Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Where I said "I would imagine the boardrooms of Brinker and Darden are in similar positions right now, determining how to survive the relative slow economy. What's their death spiral chain going to be? "
And the answer, according to this article in August 19th Star-Telegram is Romano's Macaroni Grill. "Brinker Sells 80% stake in ailing Macaroni Grill Chain". Yea, no kidding?
Try as I might to avoid, sometimes I am forced to go to the Publicly Traded Chains, and recently I visited two entirely different locations of the venerable Macaroni Grill chain. One in Addison, and the other in Denver, CO near the Tech Center.
Mr. Jose's Mom is a big fan, so we took her to the Addison location. Our experience could not have been better. My chicken parm was even crispy, a rarity in this day and age. Mrs. Jose loved her dish. Mr. Jose's Mom was having a grand evening. Their signature bread was great, as it always is. Our waitress was fantastic. She gave us extra wine for free. If I ran an independent restaurant, I would hire her on the spot. Sometimes a visit like this makes me feel guilty about going after the chains...
Only TWO WEEKS later, we were at the one in Denver's Tech Center off Arapahoe Rd. Mrs. Jose's family loves Romano's, so we treated the whole clan to a dinner one Friday night (there were 8 of us). Our waiter, a man who did try as hard as possible, was either inexperienced or incompetent. Probably both, though I did feel bad for him. Especially since he was sweating. Literally. Drink orders and refills sometimes would show up, sometimes not. Getting extra bread was a chore. My meal ended up somewhere else, resulting in Mr. Jose getting his after everyone else was finished. It was completely ridiculous. I did get my meal free, for what it's worth. No one at the table seemed to enjoy themselves. I grunted to my wife "Why are we not at one of our favorite Denver area Regular Joe's Guide places?"
Point being, these chains are wildly inconsistent. They are corporations with employees who have no ownership in the business. It's a job for them, and your experience there can be random.
..... So back to the article at hand. Phil Romano, the erstwhile founder of namesake chain, had this juicy morsel of a quote: "They ran it by committee and made it look like Chili's" and "With Macaroni Grill it's not 'location, location, location.' It's 'authenticity, authenticity, authenticity.'" Authenticity? SHUT UP! It also notes that Mr. Romano said that Brinker ran the chain into the ground. No way - really?
Well, Mr. Romano, if you were that passionate about your restaurant then why did you sell it to a publicly traded company who's core business is to return shareholder value? We all know why - because you stood to make a fortune (DOUBLE DUH). Good for you. You're a smart businessman. Now take your money and go home. But don't go crying now about it. The article also mentions he worked at Brinker 14 years. Of course they ran it into the ground.
So the new owners are of course looking to give you, the consumer, a great meal right? The article continues "Golden Gate is well-known for partnering with corporations to help grow established consumer and retail brands." I don't know about you, but where does it say they plan on improving the quality of their meatballs?
The death spiral is on. Time to "close under performing units", "cut food costs", "reevaluate strategy", "look at our labor situation".
Goodbye Romano's Macaroni Grill.
BTW, Darden had their earnings yesterday. Seems like Red Lobster and the Longhorn Steakhouse existing store sales are experiencing a loss. Red Lobster is too iconic, so look for the death spiral chain to be Longhorn. You watch.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Garfield's, Susquehanna, PA: Garfield's to me represents the epitome of the boring 1980's styled chain. But we were on the open road from Harrisburg, PA to Geneva, NY and it was way past lunch time and we'd already given up on our original plan to head to Penn State University, since we were running behind schedule. Garfield's, predictably enough, sits at the entrance of an equally boring mall. That said, Mr. Jose was more than impressed with Garfield's for offering locally made Pennsylvania wine. For that alone, the stop was worth it. Bravo to this branch of Garfield's!
Mighty Taco, Tonawanda, NY: Loved it, loved it, loved it! After the lackluster Spicy Thai experience, Mr. Jose decided dessert needed to be at the nearby Mighty Taco. Mrs. Jose, the beautiful woman who I have been married to for 11 years, agreed. She had only one and I had 2, but I could tell they were delicious. Old school, ground beef, mushmeat tacos. I love 'em. My only gripe is that I got hot, only to find out they have a x-hot. Next time, and I do hope there will be a next time. Mighty Taco is a local chain in the Buffalo area with quite a few locations.
Jenny's Ice Cream, Williamsburg, NY: Did I say we got dessert at Mighty Taco? Ahem, well we went for a second dessert then at Jenny's a wonderful homemade ice cream place in the quaint town of Williamsburg, just west of Buffalo and where we were staying. Looks like I can point to the day I gained 5 pounds....
