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How to make the most of high-end chains

Porterhouse steak at The Capital Grille (Becky Stein)

Porterhouse steak at The Capital Grille (Becky Stein)

Because of complicated travel plans, my family and I ended up spending Christmas Day staying near a high-end suburban mall in a faraway city. The holiday morning greeted us with a light dusting of snow and a view of a vast, empty parking lot through our hotel window. There were no cars near the entrances to the department stores, none near the big-box restaurant bunkers lining the lot and none sidling up to any of the satellite shopping strips across the street.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

We could go downstairs to the hotel restaurant, where the staffers wore red felt stocking caps and smiled bravely through double shifts away from their families. But it seemed to me that some research would turn a few restaurants nearby that were open on Christmas Day.

So I turned to Santa’s little helper app, Opentable. I promptly discovered we were but two miles down the road from another cluster of shopping centers, where branches of several familiar chain restaurants were indeed serving food all day.

This could be a story told — with eyes tacitly rolling and snark at the ready — of how I spent too much on huge portions of heavy fare. Of how I ate more than I needed, enjoyed it less than I wanted, and then packed the rest to go because such epic waste is a crime.

But it isn’t.

This is story of how we made do with the dining options that providence had placed before us, and how we figured out how to love our meals.

The fact is we all find ourselves in neighborhoods that seem the spiritual twin to, say, Perimeter Mall and its environs. Quick, unsexy business trips deposit you for a day or two at the Houston Galleria, or in Rockville, Md., or near the King of Prussia Mall outside of Philadelphia. You get hungry and you recognize more or less every restaurant around you. You are in Greater Cheesecakia. A special land of chic doggie bags with raffia handles.

These restaurants are all different — steaks, seafood, Italian — but they are in many ways all the same. Their servers will dress like cruise stewards and never miss an opportunity to upsell. The walls will be lined with pictures of people who’ve never set foot in this restaurant, and the background music from an earlier generation. (Frank Sinatra or, well, Frank Sinatra.)

Their wine lists will feature a broad selection of California cabernet sauvignon and absolutely nothing like that $10 Spanish red you buy at your favorite liquor store. The cocktails still use the “-tini” suffix as liberally as the rainbow hued liqueurs. The bread will arrive warm and tucked into a napkin, and the butter whipped to spreadable softness. The silverware will fill heavy in your hand. The bathrooms will be down a marble corridor and behind a frosted glass door, and if you ask where it is, you will be escorted.

All these restaurants seemingly share a pipeline to the Strategic High-Fat Mashed Potato Reserve and have a controlling stake in the Morton Salt company. They offer spectacular asparagus and raspberries year round — Chile’s finest — and serve everything from anvil-sized wedges of iceberg lettuce with bleu cheese and bacon to equally massive slices of chocolate cake that seem fashioned of equal parts fudge and Plasticine.

But you can’t go all foodie-hater on these places because they also trade in prime steaks, cold-water oysters and other fine ingredients that you don’t eat every day. If you have a guilty pleasure — truffle-Parmesan fries, fish and chips, crème brûlée, fried calamari — you can be sure it’s on the menu at one of these swank chains.

So over that Christmas holiday I developed three simple rules for satisfaction at high-end chains. Here they are:

Oysters at McCormick & Schmick's (AJC Staff)

Oysters at McCormick & Schmick's (AJC Staff)

1. Don’t follow the script: All of these places have a goal in mind, and that is get you to order more food than the human body is designed to eat. Case in point: our first Christmas mall meal at McCormick & Schmick’s, the nationwide chain that specializes in seafood and has local branches in downtown Atlanta’s CNN Center and near Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody.

“Would you like some calamari for the table?” the waitress asks in lieu of hello. “Something to nibble on while you’re deciding on an entree?” I saw where this was heading: fried calamari, followed by a Caesar salad and an order of, oh, say, blackened grouper with crabmeat sauté, andouille mashed potatoes and spinach.

The tacit point of a shareable appetizer is to let you know that salads and entrees are generally considered non-shareable.

Likewise, steakhouses make a lot of brouhaha about the side dishes — how many they serve, how much the table needs and so on. The subtext here is everyone gets his own 24-ounce steak.

So when it came time to fashion a celebration from the menu at McCormick & Schmick’s, I had an idea.

