I tried on both occasions was, for want of a better word, sound. The cocktails, many of which are based on rum and an assortment of tropical fruits, are fun and generally sweet. The drink menu is a glossy little production number full of photos of people (Parrotheads, doubtlessly) having altogether too much fun. The wine list is short and corporate (hardly a surprise) and the beers are well-chosen. A sign above the bar tells you how cold your beer is, just in case you're a purist.

As for the food, there's a lot to like, with a dozen or so appetizers, five salads, five burgers and several pizzas, sandwiches and main courses. Of the sandwiches, we particularly enjoyed the Costa Rican skirt steak wrap (8.45) and the El Cubano ($7.45.) Many of the sandwiches here are pressed until dense and crisp on the outside, a technique popular in tacquerias south of the border. Although the Cubano sandwich was missing the strips of breaded and fried pork that traditionally make it such a delicious mouthful, it was a very good effort, made all the more pleasing by the authentic Cuban bread. I love this stuff: it's what makes Mexican tortas so irresistibly tasty. The skirt steak wrap was mildly spicy, a little sweet and quite substantial. Another excellent effort.

The title track, Cheeseburger in Paradise ($6.45), is a whopping piece of pure beef, served simply on a slightly dry bun with lettuce, tomato, ketchup and two kinds of cheese. Despite its simplicity, it's a really good burger. I can't quite decide why, but it might be because it was the first thing I had eaten all day, and it was well after 11pm.

As for the appetizers, the jerk wings ($5.95) are worth a try, as are the BBQ jerk ribs. Avoid the fired oysters, which were desiccated and largely unrecognizable. The same goes for the mini-cheeseburgers, which resemble Whitecastles that have been left too long in the oven.

Yes, it's a chain, but as these things go, Cheeseburger in Paradise has plenty to offer. I can heartily recommend giving it a go.

Cheeseburger in Paradise4670 Southport Crossings Drive (I-65 & Southport Road) 883-4386 Mon - Thurs 4pm - 1am Fri 4pm - 2am Sat Noon - 2am Sun Noon - Midnight Food : 3 stars

Atmosphere : 3 stars

Service : 3 stars

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