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.
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:
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.
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
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