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Dining out, link by link: Chain restaurants take turns feeding and entertaining us

Friday, May 16, 2003

Early Sunday evening at the brand-new "Tuscan Villa" Olive Garden in Robinson, would-be diners, young and old, wait without complaint for an hour or more, clutching the black discs that pulse and flash like a Christmas tree with runner lights when their table is ready.

Anita Dufalla, artwork;
Diane Juravich, cover design

BASIC INFO

BUCA DI BEPPO
Station Square and The Mall at Robinson
412-471-7553 or 412-788-8444; www.bucadibeppo.com
HOURS: Mon.-Thurs. 5 to 10 p.m.; Fri. 5 to 11 p.m.; Sat. noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday noon to 9 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Entrees $17.95 to $29.95

CABO
Waterfront
412-462-9000; www.rdgchicago.com
HOURS: Daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Platos chicos, $4.95 to $8.95; Platos grandes, $7.95 to $17.95

HARD ROCK CAFE
Station Square
412-481-7625; www.hardrock.com
HOURS: Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m. to midnight; bar 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
PRICE RANGE: Burgers, sandwiches, entrees, $8 to $18

JOE'S CRAB SHACK
Station Square
412-690-2404; www.joescrabshack.com
HOURS: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri., Sat. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Pasta, platters, crabs and steaks, $8.99 to $23.99

JOHN HARVARD'S BREWHOUSE
Penn Center, Wilkins
412-824-9440; www.johnharvards.com
HOURS: Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m. to midnight; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sun. 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Entrees, $8.95 to $16.95

OLIVE GARDEN
Bethel Park, Green Tree, The Mall at Robinson, Ross, Monroeville, Pleasant Hills
www.olivegarden.com
HOURS: Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Entrees $7.95 to $17.95

ORIGINAL PANCAKE HOUSE
Ross
412-358-9622; www.originalpancakehouse.com
HOURS: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
PRICE RANGE: Crepes, pancakes, waffles, eggs, $4 to $8

RED STAR TAVERN
Station Square
412-394-0100; www.rdgchicago.com
HOURS: Daily 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
PRICE RANGE: Entrees $9.95 to $23.95

All of these restaurants, unless noted, provide no-smoking areas, are wheelchair accessible and accept major credit cards.

   
 

This on a Sunday -- a night when most locally owned restaurants are quiet or closed. Fridays and Saturdays, the wait nears two hours.

Patrons at this phenomenally successful restaurant chain are earning Olive Garden's owner, CorporateAmerica, Inc., nearly $2 billion per year in revenues, according to industry figures. Newcomers to Pittsburgh's dining scene, like Buca di Beppo and P.F. Chang's, are averaging $3 million in sales, siphoning sales from locally owned eateries.

Chain restaurants are not less expensive. The ambience is bottled. The service is indifferent, most of the time. In many cases, the food is reheated -- not prepared -- in house; often it is frozen. Forget a subtle palette of flavors: salt, fat and sugar dominate.

Why are people choosing chain restaurants? Are they any good?

We chose eight, big and small, pancake house to brewpub, grabbed the Maalox and headed out. Here is what we found.

BUCA DI BEPPO

Buca di Beppo is red sauce Italian and proud of it. This is the classic la cucina povera of southern Italy -- a neon sign advertises "immigrant" Italian food -- and the menu features big portions and simple classics. They're generally well-executed, if not dazzling in originality.

The Eggplant Parmesan ($17.95) serves between four and six people. It was crisp and savory, not soggy. Forget pumpkin mousse and porcini -- the ravioli here is "meat-filled," period. One entree alone can feed at least three adults: a tangy Chicken with Lemon ($19.95) serves four, and the Chicken Cacciatore ($21.95) -- "seven pounds of love" -- serves up to eight people.

Inside, the decor is kitschy, retro-American-Italian, in the style of post-World War II supper clubs, with plaster statues, flocked velvet lampshades, old photos of Sophia Loren and Connie Francis, while Lou Prima be-bops over the stereo speakers.

Desserts are huge, too: The chocolate cake, with rich creamy buttercream frosting and chocolate chips ($8.95), was big enough to feed a Girl Scout troop.

There are more than 40 wines available, and by-the-glass selections range from $4 to $7. There's also a $24.95 dinner-for-two menu, but the selections are smaller and less interesting.

Unlike Olive Garden, the service was slow after we were seated: We waited almost 40 minutes between appetizers and entrees. This is one noisy restaurant: perfect for office parties but perhaps not the best place for intimate dining.

-- Mackenzie Carpenter

CABO Mexican Grill

Cabo is the Mexican/Southwest-themed venture of RDC, the Chicago-based restaurant development group responsible for launching a batch of Bar Louies, a Red Star Tavern and a Nick & Tony's on our region. If you've been to any of those, you can imagine Cabo's impersonal yet stylish decor: high ceilings, big windows, plush booths, steel accents, dark wood. The room feels purple.