“Why don’t we order oysters, and lots of them?” I suggest to my oyster-loving family. Each of us got a salad or an appetizer — a decent chopped salad with bacon and blue cheese for me, a lump crab “tower” with layers of stacked avocado, mango and crabmeat for one daughter, etc. — and the oysters start coming. If you order by the dozen at this restaurant, these bivalves cost about two dollars per, which is the decent going rate for quality farmed cold-water oysters.

The waitress (staying cheerful through her own Christmas Day double shift) sets up two gleaming, ice-filled platters on the table, and we go to town comparing the Blue Points and the Malpeques, some preferring the creaminess of the former and others favoring the salinity of the latter. The adults at the table get glasses of Chandon sparkling wine.

Another dozen? Why not? Another dozen? Nope, we were full. What a feast! And we spent less than we might have had everyone ordered an entree.

McCormick & Schmick’s: 190 Marietta St., Atlanta, 404-521-1236; 600 Ashwood Parkway, Atlanta, 770-399-9900.

A ginormous salad at Buca di Beppo (AJC Staff)

A ginormous salad at Buca di Beppo (AJC Staff)

2. Eat what you really want and build the rest of the meal around it: Just because a chain builds its brand around, say, overstuffed deli sandwiches, porterhouse steaks or sky-high chunks of cheesecake, it doesn’t mean you have to order any of it.

The family and I find ourselves at Buca di Beppo — the Minneapolis-based chain of family-style Italian restaurants. If you’ve never been to the branch in Alpharetta, then seeing is believing. Within the big-box building lie a warren of windowless rooms meant to evoke one of the old-school red sauce joints that Italian immigrants set up in their basements. Every inch of wall space displays giddy images of Italian tack — pictures of Vespas and popes, of Sophia Loren and Mario Lanza, of grape-stomping and pasta-twirling.

Yes, pasta. Buca di Beppo is a doggie-bag restaurant. You order a dish that “serves four” and lug most of it home. We wanted some pasta, just not oceans of it.

“Doesn’t a big salad and garlic bread sound good?” my daughter asks as we consider our game plan.

That it does. Soon we have a great big basket of warm, crunchy, greasy, puffy garlic bread and a bowl of the restaurant’s chopped antipasto salad, which totally hits the spot. Crisp greens come tossed with cukes, onions, peppers, sharp cheeses and pepperoni — all mounded high in a bowl and served with a pair of tongs. It looks excessive, and we eat every bit. The wine list does cough up a few bottles of honest, rustic Italian reds, including a Regaleali Nero d’Avola.

We do get a small order (serves two) of perfectly decent penne arrabbiata flanked by two spicy link sausages, which takes the place of dessert. We’re all satisfied but not stuffed silly.

Buca di Beppo: 2335 Mansell Road, Alpharetta, 770-643-9463

Crisp green beans at The Capital Grille (Becky Stein)

Crisp green beans at The Capital Grille (Becky Stein)

3. Go for the best, forget the rest: So a second area branch of The Capital Grille has opened near my office in Dunwoody, joining its sister in Buckhead. It is a steakhouse like the scores of others, and it follows the script to a T. There are the shareable appetizers, the soups and salads, the à la carte side dishes, the super-expensive steaks and chops, the monstrously rich dessert.

I am curious to try it because, unlike many other chain steakhouses, this group dry-ages its own beef in-house. I like dry-aged beef a lot because the process gets rid of that metallic flavor of blood that can dominate. Sometimes dry-aging introduces mild flavors of sourness and bacterial spoilage (which can actually be interesting) but mostly it makes the meat taste sweet and clean.

You have to get the best, thickest steak and you need enough people to eat it. And you should outfit it the way you want. If creamed spinach and baked potato is your jam, go for it. I like to get fries (which are very good at The Capital Grille if you can ask the kitchen to lay off the truffle oil) and a salad or some crisp green beans (also good) on the side.

A hungry friend and I make good headway into the 24-ounce dry-aged porterhouse. I like its pure, clean flavor though it didn’t have that mineral edge that can make dry-aged steak so memorable. Still, what a nice thing to have near your office for a splurge that isn’t too expensive if you do it right. Stay away from the script, eat what you want and go for the best.

