- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

The holidays are past, and now we must pay. But fear not, we all still can go out to dinner. There’s an alternative to expensive fine dining. Not expensive, not fine and perhaps not necessarily dining, but going out to eat can be lots of fun without being overly dear.

The chains — not the fast-food emporiums, but the national restaurants that offer pleasant surroundings and tasty and usually well-prepared food at reasonable prices — can be the surprising answer. A lot of the food is deep-fried, but there are other choices. Because they’re nearly always in the suburbs, there’s plenty of free parking. All are wheelchair-accessible, and all are family-friendly, with children’s menus.

We’ve chosen four as typical: California Pizza Kitchen (the only one with a District venue), Red Lobster, Chili’s and Olive Garden. In each, we found at least one outstanding dish: At CPK, it’s the pot stickers, the excellent sesame-ginger chicken dumplings; Red Lobster serves a superb steamed lobster; the ribs at Chili’s are first-rate; and Olive Garden’s pizza makes a fine starter. All offer large, creamy, fancy desserts.

Our first stop was Red Lobster, which serves live lobster and several kinds of fresh fish that can be prepared grilled, broiled, fried or blackened — salmon, trout, tilapia, haddock and catfish. Prices vary from $8.25 to $9.25 at lunch and $13.25 to $17 for dinner. Oysters and crab cakes (not outstanding, but good) are fresh, not frozen.

All other fish dishes are frozen.

The fresh lobster ($22 for 1 pounds and $37 for 2 pounds) is wonderful. We ordered it steamed, and it came to the table perfectly cooked, sweet, tender and delicious, served with excellent coleslaw and melted butter (not margarine).

Shrimp are another specialty of the house, especially on “shrimply Tuesdays,” when you can get 30 shrimp for $11. Lemon-pepper shrimp were quite good; popcorn shrimp were OK. Both suffered from oversalting.

Red Lobster also serves steak, chicken and several pasta dishes. The salad that comes with the entrees is nondescript; the baked potato is just fine, accompanied by sour cream and butter. The Chesapeake cheese biscuits are particularly fine. The restaurants are decorated with fishy themes; tables are made of wood dyed red. Service is good.

Olive Garden is a large restaurant, typically divided into several rooms. Wooden tables of all sizes with chairs on rollers (fun for youngsters and childlike adults) and photographs of old Italy and strings of fake peppers hung from the ceilings create a pleasant atmosphere.

We shared a very good pizza with mushrooms and olives as a starter. The San Remo seafood dip, a creamy combination of crabmeat, cheese and tomato sauce, is pleasant. If the breadsticks had had more flavor, the dip would have been even better. Similarly, the much-touted bottomless salad bowl served with all entrees is a bland combination of iceberg lettuce, a few tomato, onion and cucumber slices and dressing that tastes like the bottled version.

Pastas tend to be overcooked and oversauced. From Monday to Feb. 8, Olive Garden will offer a special promotion on two new dishes: chicken and portobello mushroom lasagna and three-meat lasagna, a combination of meatballs, pepperoni, sauce and cheese, topped with a traditional meat sauce.

The best entree we tried was a mixed grill, skewers of chunks of grilled chicken breast and mild sausage. The sausage could be spicier, but the chicken was moist and delicious.

Olive Garden has quite an extensive and well-priced wine list. Service is eager, if somewhat inefficient. Prices range from $5.50 to $8.50 for starters and $8 to $15 for most main courses, with lunchtime entrees about $3 or $4 cheaper.

California Pizza Kitchen has good pizzas — not of the quality of Two Amys or Pizza Paradiso, but very good nonetheless — with either a regular chewy, breadlike dough or the thin, crisp Neapolitan style. My favorite is the Thai chicken pizza, topped with pieces of marinated chicken breast in a slightly spicy peanut, ginger and sesame sauce and a sprinkling of cilantro, crushed peanuts and bean sprouts.

CPK makes some interesting salads and pastas. The latter include fusilli with broccoli and sun-dried tomatoes; spinach fettuccine with a sauce of chicken, peppers and onions in a tequila-lime cream sauce; and linguini jambalaya, which includes crawfish, andouille sausage and tasso ham.

Appetizers shouldn’t be neglected. The sesame-ginger chicken dumplings are particularly delicious, served in a slightly sweet, mild soy-and-ginger sauce and topped with sesame seeds and scallions. Singapore shrimp rolls, served cold, are crisp and tasty. The Asian influence is strong at CPK.

The apple crisp, sweet and buttery, is always popular with children. Service is pleasant and cheerful. The decor is simple and unobtrusive. Pizzas range in price from $9 to $11, pastas from about $9 to $13 and appetizers from $4 to $7.

Chili’s is loud and jolly. Wooden tables are inlaid with bright Mexican tiles; the hanging lamps are made from large upside-down copper kettles. It’s a place that exudes good cheer. Portions are large, and most dishes are pretty good. The pork ribs are delicious, albeit smothered in a sauce that is sweet, with too much tomato and not enough spice. Monterrey chicken is an unusual combination of grilled chicken breast topped with barbecue sauce, bacon, cheese and tomatoes. It’s moist and quite tasty.

The country-fried steak, heavenly when done right, is tough, thick and drowned in tasteless cream gravy. Go for the steaks and hamburgers. The ear of corn served with some of the main courses is mushy and overcooked, but an ear of corn in December is an anachronism, anyway.

Fajitas, either beef or chicken, appear in several forms: as a salad with bacon, black beans and corn; as a sandwich with peppers and onions on pita bread; as an appetizer on corn tostadas; or in the classic style with tortillas, cheese and sour cream.

Chili’s chili is very good but has no beans. The Southwestern egg rolls are a mix of smoked chicken, black beans, spinach, corn and cheese in crisp flour tortillas. The rolls are served with a creamy dipping sauce and make a fine starter, easily shared.

Service is courteous and efficient, and prices are right: $3 to $9 for starters; sandwiches and salads $7.50 to $10; main courses $8.50 to $15 (for a 12 ounce rib-eye steak).

The national chains are always reliable, and there’s something for everyone’s taste buds, including the little ones’. They make a virtue of no surprises. For locations, check the telephone book, or for hours, menus and locations, check the restaurants’ Web sites:


www.chilis.com or www.chilis.net



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