The music is pop and the servers are perky; there's a nice patio where you can sit on a high stool, watching people come blinking out of Loews.

Stick to south-of-the-border drinks and appetizers and you're golden. A bowl of thick, smoky black bean soup ($5.95) is a meal, and tomato-y tortilla soup ($5.95) is really spicy.

Entrees leave something to be desired; the grill concept ends with the name. Adobe pork tamales ($7.95) were bland and cakey. Shrimp diablo ($14.95) sang with garlic but swam in butter. Fajita steak enchiladas were tasty, even tender, but served with brown lettuce and lukewarm rice. They were $11.95, no bargain when you add $3.95 for a side of guacamole and $1.50 for sour cream.

Cabo is a popular place to drink and offers a better selection of Mexican beers than any chain I can think of: Carta Blanca, Negra Modelo, Dos Equis Especial -- as well as Iron City Light. Drink specials rarely cover mojitos, caipirinhas or the Mexicano martinis -- which put tequila, limes, pepper and Gummy Worms to good use -- but $2 for a frozen sangria or margarita is a deal I'll take any day.

-- Sarah Billingsley

HARD ROCK CAFE

Just like Reykjavik, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, Pittsburgh now has a Hard Rock Cafe. It's irrefutable that Hard Rock, with its guitar logo and that T-shirt, is the king of the chain eateries.

But what about the food? You've probably eaten there and already discovered that it's not what you go to a Hard Rock for.

The $10 burgers are overcooked and, strangely, square on a round bun. The fries are limp. The shrimp fajita ($13.99) consisted of five small shrimp and a pound of shredded lettuce. The hot fudge sundae ($4.29) didn't have enough fudge, and it wasn't hot.

The Ringo Combo ($8.99) is worth enjoying in the comfort of your booth. Santa Fe spring rolls are stuffed with a savory mix of black beans, corn, jalapeno and chicken, onion rings are crisp, and crunchy chicken tenders come with tangy mustard or barbecue dipping sauce. Of all things, Hard Rock does barbecue sauce right: smoky yet sweet, just thick enough.

For rock star ambience, there are long red velvet drapes, mounted memorabilia and raised platforms -- like stages -- with seating. It's quite dim. The music always blares, even when Hard Rock Cafe was deserted at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday night.

I'm still wondering: Is it the name? The long-faded reputation for cool? Why do we go to Hard Rock?

It's here, and everywhere.

-- Sarah Billingsley

JOE'S CRABSHACK

It's amazing that Joe's Crab Shack and Grand Concourse are both ventures of Landry's Seafood restaurant group. Grand Concourse has a faded elegance and refined sensibilities. Joe's Crab Shack is a Technicolor explosion of deep-fried, batter-dipped exuberance, complete with macarena-dancing waitresses (the "shack shakes" every 30 minutes) and blue liquids drunk from test tubes.

The room looks like a child's treasure chest turned upside down. The ceiling is hung with net, plastic crabs, disco balls and tricycles. Kids stare upward, mouths open, when they're not busy chewing a fish-flavored this or that.

I'm a purist: Crab shacks should serve fresh crabs. At Joe's, the crabs are frozen. Nevertheless, Dungeness crabs ($18.99), spiced with barbecue seasonings, got us in the mood for a trip to the shore. Joe's also has snow crabs, Alaskan crab legs, crab cakes, soft-shell crabs, fried shrimp, crawfish etouffee and more.

Roasted red pepper pasta ($9.99) benefited from a few shakes of hot sauce, but its scallion flavor could not be overcome. The broiled seafood platter ($12.99) ranged from savory shrimp wrapped in bacon to bland, pasty seafood cakes. A pile of small peel 'n' eat shrimp ($6.99) came with a tiny plastic cup of cold cocktail sauce. Blue crab dip ($6.99) tastes like hot cream cheese.

The food isn't the draw of this chain; it's the fun. Service is quick and happy. Kids are entertained. Sometimes that's enough.

-- Sarah Billingsley

JOHN HARVARD'S BREW HOUSE

If the Red Star is American Tavern writ large, this is the British Pub version, albeit somewhat less flamboyant in decor. What makes this Boston-based restaurant chain and brew house special is its location: the Eastern suburbs. How often can you find a place outside the city where you can choose from 10 different homemade brews -- from an All-American light lager to a dark, sweet "Sinister Stout"?

The cuisine is basically upscale bar food, good but not exceptional. There are menu choices like roasted salmon ($13.95) and mustard chicken Dijon ($10.95), which feature perhaps the restaurant's best culinary accent: a rich, dark sauce made from Nut Brown Ale.

Another treat, but only served as an occasional special, is the homemade butterscotch pudding ($4.25). We can't understand why they don't serve this stuff every night.

