In 1998, my husband and I had Christmas dinner at a TGI Fridays in East St. Louis, Ill. It's not a family tradition. It was late in the evening and we were driving cross-country from New York to LA. Our Holiday Inn Express shared a parking lot with an ominously dark Arby's. While I don't remember what I ate that night, I do remember the joy I felt when I saw that old-timey sign shining like the star of Bethlehem in the off-ramp of darkness. OK, I'm getting a bit carried away. But we were hungry and tired and feeling sorry for ourselves and that all changed when we stepped into the restaurant. The place was packed and lively. Music blared. There was a full bar. We ate, drank, were merry and left a big tip.
Which is to say that even if you're an established foodie who likes to support local, independent businesses, there are times when a well-run chain restaurant has your back. If you need a meal at an odd hour, are dining with a crowd or completely alone, or if you're juggling squirmy kids, you can expect a chain restaurant to be happy, and usually prepared, to see you. But even if the doors are open and there's room at the inn, a restaurant still needs to provide good food and service. I went to a few of Anchorage's more prominent chains to see how they fared.
Where: 190 W. Tudor Road
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-12 a.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
My daughters and I began at TGI Fridays for a mid-week lunch and, whatever else you can say about corporate culture, the place runs like a well-oiled machine. No less than three enthusiastic greeters met us at the door and within moments we were seated with menus, water, crayons and the promise of a waiter, who was quick on our hostess' heels. So that's good.
However, before I knew what hit me, my daughter was deep into a blue-raspberry lemonade slushee and a plate of mozzarella sticks. That's less good. The waiter had "suggested" these items while taking our drink orders and my daughter was quick to take his advice. I know how to say no, but I don't like being in the position of having to. I am fully aware that our waiter was following the restaurant's policies, but I prefer to choose what to eat at my leisure and with a complete menu informing my choices.
That said, our waiter was friendly, fast and wearing an appropriate amount of flair. Food runners were attentive and refilled glasses. Three different floor staffers checked in with us to make sure we had what we needed.
As for the food, it was fine, if forgettable. The mozzarella sticks ($8.99) were hot and gooey and everything that a mozzarella stick should be. The same can be said for my daughter's fried chicken strips ($11.99). Let's just say they've got the frying thing down. My trademarked Jack Daniel's burger ($10.99) was decent, and I liked the aggressive punch of the barbecue sauce. It's quite sweet but with a strong hit of soy sauce to cut through it. Add a generous portion of bacon and I had little to complain about. Except for the fries. They were "seasoned" and had an unpleasant chemical after-taste. My daughter, who never met a potato she didn't like, left the better portion on her plate.
Likes: Energetic, fast and friendly service. Clean, welcoming atmosphere. Well-run fry station.
Dislikes: Upselling at the table, unpleasant seasoning on the french fries.
Where: 1186 N. Muldoon Road
Where: 800 E. Dimond Blvd., Suite 160
Hours: Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Our next stop was Olive Garden, where I took my family for a post-Christmas-shopping early dinner. When the first Anchorage Olive Garden opened, it was welcomed with the enthusiasm that only Alaskans can muster when greeting an Outside business. I remained skeptical. After all, who can't cook decent pasta at home? It was a strange time for dinner (just after 4 p.m.) but there was already a line of people to be seated. So I guess Alaska's enthusiasm has not yet waned. After a wait of 15 minutes (which was accurately predicted by the host), we were seated with water and menus. After about five minutes, a manager came to our table, apologized for the wait, and said she was going to "help out" the obviously slammed waitress in our station. She took drinks and appetizer orders and made us feel like VIP customers rather than the victims of an over-booked room. The manager was busy earning her title that day.
Fried food was not the highlight of the meal. We ordered a trio of fried calamari, mozzarella triangles and ravioli ($14.29). The calamari was unremarkable as was the mozzarella, and the ravioli were hard and chewy with an unpleasant, muddy filling.
However, no one was complaining because of the staggering amount of breadsticks, salad and drinks that arrived at steady intervals. The breadsticks lack -- let's just say "substance" -- but they're hot and soft and filling and I understand their appeal. My entrée began with a (bottomless) bowl of soup. Olive Garden has four to choose from, and I selected the Toscana: a potato-sausage-kale soup in a pleasantly light broth. I've been craving it ever since. Satisfying but not too heavy, it had a subtle spice and the kale curbed the richness of the sausage. A definite winner.
Our entrees were less remarkable. Of the lasagna, chicken Parmesan and fettuccini Alfredo (A Tour of Italy platter, $21.49), not much left an impression. But the portions were huge and everyone cheerfully ate the leftovers for lunch the next day. A return visit would have us going much lighter on the appetizers and entrees -- it ended up being a ridiculous amount of food.
Likes: Attentive service (including from management), unlimited breadsticks, salad and soup (try the Toscana!).
Dislikes: Unimpressive fried appetizers, bland entrees.
Where: 101 W. 34th Avenue
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Sun. 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m
Our next stop was Outback Steakhouse. My father, a frequent traveler, has long said that Outback is his choice when stuck in a tangle of airport/highway-exit options. Outback is an older chain restaurant presence in Anchorage, and the room looks a bit run down -- like it's overdue for a makeover. But we were seated at a pleasant booth and my girls declared it "homey." The menu is straightforward -- steaks, seafood and burgers. The food at Outback was the closest we came to home-cooking and had the least "processed" taste. The steaks ($17.99 for a 9 oz. sirloin) were seasoned simply and cooked well, the shrimp had a pleasantly buttery glaze ($24.99 for the filet and grilled shrimp combo) and it was nice to be able to opt for a simple baked potato instead of a fried side or salad. The food, simply put, tasted like real food.
Likes: Well-executed, straightforward steaks and sides, pleasant service.
Dislikes: Under-maintained facility. A bit dingy.
Where: 4331 Credit Union Drive
Where: 7611 Debarr Road
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-12 a.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Our last link on this chain of dining visits (see what I did there?) was to the Midtown Applebee's, and it was our least favorite by far. While the service was attentive (though comparatively low-key), the food was so uninspired as to be depressing. We began with an order of pretzel sticks ($7.49) which arrived sitting in a pool of grease. They had the strange interior chewiness of pizza crust that has been reheated in a microwave. In other words, I'm pretty sure no oven was involved in the production of this dish. The cheese dip was fine but wasn't hot enough, so it was congealing unpleasantly when it arrived at the table.
I opted for the sandwich-soup combo of a BLT and French onion soup ($9.99). The sandwich was fine, but the soup was a cold, greasy-looking mess with a glob of hardened Swiss cheese floating on top, a far cry from the browned and bubbling goodness pictured on the menu. In addition, the white plates all had scuff marks on them -- black streaks that don't rub off and make the dishes look dirty. The presentation was almost aggressively lackluster, with not even a sprig of parsley to be found.
Likes: Affordable menu options and combos.
Dislikes: Uninspired food and presentation, cold soup, unpleasantly stained dishes.
My dining preferences will always lean toward local establishments. However, a few weeks of mainstream dining has taken the edge off my foodie elitism. A warm welcome, professional service, comfort food and menus that come with crayons and a game of "Connect the Dots"? Chain-restaurant dining has its perks.
By Mara Severin
Daily News correspondent