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Workin on the chain gang

So my new boss says, “You know what would be great? If we sent you to the biggest chain restaurants in town and had you write about how the other 99 percent eats.”

And I say: “No.”

Whereupon we briefly reviewed fundamentals of the employer-employee relationship, and I Googled a list of the biggest restaurant chains in the United States of America.

There are some excellent sit-down casual restaurants on that list. Around here, I’ve heard praise heaped on Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s and Dave’s Famous Barbecue in particular, plus the Walden Galleria’s Cheesecake Factory, Hyde Park Steakhouse, and Gordon Biersch, which I gave an 8 out of 10 plate review.

If I was going to dine by edict, though, I didn’t want to take the soft route. So I chose the biggest chains specializing in stuff that dining Buffalonians take pride in making: pizza, wings, Italian food, pub food and fried fish.

Which meant that inside a week, I ate Olive Garden breadsticks, Red Lobster coconut shrimp, steak “fajitas” at Applebee’s, Buffalo Wild Wings mango habanero wings (Yow!) and of course Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza at Pizza Hut.

What I was really hungry for was to understand what makes them tick.

Pizza Hut

Even in Buffalo, a town with major civic pride in its homegrown pizza, I have eaten at Pizza Hut.

I blame the children. You can try to bring them up right, educate them on the finer points of pizza by raising them on Buffalo classics such as Bocce and LaNova, with occasional New York thin-crust standouts like Zetti’s or woodfire-blistered pies for a compare-and-contrast lesson.

Only to have your aesthetics nuked into a glistening lake of brown-bubbled mozzarella by Pizza Hut’s $200 million advertising budget.

Pizza Hut is a global television marketing company that happens to specialize in dough, cheese and tomato sauce. Its pizza is OK if you’re not picky. Where it excels is injecting cravings for its latest cheesy stuffed sensation directly into the forebrains of television watchers. Its marketing powers transcend Earth itself; in 2001 it spent $1 million to deliver a pizza to an orbiting Russian cosmonaut.

The world’s biggest pizza company was born in Wichita, Kan., which had not previously been celebrated for its Italian cuisine. Pepsi bought the company in 1977. The global sugar water wholesaler, adept in the dark arts of television marketing after the Cola Wars with Coca-Cola, turned to pizza. Pizza Hut was eventually spun off with KFC and Taco Bell, two more Top 10 American restaurant chains, as Yum! Brands.

As a group, their special genius is herding the hungry into its corrals with new! specials! every! six! months! while changing the basic ingredients as little as possible. With more than 6,000 Pizza Hut restaurants in the U.S., change is expensive.

Pizza Hut’s latest buzz item, the Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza, surrounds a standard pie with 16 lagoons of Italian five-cheese blend. “Crazy Cheesy Crust is born from a rich innovation heritage that includes the famous Stuffed Crust Pizza, Ultimate Stuffed Crust Pizza and Cheesy Bites, among others,” a press release said. A heritage you can experience for just $12.99, a small price to “take pizza night from fun to phenomenal.”

Inside the Pizza Hut on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, rotini pasta and cut pizzas waited on a steam table for scarce buffet customers. A salad bar had no takers that I saw, until I approached with a plate. Booths weren’t shabby but showed the wear and tear of a thousand pizza nights. No alcohol was available, which was probably for the best.

Half the tables or more had a Crazy Cheesy Crust number, and we joined them. The overextended server had to answer the phone between running orders to the tables, with about 20 customers.

Breadsticks and chicken wings were our appetizers. The breadsticks, cottony and pale, were quickly abandoned by their orderer. The wings couldn’t have been less crispy if they were boiled.

The pizza was not bad. We’d ordered a chicken wing pizza too, which came with a decent crust, finely cubed chicken and too much hot sauce. The Crazy Cheesy Crust lived up to fast-food pizza expectations, with an extra puddle of chewy provolone-tasting dairy product at the end of each slice, but I’d need a much stronger cheese fetish to feel a thrill. This is Buffalo, after all, where the local standard mozzarella load means hardly anyone has to order extra cheese.

