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Joe Putrock

What a Concept
By B.A. Nilsson

Chili’s
60 Wolf Rd., Colonie, 489-4664. Serving Sun-Thu 11-11, Fri-Sat 11-Midnight. AE, D, DC, MC, V. www.chilis.com

Cuisine: American market research
Entrée price range: $7 (Chicken Tacos) to $14 (Ranch Hand Filet)
Ambience: prefab fun
Clientele: hefty

Chili’s Web site provides colorful menu and location information, as well as lots of corporate rah-rah, but stare at the opening page long enough and you’ll see handsome photos of the restaurant’s signature entrées glide in and out of sight. In your isolated world of an Internet connection, you will savor the anticipation of those baby back ribs. That colossal burger. The crispy blooming onion. You’re ready to hop in the car right then to snag one of those comestibles. Call the restaurant to confirm the hours, and you’ll speak with someone sounding youthful and chipper—good, they’re open until at least 11.

Be prepared for a parking lot that’s packed. Chili’s has been here long enough for the novelty to have worn off, but they’re still streaming in. Chili’s and its target clientele have found each other.

It has no gourmet pretensions, but you’ve already noticed that among the chain restaurants. The staff can’t, by the style of the restaurant’s corporate setup and mission, give menus and meals the kind of fanatical attention that gourmet cooking requires. Nor do they aspire to do that: This is about moving paying bodies through a confined space fairly quickly with the emergent bodies happily fed. Overfed, probably: Big portions are the norm, and the booths are engineered to accommodate big customers.

This is where you go for a quick food fix a few cuts above the “drive-thru” threshold. An earth-toned, laminated menu tempts you with margaritas and burgers, the latter in the $6 range. Bar seating is in its own room, and that, mercifully, is where the only televisions are kept; the main dining room is vast, partitioned by low dividers, with an industrial, Terry Gilliam-like look about its crisscrossing ventilation pipes.

The floor has the feel of a summer-camp dining hall, although the space is far more attractive. Young servers rush hither and yon, many of them with a wireless communication device clamped to an ear. “That’s so we can let the hostess know as soon as a table is ready,” a server explained. “They also wear them in the kitchen so that if something is taking longer than it should to cook, a manager can tell the customer what’s going on.” Ready communication with the customers always should be an A-No. 1 priority, although this brings in the thin edge of an Orwellian dimension.

The previous owner of my home took advantage of the wall space in the barns to drive nails in at various heights and hang anything he needed to keep out of the way. Most of it was left behind, and I find that I can replicate the ambiance of dining in places like Chili’s, Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesdays, Cracker Barrel and the like simply by sitting at a table in my barn. Old sleds, rakes and hoes, vintage license plates—we’ve got a full array.

Apparently, some of these restaurant companies maintain warehouses of such stuff. Chili’s has its share of hanging gewgaws as well as a variety of wall textures in its rooms, including one painted to look like distressed white clapboard, obviously the inspiration of someone who never has had to worry about keeping kids away from peeling lead-based paint.

You can start off with a $2 basket of tostada chips and a promise of unlimited refills; most of the other appetizers run $6 to $8, with no surprises. Chicken wings with or without bones, nachos, fried mozzarella and that blooming onion are characteristic; most interesting are the southwestern eggrolls ($6), a tortilla-wrapped compote of chicken, beans, spinach and cheese.

Salads include Caesar, spinach and Cobb, all around $7, with unusual variations like the lettuce wrap, a $7 array of veggies and bibb lettuce to be dipped in the accompanying peanut and sesame-ginger sauces.

Calorie-stinting does not seem to be the order of the day for much of the clientele, but lowfat items include grilled chicken served in pita bread, in a sandwich, or an a vegetable-accompanied platter ($7 or so).

Surprisingly, Chili’s has a good hand with vegetables: Those that accompanied a plate of citrus fire chicken and shrimp were nicely grilled and rather more interesting than the slab of meat. Baby back ribs are touted as a specialty; as a combo with a grilled chicken breast ($12), they were workmanlike but still better than the chicken.

Sneakily, the dessert listing—three items only—is unpriced but photo- represented: cheesecake, chocolate chip paradise pie, and the truly volcanic-looking molten chocolate cake, which turns out to be a big chunk of said cake topped with ice cream, caramel, and hardened fudge, and turns out to be $5.

Parent company Brinker International has been creating “concept” restaurants for nearly 30 years; locally, we also know them from a Romano’s Macaroni Grill that’s just up Wolf Road from Chili’s; among their 1,200 other restaurants are the On The Border Mexican Grill and Cantina, Maggiano’s Little Italy, the Corner Bakery Café, Cozymel’s Coastal Mexican Grill, Big Bowl, Rockfish Seafood Grill, and eatZi’s Market & Bakery.

Chili’s alone has swept through every state in the United States except Montana, for a so-far total of more than 800 units, and 90 more of them are situated internationally.

Like Disneyland, Chili’s wants to convey an image of nonstop fun. Headquarters got terribly worried about the photo we took, trying to get advance assurance that the article would be flattering. How’d we do?

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


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