Fireside Thai Jasmine and Pi-Tom's, Toronto, ONT: Two separate Thai restaurants that we had on the two nights we were in Toronto. Remember when Mrs. Jose gets in that zone for Thai food, there ain't no stopping her! Even she wishes she'd stopped herself. Both are entirely uninspiring. Fireside is definitely the better of the two. Nicer help, but the appetizer we had was awful (a variety of the fried spring roll, that had so much filler and dough, it could only be called gross). As for Pi-Tom's - lose the attitude folks. Food is bland-ola. Doesn't matter, it'll close soon. The trendy places always do. The Regular Joe's Guide kinda places don't.
Burgundy's 780, Toronto, ONT: We stopped here for lunch. Very good little tavern in the downtown area of Yorktown. I thought for sure it was a chain, but it isn't! Nothing very distinctive, but everything was good. Worth a stop for lunch if you're nearby.
Adam and Eve Chocolatier, Toronto, ONT: We enjoyed this place so much the first night, we went back the second. They feature gelato rather than ice cream, and is all homemade on the premises. Excellent and recommended to those in downtown Toronto.
Jane's Ice Cream, Saugerties, NY: Jane's is made in nearby Kingston, NY. I can't remember the name of the place we had the ice cream, it wasn't called Jane's, but they serve it. Outstanding. Though I'm sure everyone who lives there already knows this.
Olde Philadelphia Tavern, Philadelphia airport: This was our final lunch before flying home to DFW. Believe it or not, Mrs. Jose liked their Philly Cheesesteak better than Rick's. Go figure. You know what, it wasn't bad at all. There are way worse places in the airports. If you're flying American, this is a good alternative to the chains. I think they're a local chain actually, as I see other locations, but no website to consolidate that evidence.
With the great taste of Little Italy still on our mind, we stuck to our game plan, and headed over to Luca’s for dinner. We sat down and prepared to order win when the waiter said it was “BYOB”. What? As noted many times in the RJG, BYOB is a concept we love in Texas, and I know it exists in a few other states, but New Jersey is one place I did not expect to hear this. So I immediately asked where the nearest liquor store was. The waiter seemed surprised, but didn't realize we were guests on vacation, so we only had one shot at this. He said there was one only a few minutes away. Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Jose want our wine with our Italian food!
With that out of the way, we settled into Luca’s and prepared for our Italian meal. Could it be as good as the night before? Well, almost! Luca’s is a little bit more modern, and there were nods to the Romano’s Macaroni Grill way of doing things (olive oil and pepper for the bread, extra large portions). And really, what’s wrong with that? Nothing. The biggest weakness of the publicly traded Macaroni Grill is consistency, like all major chains. Since we've only been to Luca’s once, I can’t comment on consistency, but overall we were both quite pleased with our meal. I again stuck to the basics and wasn't disappointed. The portions here are quite large, and are ideal for take home leftovers, though we weren't obviously in a position to do so.
Luca’s is a two store local chain. The other being on the way to the New York side of the state in Somerset, NJ.
Food: 11/15 (Excellent first visit. Not as good as Little Italy the night before)
Atmosphere: 3/5 (typical modern rendition of what an authentic Italian trattoria should be, but rarely is. Like Macaroni Grill in that way)
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Food: Mr. Jose 11/15. Mrs. Jose 8/15
Atmosphere: 4/5 (Outstanding industrial brewery / brewpub feel)
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Like many of the small towns in the Adirondacks, Tupper Lake doesn’t possess a large chain hotel. Since Mr. Jose travels a lot for business, I tend to stay at Marriott or Hilton owned hotels – generally the more business friendly ones like Hampton Inn or Courtyard. And so I’ve made that a habit for personal trips as well, and Mrs. Jose likes the free breakfasts at the Hampton in particular. We typically eat light for breakfast, nothing more a bagel, coffee, juice, yogurt, fruit, maybe some cereal. And that’s what Hampton excels at. But for Tupper Lake, I needed to be creative. After searching the internet, I settled on the Tupper Lake Motel . For the first time in many years, I actually had to call the motel to make a reservation and then reaffirm prior to leaving. Once we arrived, I knew I had made the right choice. Run by a older Slovakian couple, the Tupper Lake Motel reminded me of the motels of my childhood, traveling with my Dad as a little kid. A classic 1950’s era single story motel, with a pool in the middle of the complex (see website above). Our room was nothing more than a queen size bed, a table with 2 chairs, and a tiny bathroom. All in tip-top shape, clearly having been renovated and the maids take good care of the rooms. After walking around the lake some, Mrs. Jose and I went over to a local liquor store and picked up a cold bottle of Chardonnay, made in New York’s Finger Lakes region. And we sat in our little motel room, and drained the entire bottle, with glasses provided by the proprietors – not to mention they opened the bottle for us (I gambled that their European heritage would come through on this point).