The Capital Grille: 255 E. Paces Ferry Road, Atlanta, 404-262-1162; 94 Perimeter Center West, Dunwoody, 770-730-8447

21 comments Add your comment

(the other) Rodney

January 17th, 2013
9:32 am

High end chains have their place. Although not my first choice I certianly don’t mind, or protest too much, when I’m brought to one (disclaimer: when dining alone, I nearly almost always choose local even if it’s just the local diner up the road).

It’s all relative, really – the “bread basket on the table” restos mentioned above would be considered “special night” meals in my home town. I can’t count the times I have had to steer family and home-town friends who come to town away from the P.F. Chang’s-McCormick’s-Carrabbas range. Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t.

But I always enjoy the bread ;)

julio_chorizo

January 17th, 2013
10:04 am

What is going on with this page? Unless I missed one, you haven’t done a formal review since Lure on October 18th. There have been plenty of smaller openings that you handed off to the other guys (who do a great job), but I don’t think anybody really wants to read post after post of how you cooked brussel sprouts or how to eat at a chain restaurant.

Hongry Jack

January 17th, 2013
10:28 am

Great article and great ideas. I suppose the chains have it down how to hypnotize the customers into ordering what they want you to order. On an unrelated note, I find it insulting that a large, well known steak house offers discount coupons of a paltry $4 on dinner for 2. That is one chain I no longer patronize just because of that.

MANGLER

January 17th, 2013
10:50 am

We all do seem to bemoan the box stores and restaurants and we all seem to know the spiel to a tee, but we all go. They’re always packed. There’s something to that experience that works.
I’ll admit, when I read the article headline, I half expected it to talk about sending food back even though it was prepared exactly how you ordered it, “finding a hair” in something, and eating most of it and then saying you didn’t like it – because people pull that crap because they know corporate will just comp something.

K-10

January 17th, 2013
11:20 am

You can’t win, can you, John? When you review the high-end, foodie places, you get flamed – “no one can afford to eat out like that”, etc. When you review a few chain places that we foodies will inevitably have to frequent on occasion, and you try to help us out, the foodies go nuts.

As much as I am a foodie, chains do have their place. I will never turn down a bowl of Chicken Bowtie Festival from Johnny Carino’s or a ramen bowl at Houlihan’s, and The Capital Grille’s calamari is really good.

Great article.

julio_chorizo

January 17th, 2013
12:19 pm

@ K-10

A restaurant critic (especially the head critic in a major city) is supposed to be an expert on dining out. As a reader, I expect to learn something — something I likely wouldn’t have experienced through my own, fairly average patronage. I want somebody with an expense account who is paid specifically to try new restaurants to tell me about new restaurants. Now I have to shamefully filter through the lameness of sites like Eater to learn about new places. I want to hear about high-end meals specifically because I can’t afford to eat like that regularly. And if they’re aren’t any notable openings during the slow season, how about putting the same amount of effort into reviewing a place like Bantam+Biddy instead of putting yourself above that by delegating that to the B-team (who are supposed to write the ‘blog-style’ posts).

Sure, the calamari at CG is good. But I know that because I have to listen to co-workers tell me how good it is during banal business lunches. You can’t have a meal there that isn’t banal because that’s the entire point of chains — to not offend. You ordered a bunch of oysters the last time you ate out for a change of pace? I’m glad you liked it. Congratulations. I probably could have figured that out on my own.

Dining sections are understandable trying to find a way to stay relevant. But instead of trying to compete with food blogs, this column is trying to beat them at their own game. You have a budget and a professional writer at your disposal. Take advantage of that and put more effort into the section. Top Chef recaps are cool, but I don’t know if we need a recap of the daily adventures of the lead critic.

johnr506

January 17th, 2013
12:35 pm

julio seems banal without the b.

Grasshopper

January 17th, 2013
1:04 pm

julio is correct in my view.

We get 1 or 2 restaurant reviews a week from John and crew. The rest is filler; often boring filler. (How to roast cauliflower…anyone? Restaurant inspections…whoopee. This months best pizza list…yawn.)

I know restaurant openings are limited these days, but there are so many places to eat in this city that you would think posts on lemon cake recipes and ‘how to split a salad’ would be rare.