Cat brought leftover Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza to work the next day, where people were thrilled to try the pizza they recognized from the television.

The saddest thing about Pizza Hut is its audience discrimination practices. I do dearly want to eat Pizza Hut pizza. In Pakistan.

As part of its international strategy, Pizza Hut has opened 5,000 restaurants in 94 countries, usually with specials catering to local tastes. Maybe you caught the Crown Crust Pizza, ringed with cheeseburger sliders baked into the crust, available only in the Middle East.

Grilled chicken tikka, marinated in Lahori spices, is a standard topping at the more than 40 Pizza Huts in Pakistan. You can order that with a crust stuffed with seekh kabab, seasoned minced meat. Talk about making pizza night phenomenal.

If I called Lahore, and waived the freshness guarantee, would they deliver? Probably not. For all the hunger for new! choices! seekh kabab-stuffed crust in Amherst is beyond the powers of Pizza Hut.

Red Lobster

How can I love Red Lobster after I fell in love with the real thing?

Its 680 stores wear a veneer of classic New England seafood house, a particular species of restaurant that turns fresh local catches into fried and broiled seafood feasts for locals and tourists.

The one I knew best was the Weathervane, in Chichester, N.H., part of a 12-store family-run chain across Maine and New Hampshire. Huge plates of fried haddock, calamari and sweet, native shrimp, breaded and fried to order, arrived piping hot on paper plates. The servers hustled trays out of the kitchen without stopping to introduce themselves and pitch specials.

There are plenty of terrific seafood houses down South, from Maryland crab houses to Carolina shrimp boils to Gulf Coast oyster parlors. But Red Lobster doesn’t want to get nailed down on a regional specialty, instead offering a pan-American seafood tour. Something for everybody.

Now Red Lobster is from everywhere. There’s blackened salmon New Orleans from the Gulf Coast, Thai sweet chile sauce on fried shrimp, pineapple-salsa-topped grilled mahi-mahi for Caribbean flavor, and key lime pie from the Florida Keys.

Yet you cannot get a “fish fry” at the Amherst location. The batter-dipped filet and french fries are Canadian-English: “fish and chips.”

These were some of the things I pondered, waiting for a table on a weekday night. Plus, is waiting for a table with a buzzer in your hand a designed part of the Red Lobster experience? A sort of pre-appetizer hunger amplifier, a chance to admire the burbling tanks of cowering lobsters and page through a 50-entrée menu with more combo suggestions than Batavia Raceway?

Built right into the Red Lobster buzzer is an invitation to hit the Red Lobster website on your phone, where an online seafood trivia game is available to help while away the time.

We waited regardless of open tables, which isn’t necessarily a complaint. Maybe the hostess was seating customers only as fast as the servers on duty could reach them, which is sound restaurant management.

Cat’s broiled seafood platter was enjoyable, with tender tilapia, and shrimp with seafood stuffing and sauce, plus more shrimp in their own little garlic-butter wading pool. My fried seafood was lukewarm, suggesting a lag between the fryer and our table. The clam strips reminded me of trips to the supermarket freezer section. The thin fish fillet was still moist in the middle but the flattened-out shrimp weren’t.

I ate most of it anyway, because I have no defense against fried shrimp. Plus I knew that if I really cared that much, I could have objected, and gotten fresher food.

A customer next table over complained that her lobster tail was dry, drawing an immediate replacement offer. The new lobster tail was pronounced dry as well, provoking apologies and its removal from the check. That is one of Red Lobster’s strengths: its staff. Well-trained service is a sauce that will cover a lot of flaws.

My Key lime pie arrived. It reminded me of Florida, sitting on a fishing dock in Port Richey, killing the afternoon watching pelicans and eating fat cornmeal-crusted shrimp fried up by a barefoot restaurant owner whose brother pulled them out of the Gulf the day before. I miss those shrimp.