With a good buzz on, we stumbled into town via foot to the Little Italy restaurant, recommended by both the hotel owner and the liquor store owner. Of course we each promptly ordered a glass of wine! We passed on the appetizer and I settled for a good old fashioned plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Ahhh, old fashioned homemade meatballs! So yummy. Why is it so hard to find these anymore? And the pasta? Al dente, without me having to ask for it that way. Just comes natural to those that know what they’re doing. And it was still steaming hot on the last bite. Mrs. Jose went for a pasta dish loaded with broccoli and other veggies. All outstanding. The perfect fuel for our waltz back to the motel. I believe they have another location in nearby Saranac Lake, but I’m not 100% sure.
Food: 11/15 (Highest grade for only one visit. Excellent high quality old-school Italian)
Atmosphere: 3/5 (Situated in a renovated older building, the restaurant has a slightly modern look – but very comfortable)
I couldn't find another review for this fine restaurant, so we may be first!
Monday, August 18, 2008
We've talked about the corporate chain Jersey Mike’s before in the RJG, and Jrecks has a similar formula of freshly sliced deli meats (high quality) and an array of toppings and dressings. Mrs. Jose also went for the soup du jour (Cream of Broccoli I think). I’d never heard of Jrecks prior, but if you’re living in Upstate New York, then I’m sure the name is familiar. They’re based in Watertown and currently have 42 locations, all in this part of New York. Mr. Jose loves a good regional chain, and Jrecks is exactly the kind of fast food discovery that makes these kind of adventures fun. Another reference point for my DFW readers is The Great Outdoors.
Food: 11/15 (A great sub sandwich)
Sunday, August 17, 2008
To be honest I was expecting a fast food place, but to my surprise it’s an actual sit down restaurant. Mrs. Jose likes that. I ordered the white chicken sandwich on a Kaiser role, and it comes with a Greek Salad (well, as an option for a small charge if I remember right). Mrs. Jose had something similar. And I think it came with a soup as well. Well… the salad was good anyway. As for the sandwich, I guess the appeal is in the dipping sauce. Unfortunately for us, we’re not into sweet sauces too much – and the honey cinnamon concoction wasn't to our liking – at all. Without the sauce, the sandwich is bone dry. Not the moist tender bits one would expect with the term “rotisserie”. Mrs. Jose seemed to enjoy the soup, but I was nonplussed. OK, it’s a boring chain, and I should not have expected anything more. But it sure was painful paying 30 some dollars (and at 1 to 1, that’s the US price!) for two ordinary chicken sandwiches and side salads. Oh well.
Food: 8/15 (zzzzzzzzzz)
Saturday, August 16, 2008
We ordered a bottle of wine and a chicken satay appetizer, and all seemed to be on course for a fine meal. Then the trouble began. As stated before, Mrs. Jose likes her vegetables with her chicken dish. She asked if they would add some veggies to her chicken basil. A rhetorical question as far as we’re concerned. The waitress said she would ask and later came back and said they would not. To be clear, we said that we would be glad to pay extra for it. “Sorry, it’s not possible.” What do you mean “it’s not possible?” Are you kidding me? What, are all the dishes pre-made or something? Are we at McDonalds now? Throw some broccoli, carrots and bok choy in there and we’ll all be happy. No can do. As for Mr. Jose, I asked if they had ground chicken. They didn’t (not uncommon) so I asked if they would chop my chicken up. NOPE! “Can’t do that”. Must be rough in the old kitchen, so busy and all, especially since we were THE ONLY PEOPLE IN THE RESTAURANT. Well now I know why. I mean, it’s got to be so difficult to get a knife out and chop up the chicken pieces. Mrs. Jose took a peek in the kitchen and said the cooks looked like rap gangsters. They were Thai, but they dressed like they lived in the ‘hood. LAZY LAZY LAZY. Since we were already half way into the meal, we went ahead with our orders. I asked for mine Thai Hot, and they warned me (the usual). I said “kill me”. When delivered, she stated that the food was going to be too spicy for me, but that’s what I asked for. Yea, if Taco Bell fire sauce is too hot, then maybe? I won’t say it was mild or even medium, but it wasn’t even close to Thai Hot. To be fair, our food was pretty good, as even the cooks couldn’t ruin the quality recipes the owners obviously possess. Too bad the owners don’t care about anything else. I’m sure there are better Thai restaurants in the Buffalo area than this. It would be depressing to find out otherwise.