John Kessler

January 17th, 2013
1:57 pm

Thanks for the comments, everyone. We’re just trying to mix it up a bit. We still have a starred review each week from our critics as well as these stories. I honestly felt like taking a break from the starred reviews and writing as an opinionated dining reporter rather than as a critic, and my managers have supported me. So I’ve been looking for more real-life topics in the world of dining out. I’m not saying I’m dong a good job on all of these (or any) stories, but It’s been fun to hear from readers who eat out often and have never heard of Bacchanalia. If this story helps someone who’s has emerged from a long sojourn at the Apple store and finds nothing but big-box chains to think strategically about spending money for food, then I think it worked as service journalism.

Kirk

January 17th, 2013
2:37 pm

@ John

I appreciate both sides of the aisle. I cannot afford to dive into the latest greatest or the chain restaurants, but I appreciate hearing about both.

Lorenzo

January 17th, 2013
2:58 pm

I find myself at such “high-end chains” every once in a while, and I do pretty much what John does in his “three simple rules,” though I never thought of it that way. The beginning was a fun read, but I suspect many food-savvy people (that is, the type who read Food and More) have long been eating like that.

Thanks for “trying to mix it up a bit,” John, but I’m in the camp that likes to read restaurant reviews.

Grasshopper

January 17th, 2013
3:28 pm

John, I guess my post was just a jerky way to tell you that I like your restaurant reviews very much and wish you would do more of them. I understand they may get stale to write for you, but they are enjoyed. Jon and Jenny do a fine job as well. So…thanks!

Dee

January 17th, 2013
5:25 pm

This piece and others like it, such as your piece on where to eat before a show in Gwinnett, or how to mix it up at a Chinese restaurant, are some of my favorites, because aside from being smart and fun, they solve a problem. I love your cooking pieces, too, because we can’t eat all our meals out, and our goal is to always eat well. I’ll read anything you write, but count one more vote for keeping your “dining reporter” pieces in the mix. Thanks!

Mimosa

January 18th, 2013
10:29 am

John, I agree with Julio and Grasshopper. Most people who love good food are well aware of the dining strategies you wrote about.

The AJC actually could use more restaurant reviews. This is such a large sized metro area. There are so many new restaurants and changes we’d like to know about.

K-10

January 18th, 2013
2:08 pm

I may have to abstain entirely from this blog because there are just too many mean-spirited, humorless commenters.

kim

January 18th, 2013
4:44 pm

I for one love ALL of your articles! I like that you mix it up. It makes it more relatable to everyday life. Don’t fold Mr. K!! Keep up the good work! I love and appreciate the variety!

Edward

January 18th, 2013
4:56 pm

Enjoyed this article. Real life means you’re not always going to be able to get to those top-notch local places, but must make do with the chains. As John has pointed out, that doesn’t have to be a disappointment.

GeorgePBurdell

January 20th, 2013
2:13 pm

I liked this “busman’s holiday” kind of story. I travel quite a bit for business (over 200 nights away from home last year) and I loved the reference to OpenTable. Between that site and Gayot.com, I can usually discover the best local places to eat.

One thing this story doesn’t cover is the inconsistencies between chain restaurants. Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s are not my fav steak houses but I’ve dined at each chain more than once. There can be big differences in service and the food between locations. OpenTable reviews can be very helpful to discover whether the chain’s location is on a par with their corporate standards.

rebelliousrose

January 21st, 2013
10:58 am

I enjoyed the article; it’s what I do when I go to what I think of as the “big-box restaurants”.

*volunteers to guest review*

crackbaby

January 21st, 2013
5:01 pm

JK – A fine article and change of pace. At chain restaurants (and most Atlanta restaurants) appetizers, salads, etc. are better constructed than entrees.

People who claim that they are foodies are generally insufferable. Thankfully, it’s easy to pick them out of a crowd, you can see their brains directly through their noses ;-)

About your slight to chain establishment bathrooms. Seriously JK, do you prefer to wait in line for one-holer restrooms at places like Flip, Holeman & Finch or the Brick Store Pub? If one thing can be learned by our wonderful independent eatery operators, it would be to provide more accommodating facilities than an interstate Hwy gas station.

BuHi

January 23rd, 2013
3:54 pm

Sorry, but I got a little distracted by the photo of the “Porterhouse Steak” at the top of the article. Am I the only one that sees a pork chop there?