Buffalo Wild Wings

Boosters of the local restaurant scene steel themselves before driving down Niagara Falls Boulevard at dinnertime.

Despite an ample population of excellent local places, the full-to-overflowing parking lots at Applebee’s, Outback, Tully’s and others prove that chains are satisfying their customers. The most aggravating example is, of course, Buffalo Wild Wings, the 900-store Minnesota-based chain with outposts in Tonawanda and Hamburg.

In the birthplace of the Buffalo-style chicken wing, how can a chain wing place pack its parking lots too?

Restaurants provide more than food. After a lunchtime visit to the Tonawanda store, that’s my answer.

We got a nod from the woman behind the takeout counter when we walked into a mostly empty place. Five minutes passed before a server approached and asked if we wanted a table. But none of the children complained, because Buffalo Wild Wings is saturated with televisions. There is no spot in the open room where 20 big screens aren’t competing for your attention, with more than 50 in the place, our server said.

If you have kids, Buffalo Wild Wings is the tranquilizer rifle of restaurants. Nary a complaint or bicker was heard while my young hungries feasted on the buffet of distractions. A motocross rider tumbled over loose stone as competitors raced by. Rugby players smashed their heads together, and I got to explain the word “scrum.” A Golden Corral ad for all-you-can-eat wings filled some of the screens, and no one noticed but me. The Pizza Hut Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza, which I now know by heart, slid across screens, just as unremarked.

Yes, Buffalo Wild Wings has food, mostly chicken products with a lively array of sauces. Some of it was even good. But nothing I ate was as satisfying as the peace and quiet of glaze-eyed children.

At Buffalo Wild Wings, we are all champions at America’s real greatest pastime, watching television. In furtherance of that excellence, Buffalo Wild Wings has something to soothe the twitchy fingers caressing phantom remotes. A wireless Buzztime keyboard lets customers play real-time trivia games, and card games like poker, competing against other customers.

I asked for one when we sat down, but our server didn’t deliver. He was the exception to the generally sound service I experienced during my time on the chain gang. Asking a table if they want anything else while you’re already walking away is a turnoff, as is greeting a request for water refills with “You’re really giving me a workout today.”

We ordered five flavors of wings, fried pickles, and a corn dog bite kid’s meal. They arrived after a puzzling wait. Most of the wings were lukewarm, some downright soft, though I don’t know if the server was to blame.

I particularly enjoyed the Thai curry wings, which were piquant and crispy.

Would I go back for them? Heck yes, if a bunch of friends wanted to go watch a game. If it was just me and the 50 TVs? Not appetizing.


With almost 2,000 Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bars across 49 states, the chain is a strong candidate for the title of biggest mom-and-pop restaurant killer in America.

Applebee’s isn’t trying to sell you steak with an Australian twist, or newfangled pizza crust sensations. It’s trying to replace the homey little restaurant or corner pub where you used to spend your meal dollars.

None of which is as important as this fact: The happy hour deals are terrific. Applebee’s corporate synergies deliver lower prices to consumers, and the free market does the rest. How can mom and pop compete with the marketing budgets that bring you promotions like two car washes plus two Applebee’s dinners for $25?

The menu is designed to deliver food by the tractor trailer load. Much of the food is precooked and reheated by microwave to fill orders. The results aren’t uniformly awful – I enjoyed my medium rare steak fajita no matter how long it was frozen. It was juicy, tender and had a little char. If it had been sliced neatly instead of hacked into haphazard pieces I wouldn’t have a cross word about it.

The chicken breast in the pasta was woody, though, and watery imitation Alfredo sauce didn’t help. The pasta had a sticky bite of leftovers.

But you could find that at a mom and pop, too. The Applebee’s chicken sandwich with bacon, cheese and barbecue sauce drew no complaints. The crispy chicken salad was lauded by its owner, even though she could bring herself to eat only half. Cat appreciated the dollop of fresh avocado on her margarita chicken and shrimp, and enjoyed everything down to the rice. Except for the chicken.