Food: 9/15 (but remember to order like you’re at McDonalds)
Atmosphere: 2/5 (standard strip center look)
Monday, August 11, 2008
After the Nonna's Trattoria disaster, we decided to go with the original game plan, a local tavern called Parker's Grille and Tap House. It was about a 15 minute walk through the somewhat shabby town center. It's actually pretty depressing, reminding me of many similar town centers in the 1980s before the gentrification renaissance began. And would you believe, no one greeted us here either? Must be the way things are in Geneva, NY. If I were the leader of the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, I'd hold a quick training session on the art of making customers feel welcome. It was pretty hot inside, and one look at the menu didn't seem overly inspiring, so we left pretty quickly. Honestly it felt more like a biker bar. We weren't there long enough to really know much about the place, so it won't draw the Mr. Jose ire as did Nonna's.
Again, things happen for a reason.
Mrs. Jose had remembered seeing a Chinese restaurant on the drive into town, and it was only one block over from Parker's. Now you won't see too many Chinese restaurants in the RJG. We just haven't had much luck with them. A couple of places in Denver were pretty good, and almost all in the DFW area have been disappointing. For one thing, they seem to confuse the terms spicy with sweet. The hotter we ask for it, the sweeter it gets. We don't like sweet food, unless it's dessert. Or habaneros of course. But not much was going our way, and we were running out of options as nightfall was approaching.
"Welcome, please have a seat" said the waitress as we walked in. Wow! What a concept! Greeting us as we enter a restaurant. Somebody needs to get word to the city leaders that Wing Tai actually wants customers. Can't have that.
The interior was old school all the way - dark, lots of red and gold. Worn carpet and panelled walls. The kind of place that went the way of the dodo after the Asian Fusion rage of P.F. Chang's and its thousands of imitators. The kind of place that the Tong's would feel comfortable conducting business in. A Regular Joe's Guide kinda place.
Remember the $7 chintzy wine glasses at Villa di Roma in Philadelphia? How about $4 large glasses of local Finger Lake wine? YES! I ordered the Chicken Chili. That's what it was called - chicken chili. I asked the waitress what it was. She said, it's pretty much chopped chicken, very spicy, with rice and very little vegetables. Sounded like something Mr. Jose designed for them! I had to have it. Mrs. Jose had the Lo Mein with chicken. And something magical occurred for both of us: This was the best Chinese food we'd ever had! Maybe Brandy Ho's in San Francisco's Chinatown gives it a run. I freely admit we are not Chinese food aficionados, but we've had plenty over the years together and personally I've had Chinese food since I was a little kid - going back to the House of Gong off of Northwest HWY in Dallas (anyone remember that place?).
Looking for old school Chinese food, like the kind you'd see in an old "Thin Man" episode? Go to Wing Tai.
Food: 11/15 (Only one visit but a higher grade would almost be certain to happen on a second try)
Atmosphere: 5/5 (Screams old school)
Another review: http://cookingwithideas.typepad.com/cooking_with_ideas/2007/03/wing_tai.html
Sunday, August 10, 2008
For dinner, we altered our plans, as we both noticed an appealing looking Italian restaurant called Nonna's Trattoria across the street from our hotel. We arrived and noticed a small crowd waiting for a table. So we stood at the hostess stand and awaited patiently to put our name on the list. 2 minutes nothing. 5 minutes nothing. Oh sure there were waitresses in the dining room, who could see us in plain view. There was a bar to the left as well. 8 minutes nothing. 10 minutes. Another couple walks in and asks us if there's a wait. We said we think so, but not sure, since no one has spoken to us yet. They left. We waited another 5 minutes and our patience ran out. We left. 15 minutes and no one said so much as welcome, we're busy, we'll be with you in a few minutes. Nothing. Nada. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU NONNA'S TRATTORIA? You don't want business or what? Fine, when you do go out of business, don't act surprised. Zero customer service leads to a boarded up restaurant. Everyone who is reading this that happens to visit Geneva, NY - don't go to Nonna's Trattoria. They don't want your business.
But things happen for a reason... and we are forever grateful for their inability to run a restaurant... to be continued....
Saturday, August 9, 2008
We stayed in the cute town of Manheim, but had planned to head to the state capital of Harrisburg for dinner, which is about a 30-40 drive from Manheim. No problems here since we have Hertz's NeverLost - right? Our first experience with the NeverLost system was some six years ago traveling through the Midwest, and was a near disaster. We dubbed it AlwaysLost and NeverSafe. The damn GPS system had a knack for dropping us in the 'hood and couldn't figure a way out of it. You haven't lived until you've driven through the inner ghettos of Detroit... No need to ever get a thrill at Disneyland again.
But the system seemed to have improved immensely, deftly navigating the streets of Philadelphia as well as the Amish countryside. Then came Harrisburg. "Freeway exit on your right". We're back in the 'hood. Now there's nothing wrong with that per se, but it said we were only 0.4 miles from our destination. Then 0.3 miles. A few boarded up old storefronts, a couple of open liquor stores, a Western Union - all 3 establishments complete with iron windows. Lots of people on the street and none too happy about it either. 0.2 miles. Mrs. Jose says "here we go again". 0.1 miles "right turn ahead". All we see is boarded up places. "You have arrived". And, sure enough, there it was - the Appalachian Brewing Company, right on the edge of an industrial district and the 'hood. Had a gated parking lot with security and looked to be a nice place. So we ventured in.
