On an episode of The Bachelor, tire fortune-heir Andrew Firestone is eating dinner with one of the female hopefuls, and their conversation isn't exactly humming along. Searching for something they might have in common, she asks, "What's your favorite chain restaurant?"
The bachelor raises his gaze from his plate. "I don't eat at chain restaurants," he says.
Obviously, Firestone's never been stuck in a place where a chain restaurant on the horizon warms both heart and belly. But in Portland's vibrant restaurant scene, the recent openings of two upscale chains require serious scrutiny.
The 1993 founding of P.F. Chang's was a brainstorm of epic proportions: Everybody likes Chinese food, but who likes the brusque service, blinding fluorescents and beat-up Formica of most Chinese restaurants? Chang's middle-of-the-road Chinese menu, above-average ingredients, excellent service, generous portions, chic decor and great bar has been a recipe for rip-roaring success in more than 90 locations nationwide.
Portland is no exception. Since the doors opened in the Brewery Blocks, P.F. Chang's has been slammed. Book one of the limited reservations, or you'll be standing around for at least an hour. Once you sit down, order the house-signature Chang's Chicken in Soothing Lettuce Wraps ($6.50), a savory chicken stir-fry with the crunch of water chestnuts, or the tasty shrimp dumplings, pan-fried pot-sticker style ($6.95).
Most of the dishes are good--my husband dubbed the place "Pretty Fair Chang's"--while some are terrific, like Mongolian Beef ($11.95) with scallions and garlic, spicy Szechuan-style string beans with tart preserved vegetables ($5.95), and crispy catfish ($12.95). A few aren't: Philip's Better Lemon Chicken ($10.95) banishes the sticky lemon meringue filling often found in the dish, but the sauce still lacks a jolt of citrus intensity.
Chang's is deservedly proud of its wine list; all 50-plus bottlings are available by the glass, served in classy goblets that allow plenty of room for swirling and sniffing. But the restaurant should be ashamed of its brain-dead dessert selection. Ever since Wolfgang Puck opened Chinois on Main in 1984 and wowed 'em with a trio of ginger, mint and orange crèmes brûlées, great ideas for Asian-inflected desserts have abounded. What's Chang's thinking with '70s-redux cheesecake, doughy banana spring rolls and a freakishly large slice of chocolate layer cake coated with waxy mini-chips?
Press materials for the Daily Grill, located in the Westin Hotel on Southwest Alder Street, claim it's known for "terrific, straightforward, all-American classics." Yet few of the so-called classic dishes on the menu of this 20-restaurant chain are recognizable. "House specialty" short ribs with "homemade gravy" ($18.95) were two 9-inch monsters swimming in salty jus with a brick-sized pile of tasteless mashed potatoes. The corned beef in the Reuben sandwich ($9.95) was bracketed with thick slices of Swiss cheese that hadn't even begun to melt during an all-too-brief grilling. Cobb salad ($11.95-$13.95), supposedly based on the famous Brown Derby version, should be a rainbow of chicken, bacon, bleu cheese and avocado, not a dull heap of chopped lettuce dotted with random bits of meat and avocado.
Crab cakes ($9.95) show up crabby and crisp (though garnished with a bouquet of parsley so tired that it seems recycled), the hamburger satisfies ($7.95), and the shrimp cocktail ($9.95) hits the spot on Atkins Diet days. But the restaurant's own creations don't fare much better than the classics. The steak salad ($14.95), a vast expanse of lettuce, sported two gorgeous-looking onion rings--unfortunately refrigerator-cold within. The strips of sliced skirt steak on top, ordered medium rare, turned up cold, withered and grey; when we mentioned it, the waitress held out a bread plate and said, "Scoop it on here so I can show it to the kitchen." (One wonders what sort of psychodramas have made this strategy necessary.)
For dessert, Daily Grill touts strawberry shortcake and Fresh Fruit Cobbler ($5.95), which on one winter day was a strawberry-peach combo, on another, marionberry. If the fruit is indeed fresh, it doesn't come from within 1,000 miles of our fair city.
And there's the rub about production-line eateries. The whole point of a chain is that, day in, day out, the food's going to be the same in St. Louis, Tucson or Tampa. That's comforting if you're in a place where you can't get a decent meal. But in the heart of Portland, within walking distance of outstanding, comparably priced restaurants with seasonal sensibilities and local suppliers--like Higgins, the Heathman, Mother's, Southpark, Park Kitchen, Red Star Tavern, Typhoon and Bluehour--what purpose does a place like the Daily Grill serve?
I'm sure I'll be back at P.F. Chang's--enough of its dishes are unique, and the servers are in a class by themselves. But when it comes to the Daily Grill and others of its ilk, Bachelor Firestone and I have something in common when it comes to eat-in chain restaurants.
1139 NW Couch St., 432-4000.
11 am-11 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-midnight Friday-Saturday. Credit cards accepted. No checks. $$ Moderate.
750 SW Alder St., 294-7001.
6:30 am-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-midnight Friday-Saturday. Credit cards accepted. No checks. $$ Moderate.
Los Angeles-based Daily Grill opened Sept. 15, while Arizona-based P.F. Chang's opened Oct. 6.