Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Training Day

National Blog Posting Month Day 6

They just built a huge Big Box complex close to my house with a Costco, Lowes, Best Buy and a bunch of other mega-retailers. They also have several outparcels for restaurants. Since I moved to Howard County about twelve years ago, about every chain known to man has moved in. The competition in this “nobody eats at home” bedroom community is fierce. Our favorite Bennigans went out of business, which stunned us and put a real crimp in our band carwash fundraisers. With so many other places nearby, we were curious how they were going to find tenants that were unique.

My wife was getting copies made at the newly opened Office Depot making small talk with the person behind her in line. That person turned out to be the owner/manager of one of the restaurants. She was copying invites to the pre-opening test nights and gave my wife a coupon for four. My wife invited another couple and we showed up for a free meal.

The coupon was for free entrees for each person from a selected menu provided that each person had a different dish. We had to cover cocktails and tip. Over the next few weeks we managed to eat for free at three of these new places and get a good sampling. All three of the restaurants were waiter service casual dining places along the lines of the Applebees/Fridays template, but each one has a slightly different twist to make them as unique as a chain with a hundred stores can be.

Houlihans – Upscale Fridays
The one my wife got the personal invite to was Houlihans which is closest to the traditional bar and grill full of flair. I hadn’t seen a Houlihans since I moved out of Atlanta twenty years ago, but they seem to be expanding. Back in the day, Houlihans was the type of place you talked your folks into taking you for brunch when they were in town. They still try to look a little classier than the competition.

The food was very typical pub grub specializing in greasy stuff like buffalo wings, spicy shrimp, ribettes, and burgers. I had a salmon which was much better than average, but overall the food was lackluster. Where they specialized was in wine and martini flights. A martini flight is three different drinks each with a unique flavor like chocolate, key lime, guava, and lemonade. We got a total of six, but we weren’t sure which ones because the waitress got the names and the drinks all mismatched.

Verdict: A nice place to get fancy drinks but the food was run of the mill.

Mimi’s Café – French Fridays
The couple we took to Houlihans repaid the favor by giving us a try-out coupon to the next one to open, Mimi’s Café. They are trying to give off a French Bistro vibe with fireplaces and relaxed lighting. The menu aims for comfort food with a twist. The one I couldn’t resist was the lobster mac and cheese. While it the mac and cheese was nowhere in the league of Dumont Burger in Brooklyn, the lobster chunks were novel enough to be intriguing.

My wife had a jambalaya that was so huge, the leftovers made two more lunches for her. She also really loved the soup, which varies daily meaning you have to plan your schedule carefully if you have a favorite. My son judges restaurants by the quality of the cheeseburger and based on how fast he inhaled, it passed muster. All these entrees were under fifteen bucks each.

The banana bread ice cream desert they brought out for the whole table was bigger than anybody’s head. They also had a full bar with some nice strong specialty cocktails. If you have to drive they also several types of coffee.

Verdict: Better than average food without the loud frentic atmosphere of a typical bar and grille.

On The Border: Tex-Mex Fridays
The third restaurant was just good timing on our part. We were on our way to Costco for groceries when I noticed that On The Border had a big opening soon banner up, but plenty of cars in the lot. That screamed training day to me. Since it was mid-day on Sunday, the manager had some spaces to fit us in. The food is American-style Mexican heavy on the cheese and frying. Our meal choices included an appetizer sampler plate that could have filled us up by itself. The quesadillas were particularly good. I like chimichangas and theirs was huge if a little light on the spices. My wife got a four item combo plate since we weren’t paying for the food. We snuck enough stuff into our doggie bag to feed our teenage son later that night.

The margaritas were plenty strong, which is always an issue with chain bars that tend to be a little light on the pours. We only had one each or we weren’t going to get any grocery shopping done. I tried a berry flavored one that was awful compared to the traditional flavor. Froofy martinis are one thing, but margaritas need to stay close to their roots.

Verdict: Enormous portions but nothing special or inventive about the dishes.

Over about a two week period we ate out three times for free and after too many drinks and generous tips still ended spending less half of what we normally would. These open houses are a big deal. Every table stays full and the whole staff is on duty the whole day. It must cost them thousands in free food to undergo the shakedown period.

Of the three, we are probably most likely to get back to Mimi’s because of the cozy atmosphere and my wife loves big hearty bowls of soup. And the next chain that wants to open in Howard County is going to have some tough competition.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What do you look for in a sit-down chain?


Cham said...

What do I look for in a restaurant chain? The nearest exit and then the nearest supermarket. Yikes, poison.

yellojkt said...

A lot of this food isn't healthy. No sooner did I read your comment than I ran across this item.

Anonymous said...

Here in Germany, chain restaurants are pretty thin on the ground unless their decorating schemes involve twin yellow parabolas, crowns, or NYC public transportation.

For me, though, I don't look for anything other than what I look for in any restaurant: decent food (plus points for stuff we wouldn't cook ourselves) and a decent price to portion and quality ratio. For chains, I think I'd add minimum kitsch.

I remember eating at Mimi's a few times in the early to mid 90s. The only thing French about the place was the decor, and that was pretty fake. I don't think the French do a lot with beribboned geese.

Old Spaghetti Factory was probably my favorite. Chili's was good until they became popular and revamped their menu. Acapulco is a local chain in the LA area that has varied from good to horribly mediocre over the years. (I really miss good Mexican food. There are a couple of decent places nearby, but they're lacking something.) Souplantation/Sweet Tomato is another that I miss. Germans just don't get salads, let alone salad bars. The less said about other all-you-can-eat buffets like Country Kitchen, the better.

yellojkt said...

Yeah, the Mimi's French theme was pretty kitschy. And the menu wasn't particularly French like La Madeline.

Old Spaghetti Warehouse/Factory always seems to be in touristy districts. They make a good lasagna though.

Anonymous said...

In Beaverton, OR, the OSF is (or at least was; it's been 8 years) really close to the cineplex. Not close enough where you could park once and hit both, but still it made for a reasonably inexpensive evening for a family of 5. My particular poison was the Meat Lover's Special.

Chevy's was a pretty good chain for Mexican. Not terrific, they lacked a real selection of combinations and had no chorizo, but adequate.

Mooselet said...

Most chain restaurants are of the fast food variety Down Under, although there are quite a few chain cafes. I'm not quite sure of the difference between a restaurant and cafe except perhaps the atmosphere of a cafe - which serves anything a restaurant would - is slightly more casual.

I won't pass up a place just because it's a franchise, nor will I go to one for that reason. I want good food at a reasonable price in a place that is clean, well lit and has good service.

My fav chain restaurants back in Massachusetts were Friendly's, Olive Garden (or 'clog your arterties garden') and oddly enough the Outback Steakhouse (which, incidentally, is light on real Australian food).

2fs said...

A sit-down chain? Is this some sorta S&M blog?

yellojkt said...

At some chains the food can be torture.

Sue T. said...

I'm not a big chain restaurant fan -- I don't eat meat and most of them don't offer any vegetarian options -- but I LOVE California Pizza Kitchen. Lots of delicious pizzas & salads. (Good thing I'm not a vegan.) Pasta Pomodoro, which I believe is only in California & Arizona, is pretty good too, and you can order appetizer sized plates of most of their menu items -- much appreciated, since I don't necessarily want a giant trough o'pasta.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

I like places like Chili's and Red Robin...but I don't look for anything other than good eats. I also love Rock Bottom and Bravo! when I can afford them.