The Appalachian Brewing Company holds up the high standard that the name Brewpub has come to represent. I went for the Purist Pale Ale while Mrs. Jose attacked the Mountain Lager. We quickly guzzled our first beer even before we'd ordered. She went for another lager and I tried the Susquehanna Stout, which was served room temperature as it would be in the Isles, though I admit to preferring the non traditional ice cold variety. Strange as it may sound, but many of the brewpubs I've visited have mediocre suds. Not the case at the ABC - these were excellent. For dinner, Mrs. Jose had one of the specials, a seafood wrap, which she enjoyed immensely. I had the stromboli, an excellent choice for pub fare.
The Appalachian Brewing Company also has brewpub locations in Gettysburg and Camp Hill.
Food: 11/15 (Very much recommended)
Atmosphere: 4/5 (Much of the brewery was visible behind the glass windows above. Overall an urban industrial feel.)
Friday, August 8, 2008
With the Villa di Roma and Rick's experience fresh on our minds, Mr. Jose needed a win with Mrs. Jose to demonstrate that I did indeed research properly for this trip. We were both in the mood for a little ice cream after Rick's, and I figured Bassetts could be the savior of the trip, since I'd been there prior.
And Bassetts came through in a BIG WAY. Mrs. Jose, about 3 mouthfuls into her pistachio cone, looked at me and said "This is the best ice cream I've ever had". Mrs. Jose just doesn't say things like that casually. She's a tough customer. But she is still talking about how wonderful the ice cream was. I had the coffee ice cream (Mr. Jose's favorite flavor), and it was as delicious as I had remembered it 4 years prior.
The Reading Terminal Market is maybe the singular greatest food idea - ever. Enclosed within its walls, are literally hundreds of independent, locally owned Philadelphia eateries, food shops and markets. You'll see Amish ladies working the Dutch kitchens next to African American managed rib places. Everything that is good about the American food experience can literally be found all in one place. The Reading Terminal was an active railroad station only some 25 years ago. Once it closed, the cities' leading visionaries moved the already existing food markets into the terminal itself. To only be able to eat all day long. If I could, I'd do it here.
Rick's is not the only steak sandwich establishment at the RTM (not surprising given it's Philly's most famous export), but his is the most famous and has the purest pedigree. Rick Olivieri is the grandson of Pat Olivieri, the founder of Pat's, which is generally considered the first Philly Cheesesteak place, along with Geno's across the street. Mr. Jose visited those fine establishments back in 2005, while on a business trip.
With all this going in my favor, I felt this would be a safe bet to introduce Mrs. Jose to an authentic Philly Steak sandwich, a food she's only had in bastardized forms in the DFW and Denver areas.
The tide from the evening before at Villa di Roma was still working against me, and Rick's was another swing and a miss. Sometimes a guy can't get a break. And poor Rick can't seem to get good help. Rick himself had to take our order since one of his employees didn't feel like working that day apparently. It looked like Rick fired him right there on the spot. Must be a tough man to work for. Later Rick yelled at one his minions to clean the tables. She did, using the wettest cloth she could find, drowning it in more water, and then leaving all the tables in puddles of water. Lovely. Mrs. Jose was sulking by now. Mrs. Jose said to order it the way I do - which is the Philly way: Wiz wit (cheese whiz and onions). Hey, that's an authentic Philly cheesesteak! When Kraft introduced Cheese Whiz in 1952, it became all the rage to douse your cheesesteak with it. I know it sounds gross, but Mr. Jose likes it. Mrs. Jose did not. At all. So we learned, next time get it with provolone and easy on the onions, eh buddy! As for me, I've had better cheesesteaks at Texadelphia. Sorry Charlie, but one can do a lot better in Philly than this. Like at Geno's or Rick's grandpa's place.
Food: 9/15 (Looking for a job in Philly? Rick needs the help....)
Atmosphere: 3/5 (The Reading Terminal market is awesome. As far as eating in it, it feels like the mall foodcourt - but that's OK.)
