By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Whether a restaurant starts out as an individual's singular vision or a corporation's calculated clone, multiple locations are the goal of most restaurant owners because that's where the dollar strength is. The cutting edge of cuisine is still in the independent kitchen, but chains form the backbone of the food-service business and all its dependents.
Recently, in spite of the climbing columns of dollars, the industry fears that customers are wearying of the everlasting sameness--masquerading as consistency--of the big chain restaurants. So it has coined a new phrase, the "unlinked chain," to encompass chain restaurants that don't all look the same from the outside (the golden arches have disappeared from McDonald's) and may not even have the same menus. In other words, the chains want to look more like the independent restaurants where people expect good food, not just the same food. And so it makes reverse sense that, following the former lead of the big guys, independents are cloning themselves like the chains, grabbing for more of their dollars.
Most independent restaurants grow somewhat by serendipity: You have an idea for a restaurant, but you're not sure exactly where you're going to find the right piece of real estate; you're not sure who your staff members will be; your food will vary according to which fractious chef is currently in the kitchen; and, most importantly, you're not sure exactly who your customers will be and what personality they'll bring to the place. These are all things that, however well-planned, end up evolving somewhat in their own way.
Chains, on the other hand, don't start with an idea; they start with a concept. Traditionally, they build their own places so they all look just alike; they don't have chefs, they have cooks; and they don't even break ground until they know exactly who their projected customers are, and that means what cars they drive and what their zip codes are.
It's more difficult for an independent to freeze coincidence into concept, but that's what you have to do if you're going to reproduce your original. These second restaurants are more or less successful, and sometimes I think that has a lot to do with coincidence, too.
In the past few months, two Dallas favorites, Ruggeri's and Primo's, have reproduced themselves in Addison. And one predetermined chain, the Houston import Cafe Express, which originally opened its first area restaurant in Addison, has opened a second one on McKinney. The menus at all these places has remained the same, but the Addison restaurants are completely different from their downtown siblings.
I was not very impressed with Addison's Cafe Express when it opened. Its owner is Robert del Grande, who is to Houston what Dean Fearing is to Dallas. Cafe Express is his bid for the big bucks; there are already several of them in Houston and plans for them to multiply outside Texas. Here, its porticoed facade blends right in with the Holiday Inn next door on Belt Line so you think they're part of each other--not the best first impression. The room inside is of a size that makes you feel as small as Alice on the wrong side of the mushroom. There's nowhere cozy or hidden, and eating inside here is like eating in a gym. Outside, the patio catches the wind--as well as the noise of Belt Line Road.
The new location, on McKinney, is architecturally more whimsical--you could even say wacky--and more appealing. Its stone walls, purple trim, and jutting patio cover remind you of a drive-in the Flintstones might frequent, or like the far-out architecture of that Oklahoma visionary, Bruce Gough. This is the new flagship design, a prototype for the many restaurants del Grande and his partners hope to open, and it's much more successful than its predecessor: Inside, the dining room is L-shaped, so the space is broken up into manageable areas, and outside, an ingenious Roman-style aqueduct system carries water down an incline into a fountain, providing a pleasant barrier between your meal and the cars on McKinney.
It may just be because I liked the location better that I thought the food tasted better here than in Addison. The menu is modern and features--what else?--pasta and chicken. But this roast chicken was full of juice and flavor under its crackling skin, and plenty of olive oil carried the flavor around the firm penne pasta, mixing the smoky strips of grilled chicken breast with sweet garlic and roasted red peppers.
The vegetarian sandwich here also seemed better than the one I had in Addison: The grilled zucchini was thinly sliced so it became tender while it still had its fresh crunch, the onion was slivered and sweet, and both avocado and a thin smear of goat cheese enriched the vegetables. This sandwich was easier to eat and better designed than most grilled-vegetable sandwiches, whose oil-slicked vegetables slither out from the bread slices like wet watermelon seeds. But there's no excuse for bread this bad. I appreciate it being slightly softer than the cud-chewing slabs of peasant bread we're getting used to (and which I like, but they can be too much on a sandwich). This roll had an unpleasant crumbly texture that often comes from freezer burn or an attempt to soften up staleness.