Best item on the menu if you show up at the right time: the homemade sausage platter ($12.95) with mashed potatoes, cabbage and that great Nut Brown Ale sauce. Unfortunately, it's off the menu this month while the chef indulges in a "Pacific Rim fling." We wish he'd go back to Bavaria.

Service was good, the place wasn't too noisy, but we were seated at a large table at the front of the restaurant where it was so dark we could barely read the menus.

-- Mackenzie Carpenter

OLIVE GARDEN

Don't call this a "red sauce" joint. The theme is determinedly upscale Italian "Tuscan," with rough-hewn stone walls and lots of creamy white bechamel sauce on the Cannelloni al Forno ($9.95). The food is good, but without complexity. Oh, for a bit more nutmeg, fennel or garlic. Even the tiramisu seemed to lack a kick, perhaps from lack of alcohol.

We waited 45 minutes for a table, but when we were seated, service was efficient from salad (mostly iceberg lettuce out of one large salad bowl, with good croutons to liven things up) to dessert. The menu is easy to read, and for dieters, there's even a "Garden Fare" brochure with nutritional info.

There are 46 wines to choose from, from $19 to $125 for an Amarone Della Valpolicella. Best dish: the chicken pesto ravioli, sprinkled with sun-dried tomatoes in a creamy Alfredo sauce ($10.95). Most disappointing: the Chicken Scampi ($12.25), which was served in a pile of soggy angel hair and an unremarkable garlic sauce.

Appetizers were good -- you can build your own (sampler with three choices, $8.25). We opted for the gooey stuffed mushrooms (at home at any 1950s cocktail party), the toasted ravioli (many people love them; I find them too chewy) and the chicken fingers (so-so). A seafood-cheese-marinara dip ($6.95) tasted savory on the first bite, but then the salt took over. I was drinking water all night long afterward.

-- Mackenzie Carpenter

THE ORIGINAL PANCAKE HOUSE

This is the best of all the Pittsburgh chains, winner of a 1999 James Beard Regional Classic award, a shining example of the spread of good things. The Original Pancake House satisfies 10 different cravings: for the sweet elasticity of crepes, the eggy custardiness of baked pancakes and the faint sourness and primeval yeast/butter/syrupiness of buttermilk flapjacks from sourdough starter.

The wait staff is kind and competent. Big windows and skylights bring in the bright day. The furniture is solid, country stuff that feels good to sit on.

The Original Pancake House answers the elementary question -- What is a pancake? -- by offering a dozen different varieties, made with pure butter, 36 percent whipping cream, fresh eggs, unbleached flour. The orange juice is freshly squeezed, full of pulp and seeds, and delicious. The bacon is crisp.

The Dutch Baby ($7.50), a specialty of the house, is baked until it puffs up like a popover, similarly hollow and steaming. Butter melts on its surface, bonding with confectioners' sugar to form a sweet crust. You can add strawberries -- mine were under-ripe. It's perfect plain.

The Western Omelet ($7.90) was huge, fat and fluffy, full of honey ham, Cheddar and bite-sized vegetables. Unfortunately, since it was the end of service, the home fries tasted like grill scrapings. The special blend coffee isn't as potent as I'd like, but it works.

With so many varieties of pancake and waffle -- buckwheat, potato, Swedish, banana, Hawaiian -- sweetened by any topping you can imagine, coffee is an afterthought anyhow.

-- Sarah Billingsley

RED STAR TAVERN

Red Star Tavern looks like a classic American tavern on steroids and for a good reason: it's one of the many "theme" restaurants operated by the ubiquitous Restaurant Development Group. Ceilings are cavernous, the round, barrel-shaped hanging light fixtures are huge, and there's a large stone fireplace. The atmosphere is relaxed -- and unlike its neighbor, Bar Louie, not too noisy -- although the service was slower than we would have liked. Still, the food is cozy-comfy-trendy: There's an excellent spit-roasted chicken (half size, $11.95), and the barbecued meatloaf ($10.95) was light yet savory. The mashed potatoes, which were fluffy and garlicky, come with the entrees -- a good deal.

Appetizers were a mixed bag, and a recent menu reshuffling reflects that: The less-than-exciting chili-spiced grilled jumbo shrimp tostadas ($8.95) are off the menu now, we're told. But the cilantro lime grilled chicken satay ($6.95) has since been replaced by chicken quesadillas, which is too bad, since they were full of heat and spice, as were the roasted chicken nachos ($7.95), which remain in place.

For those who don't have to get up the next day, there are some tasty martinis and other specialty drinks. Desserts, which are all $5.95, include a chocolate cake that feeds four.

There's a creative wine list -- 38 labels in all, from $28 to $68 -- while by-the-glass selections range from $6.50 to $12. Good news for theater and concert-goers: Red Star Tavern's kitchen is open later every night than almost any other restaurant around -- until midnight.

-- Mackenzie Carpenter

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