It seemed so perfect:
Old Italian neighborhood: Check
Vintage restaurant: Check
Red Sauce Italian: Check
Classic signage: Check it out: http://www.phillyitalianmarket.com/market/villa_de_roma/index.html
I was truly excited about this place. Mrs. Jose and I had driven there straight from the airport, and it looked so good (and loved the edgy neighborhood it resides in). Since there isn't convenient parking anywhere, we decided to head to our hotel a couple of miles further into downtown, and we'd cab it back. As we left the cab and wandered into the front door we were greeted by two entirely different Philly personalities: The gregarious bartender and the jerk "host". Naturally Mrs. Jose quickly got her nose out of joint with Mr. Rude, but I calmly explained that's part of the scene, and it's actually kind of endearing, if you're in the right frame of mind. Once we sat down, and viewed over the menu, I started to feel uncomfortable, and it had nothing to do with food.
Mr. Jose apparently didn't do all his research, and I have to take some blame here. First off, I didn't realize Rachel Ray had shilled for the place recently. Personally, I like the perky and cute Ms. Ray, and she does go to places we've been to in the past, and have also enjoyed. But not always. And when it comes to hole in the wall Italian joints, I would be very skeptical of where she goes. A visit like that can ruin the very essence of a classic RJG Italian spot.
Second, they don't take credit cards. This one just MAKES ME MAD. There's absolutely no excuse for this, unless they pass the card's service charge savings back to you. And I assure you, they do not. Mr. Jose doesn't like to take wads of cash with him, especially when in a major inner city like Philadelphia. We barely had enough money for 2 pasta plates, 2 chintzy glasses of wine and the cab fare to the hotel. Our meal cost $55 with tip and all we had were two simple pasta dishes and two tiny glasses of wine. We would've had more of course, had we extra cash. What an embarrassment to not take cards in 2008.
As for the food, well... it was OKAY I guess. If I lived in the neighborhood, and was looking for a quick bowl of pasta, and didn't want to take the 15 minutes I'd need to prepare my own, it would be a good substitute. That's really all I can say. It's very plain, non unique, nothing special red sauce Italian. Big deal.
Huge disappointment. I had one shot at a classic Italian joint in Philly and I messed it up. My research failed me.
Food: 8/15 (blah)
Ambiance: 4/5 (classic inner city Italian market area restaurant. The food betrayed the setting).
Positive review here: http://www.foodaphilia.com/2007/04/villa-di-roma.html
Mixed reviews here: http://www.yelp.com/biz/villa-di-roma-philadelphia (Ms. Ray's visit has a lot to do with the quantity of reviews here I think)
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
With all 50 states out of the way, I focused on two new goals. One was to visit every major city that had a NFL, MLB, NBA or NHL franchise. The other was to get all the state capitals. After taking a strategic trip through the southeast in 2006 , I was left with one team each in the MLB, NFL and NBA - and 4 in the NHL. Now after Road Trip 2008, I only need two more cities in the NHL to complete my quest (Edmonton and Calgary for the curious). I still have a good ways to go on the capitals, but we did bag 3 on this trip. So where did we go?
We started and ended in Philadelphia, a long time favorite destination of Mr. RJG's, and the only city/region on this trip that I had been to prior. We then ventured into Amish Country, had dinner in Harrisburg (new state capital), wandered up to the finger lakes (one night in Geneva), over to Niagara Falls and eventually ended up in Buffalo (NFL complete! NHL down to 3). From there we ventured into Canada through Hamilton and into Toronto (MLB and NBA* complete! NHL down to
From a restaurant perspective, I'll discuss a couple of highlights and lowlights, and summarize the rest. All in all we had a great time!
* - Yes of course, I've been to the NBA's newest locale, Oklahoma City, many times.
** - (2013 update) Dummy here thought the Carolina NHL franchise was in Charlotte like the other sports. Only later did I find out it was in Raleigh, which I visited for the first time in 2011.
Monday, August 4, 2008
Prior to the internet revolution, the primary source came from the Yellow Pages. In my younger days, after arriving at the motel (with an "M"), Mr. Jose would make a beeline (since the car was parked right outside the door) to the phone book and pick out what places looked good. After awhile, it became pretty clear that the more corny and out-of-touch the ad was, the better the food. An inverse relationship. For example, if they used a timeworn catch phrase such as "You've tried the rest, now try the best" or "Thatsa spicy a meataball" or "Fine Food since 1955", then you pretty much hit the bullseye. Another giveaway was the ad art. Perhaps the proud man wearing a large chef hat while making the A-OK sign tweaking his mustache. Or the Venice gondola scene. Or the guy running frantically with a large steaming plate of twirled pasta above his head. Or the huge fat Mustache-Pete with the name Mario on his uniform. All good signs that say "I'm going there!"
But the internet has pretty much made the phone book obsolete, if you can even find one in your hotel. However in small to mid range cities, the phone book is still filled with authentic old corny Italian ads. Make sure they're the real deal. Plenty of places have tried for the retro-chic "Now that's EYE-TALIAN" but don't buy it for a moment. In the big cities, it's become too expensive to advertise in the phone book, and most have their own website or someone who hosts it for them.