The mix-and-match menu offers lots of variations of a familiar slate of ingredients and sauces, including a bunch calculated to weigh in under 550 calories. Happy hours of $2 drafts, $4 Bahama Mamas and Long Island Ice Teas, half-price appetizers.

Also: No surprises.

No wonder the parking lot’s full.

Olive Garden

Oh, Olive Garden. Who can resist the way your tastefully lit faux Tuscan villas sprout alongside gridlocked commercial strips, like so many stuccoed mushrooms after a storm?

Olive Garden. What Italian food tastes like to most Americans.

Olive Garden, redefining “local” and “genuine,” because it can, in sentences like “Olive Garden is a family of more than 750 local restaurants committed to providing every guest with a genuine Italian dining experience.”

A genuine Italian dining experience that starts with being pitched a seasonal cocktail of watermelon margarita. (I suppose it’s watermelon season somewhere.) Then there is this: You cannot get actual Italian olives at Olive Garden. You know, the kinds they eat in Tuscany. Instead, its bland, buttery, California cousin shows up.

That’s niggling, really. Olive Garden’s vast legions of fans can get something there more important than authenticity, or garlic: satisfaction.

I was forced to confront this realization after my eldest daughter came out to me as an Olive Garden fan. Now this is a girl who’s embraced first-class restaurants and wild flavors from around the world. She loves xiao long bao, Shanghaiese soup dumplings. She can explain the right way to eat them, down to the proper use of black vinegar. As a child, she once asked for more calamari in squid ink.

What’s her favorite restaurant? Olive Garden, where she goes with her mom for soup – always the Zuppa Toscana, a satisfyingly creamy potato soup with sausage and kale – plus salad, plus breadsticks. “It’s always the same,” she said, a compliment.

You know what? I get it. There’s a special sharpness to disappointment when you’re hungry, and Olive Garden will rarely leave a regular customer disappointed. For once, the ads don’t lie: What you see is what you get.

Olive Garden gets people to wait an hour because it’s removed more out of Italian cuisine than garlic and anchovies and olives with pits; it’s taken out the risk.

Take Olive Garden’s signature special. Even if you’ve never been, you probably know it, thanks to a billion dollars in TV time. Unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks. A meal anyone could prepare at home after a brief supermarket visit.

Which matters naught compared to this: $7.50 until 4 p.m. If you like the soup, who cares if the cooks just warmed it up?

If you enjoy the salad – because iceberg lettuce and Italian dressing and grated cheese hits the spot, or you count eating seconds of salad as a diet – so what if it was bagged? Where does anyone get their salad in April?

And those breadsticks, popped in the oven, a little oil and garlic salt, who can resist them? (They used to be better, everyone agrees. Then they ask for more.)

You could’ve opened your own damn box from the freezer aisle and warmed breadsticks up yourself. Or relax, contemplate seconds, pick croutons out of the salad, and sip a glass of Chianti without having to listen to “Mack the Knife.” For $7.50.

That is not to say Olive Garden’s kitchen satisfies everyone. My braised beef tortelloni ($15.50) offered slices of moderately tender meat in a red wine sauce. A sort of Italian pot roast that reheats well, and I enjoyed it. But the tortellini were undercooked and chewy.

Then the zeppoli stole my heart.

Authentic? Real Italian zeppoli are usually ricotta enriched doughnuts or filled creampuff-like dainties. They are also spelled with an “e,” and perhaps that’s supposed to signal a difference. Because the Olive Garden zeppoli ($6.50) are rectangles of fried dough, tossed in cinnamon powdered sugar and served warm, with a ramekin of warm melted chocolate.

In which I drowned what remained of my authenticity concerns. It was delicious.

So much so that when I received a plate of similar warm doughnuts, a week later at another restaurant that made practically everything from scratch, I looked for something to dunk them in and sighed.

That was a pretty good doughnut. But it was no Olive Garden.