The beauty of the internet, is it allows for upfront research before the trip. But it takes a lot more searching then the good old days of scanning about 20 ads from the yeller pages.
So what to do? Well one trick is to look for the term "Italian-American". Of course you recall The Godfather and Louis' Italian-American restaurant ("It's got one of those old style johns with the flusher on top... I'll tape the gun behind it..."). It's one of those interesting details that I love about the movie. Except the movie is from 1972 when most Italian restaurants still referred to themselves as Italian-American. I often wonder if the movie was recent if they would've caught that detail. See, Italian restaurants were America's first "ethnic" food choice. Prior to Italian, most restaurants were diners, supper clubs or fine food establishments; places that focused on food one would "normally" eat at home. A general bland American diet is what one could expect. But Italian was deemed "exotic" and so to soothe the worried eater into showing up, they offered traditional American entries, primarily steak. Today the Italian Steakhouse is generally a four $$$$ affair, but it wasn't always so. Today as folks eat Ethiopian and Afghan food, Italian is about as exotic as toast. But an old-school Regular Joe's Guide restaurant would still have the Italian-American name.
Look for vintage restaurants. Anything prior to 1976 is golden. Around that time is when folks were looking for more adventurous options and were tiring of the same old, same old. Today these old-style places are going extinct, but in those days they were a dime a dozen, and you can sympathize with diners from the era. Anyway, the older the better. A 1950's or 1960's vintage Italian restaurant is about perfect. Especially one in an inner-ring suburb that we've mentioned many times prior.
Watch out for fancy Italian descriptions. Zuppa, Insalate, Primi Piatti will instantly raise the price $5 per dish. It's soup, salad and entree or don't go. If a place can't make a decent homemade meatball, or have their own homemade sausage (or get them from a small local grocer), then why would you expect that they make anything right? You may want the rabbit pesto with mushroom glaze, but if they don't know the words al dente then run. Run for your life.
Careful of the "ask the locals" rule. That used to be a good mechanism, but today, with tastes all over the map and education at an all-time low, it's an act of faith you'll get a great answer. You're likely to get "Olive Garden", and you'll feel dumb.
Local newspapers can be good if they have an enlightened staff. But generally local food writers are frustrated foodies and chef groupies that chase the latest fad (witness the Ft. Worth Star-Telepoop and the Dallas Warning News) verse paying respect to a little out of the way hole in the wall, that somehow has managed to stay in business 50 years without their schoolgirl gushing.
Also, watch out for opinions on the internet (except the RJG of course!). Many times you'll see negative comments that are out of line, or the poster lacks restaurant experience. Or they have an axe to grind. On the flip side, sometimes over-enthusiastic responses could also be the result of a lack of experience, or they're a friend of the owner.
Of course, there are exceptions to all of the above. New restaurants can be awesome. And 1920s era places use Zuppa in the menu. But when you're from out of town and you get one choice, then use the guide above. It works most of the time!
"Another common problem, at least for the regular visitor, is that you may find your favorite chain is suddenly gone. How can that be, especially if there was a line each time? Because the margins weren't there."
So I'm sure most of you know by now that Metromedia, the investor-owned restaurant group that owns Bennigans and Steak and Ale amongst other smaller units, applied for bankruptcy last week.
Now comes this tidbit from the Ft. Worth Star-Telepoop this morning: The 29 degree Tavern and Southlake Tavern, both under the ownership of Metromedia, were making tons of revenue and a large profit.
Gee, what a surprise. Mrs. Jose and I were suckered into the Southlake Tavern one Saturday afternoon, because I was under the belief they were a new independent. I even remember commenting about how nice the place was, and the amount of capital it must've taken to put an operation up like that. On the way out, I took a quick look at their to-go menu. At the very bottom, in tiny print was a copyright from the MM group. I knew I'd been had. For me it's always been interesting to note the great lengths chains go to demonstrate they're not a chain. But here we are, a successful outpost closed up because the parent couldn't keep solvent. I'm sure there were many disappointed people in Southlake last week.
It's simply this: Wall Street and like minded investors groups and the restaurant industry are not a good match. The only reason the investors are in the restaurants biz in the first place is to fuel growth and make large profits. So in the end, this allows them the opportunity to put up as many mediocre restaurants as possible in a short period of time. The only way a chain can please the partner board is to demonstrate quarter over quarter revenue growth, and a healthy percentage increase thereof. When the revenue slows, then it's time to "restructure", "close poor performing units", "cut back on labor costs" and maybe most important "cut back on quality". The latter begins the death spiral, as the customer base becomes disenchanted with the food, thus giving the chain a bad name, and forcing more closures and cutbacks. Employee morale goes down the drain, and it's just a matter of time before the assets are sold off, or the business is given away at a fire sale to another "private group of investors". In Metromedia's case, Bennigan's was a worn out concept that was on that death spiral. Steak and Ale should've shut down years ago*. Of course they had their fans, and you know many folks were highly discouraged by the closings (not to mention the poor employees who relied on it for income). At best, the bankruptcy proceedings may allow a couple to survive independently**.
I should note that the franchised locations of Bennigans (I believe there was one in the Dallas area) are still in business.
I would imagine the boardrooms of Brinker and Darden are in similar positions right now, determining how to survive the relative slow economy. What's their death spiral chain going to be? The last thing on their mind is improving your dining experience. Best to go support your local independent or regional chain. Or the benevolent corporate chain that gives franchisers a lot of latitude at the bare minimum.
* - We recently took Mr. Jose's mom to Steak and Ale. It's a place Mr. Jose practically grew up in back in the 1970s, traveling with Mr. Jose's dad. Anyway, Mr. Jose's mom is now 70 years old, and she would've been part of the youth group on this visit. The only thing older than eating at a Steak and Ale is driving a Cadillac, which the parking lot was full of. That ship sailed long ago...
** - August 5th update. Now comes word that a capital management firm is looking to buy out about half of the operating units (the profitable ones - duh), including both the Plano and Southlake Taverns as well as the 29 Degree Tavern. Remember, it's all about the profit. Obviously they have to make some profit to survive, but remember the game here is to improve margins for the investors rather than earn enough to make a good living. Better they sell each independently to a real restaurateur, or a local/regional chain.
Sunday, August 3, 2008
Where I stated: "... finding a good sandwich in NE Tarrant is pretty tough, so if I was RegularJoeFranchise, I'd give serious thought to opening one in Southlake, Keller, Colleyville or North Richland Hills."
Well, apparently those at Jersey Mike's corporate are regular readers of the RJG, as there's one going in Southlake very soon. Look for it on Southlake Blvd., west of White Chapel Rd.
It's a happy day, and there's not a single independent sandwich place around to put out of business, so even better!
Friday, August 1, 2008
Recently a former employee from my days at Software Company You've Actually Heard Of was in town for an assignment. Since he was in downtown Dallas without wheels, I made the haul across town from NE Tarrant. But beforehand he had asked me "Where's a good place to eat?". Well what I know about downtown you could put in a thimble. Sure I grew up in NW Dallas, but going downtown to eat was not a regular occurrence. So he gave me the coordinates of his work location and I took a look at restaurants in the area. I recognized Iron Cactus, as I met another former employee there at one point. Amongst the usual chains, fast food places and steakhouses, the name Campisi's cried out.
For any old timer from Dallas, Campisi's Egyptian is an institution. Prior to the 1970s, the Campisi's on Mockingbird (still there) was about the only place in town to get EYE-talian food. According to Mr. Jose's Mom, her and Dad went there first upon moving to the Dallas area in 1967, recent transplants from the New York City area that they were. Apparently it was a thumbs down affair, and they would never return. To this day, Mr. Jose has never stepped foot into the original Egyptian. And the irony here is that if I was traveling from out of town, it is highly likely this would be my first Italian experience in the DFW area (the old institutions are a Mr. Jose magnet).
Fast forward to sometime in the early 1990s and Campisi's was just beginning to expand, with a more casual / quick service format. I had music friends up in Planet Plano, and they decided we should eat at Campisi's one evening. One taste of their salad and pasta entry and I realized I'd missed a lot growing up. Delicious. It's completely old school red sauce Italian. Yuppies, or those into authentic Italian can check their noses at the door. Besides you're not supposed to be reading the Regular Joe's Guide in any event. Real deal, New York style American Italian.
Now Mr. and Mrs. Jose move back in 2003, but unfortunately for us denizens of NE Tarrant, Campisi's, despite having some 7 locations, have completely eschewed anything this side of DFW airport. It looks to remain a Dallas institution, with exceptions made for decidedly Dallas suburbs like Richardson and Plano. But all was not lost as it was just that Richardson location that gave Mr. Jose a chance at regular visits. Back then in the 2003-2004 timeframe, Mr. Jose worked for Software Company Most People Had Heard Of, before being acquired by Software Company You've Actually Heard Of - and we had an office in Far North Dallas off the Tollway. And sure enough, according to my database, it had been almost exactly 4 years since I'd last been at a Campisi's.
The downtown location is a hybrid restaurant: QSR by day and full service by night. In a darkened cavernous room on Elm street, with flickering red votive candle lights, we enjoyed a classic plate of red sauce Italian - the kind of place folks before 1990 ate at, because there was no choice. Some things never change. Fortunately.
Food: 11/15 (Classic Italian)
Ambience: 3/5 (Pretty standard for a new downtown location)