Thursday, March 25, 2010

O'Charley's is A-O'K

Count my husband Jack and I among those who suffered hunger withdrawal pains back when the Chi-Chi's restaurants bit the dust. Often, we'd pop in the Niles location near Eastwood Mall for a margarita or pitcher of sangria; almost as often, we'd end up in the restaurant, where the seafood enchiladas were to die for. Alas, amigos, it was not to be forever.

Sometime thereafter, we learned that a new restaurant called O'Charley's would be opening at that location. Owned and operated by Covelli Enterprises of Warren -- one of a 50-store franchise agreement signed in 2005 between Covelli and O'Charley's Inc. of Nashville, Tenn. -- it would join the local casual dining family restaurant category. O'Phoo, we said -- not that we don't like these places, but do we really need another of the Applebee's, Chili's and Ruby Tuesday eat-alikes? No, we said to each other, it was doubtful we'd ever be regular customers.

And by golly, we had to eat our words. From t
he very first visit, we felt right at home here. For openers, the atmosphere is far more pleasant than those other casual dining places. I love the dark, rich wood, old photos from the Niles area on the walls and booths that are arranged for optimal privacy. Greeters and servers are friendly and pleasant -- not the overly exuberant, excessively perky types who act as though they're your best friend the second you walk in the door. Another plus: A lack of the usual restaurant noise. There's no loud music to drown out conversation, no banging and clattering of dishes, no servers shouting out orders. In short, it's a comfortable place to enjoy a great meal in relative peace and quiet.

And then, of course, there's the most important part: The wonderful food.

Early on, we learned that salads here are not to be missed. At one lunch adventure
, we made a halfhearted attempt at eating healthy, ordering soup and salads. Our server's suggestion swayed both of us toward the Chicken Harvest soup, which she described as "like chicken potpie in a bowl" (it's a menu regular). It was both one of the thickest and most delicious soups I've ever had -- I swear I could have turned the cup upside down without spilling any of those tasty noodles, vegetable bits and chicken -- and at $2.99 a cup, it was hearty enough to make a meal all by itself.

The salads aren't inexpensive -- the Pecan Chicken Tender (my choice) was $9.49 and the Cajun Chicken Jack picked was
$8.99 -- but they were so large there was plenty left over to take home. Mine was Romaine lettuce topped with pecan-encrusted chicken "O'tenders" (what else?) plus mandarin oranges, crumbled bleu cheese, dried cranberries and honey roasted pecans. Add a tasty balsamic vinaigrette dressing -- all are served on the side here, by the way -- and I was in salad Heaven. Our conversation slowed to a crawl as I dived into my salad and Jack discovered the spicy blackened chicken, shredded cheeses and tomatoes on fresh greens, all spiced up with O'Charley's signature ranch dressing. Oh yes, the chicken on both salads was cut into manageable chunks and quite tasty as well.

These days, many restaurants are offering "twofer" deals, and O'Charley's is no exception. Not long ago, we were hungry and stopped in to take advantage of a two-meals-for-$14.99 offer. Needless to say, the first problem was deciding what to choose. We were tempted by several possibilities, including a Wild West Burger topped with melted Monterrey Jack cheese, crispy bacon, fried onion tanglers a
nd "zesty" Cajun-horseradish sauce and the Cajun Shrimp & Grits (jumbo New Orleans-style shrimp sauteed and served with onions, peppers, tomatoes and chopped bacon over cheddar cheese grits). In the end, though -- recalling that yummy Chicken Harvest soup -- I decided on the Chicken Harvest Pot Pie, while Jack opted for the Prime Rib Philly sandwich with seasoned fries.

Neither of
us was disappointed, and neither did we go home hungry. The sandwich consisted of thinly sliced prime rib on a toasted hoagy roll topped with sauteed mushrooms, onions, peppers and melted Monterrey Jack cheese. The pot pie, which I highly recommend, was a down-home mixture of pulled chicken, carrots, celery, peas and mushrooms in a creamy "harvest" sauce, all piled on top of smashed potatoes and topped with puff pastry. And the taste? To die for; and because the pot pie is so large, I was able to enjoy the other half back at home the next day.

We also noticed that O'Charley's is serving prime rib every day after 4 p.m., so since that's a favorite (and Jack's prime rib sandwich was so delicious), we definitely plan a return trip to try the whole enchilada (with all due respect and a tip of the sombrero to Chi-Chi's).

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the wonderful fresh-baked rolls with hon
ey butter that accompany the entrees. They're a signature item and quite delicious. In fact, if you stop by O'Charley's Web site (see the address below), do check out the video titled "The Story of Our Rolls." It's hokey as all get-out, but very well done and brings home the point in an interesting, unique way.

O'Charley's also serves up a mean Sunday brunch, although not with the typical buffet. Instead, there are off-the-menu items ranging from a wonderful open-face spinach and mushroom omelette ($7.99) to a hefty hunk of that slow-roasted, prime rib rubbed with herbs and spices (10-ounce portion, $14.99). Sandwiches here are especially tasty; my favorite is the Mushroo
m Swiss Bacon Burger topped with just what you'd expect to find given the name ($8.49). And appetizers? Plentiful and delicious as well; here, I'm particularly fond of the Authentic Spinach & Artichoke Dip that comes with warm, crisp tortilla chips ($6.99).

While I'm on the subject of appetizers, I'll let you in on a little secret: If you find a restaurant you especially love, go to the Web site and, if possible, sign up to get periodic e-mails alerting you to special deals, happenings, and such. When I did just that at O'Charley's, I received a printable coupon within minutes giving me a free appetizer with the purchase of an entree. You don't have to use the coupons if you don't want to, but why miss
out on the opportunity? I recommend creating a special "throw-away" e-mail address to use for this purpose so you don't clog up your primary e-mailbox (and then be sure to check it regularly, since most of the special deals and freebies come with expiration dates).

Also as I mentioned before, O'Charley's has a very nice full bar -- and some absolutely wonderful drinks to go with it. We stop in every once in a w
hile for Happy Hour (at the moment, it's from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., when select appetizers are half price, domestic draft beer is $2 and "basic" margaritas are $4. Well drinks are inexpensive, too, and last time I was there the bartender made a mean gin and tonic with lime. If you'd like something a bit fancier, you might try a tangerine pomegranate margarita, a glass of sangria, or perhaps a special Raspberry Limoncello, which is made with Chambord black raspberry, Caravella Limoncello, lemon and lime juice and a splash of cherry and served in a martini glass ($6.49). Yum!

If you go: O'Charley's
5789 Mines Road
Niles, OH 44446
(330) 288-0066

930 Windham Court
Boardman, Ohio 44512
(330) 259-0207

Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. (brunch served from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Quaker Steak & Lube

If any restaurant has earned the right to be dubbed the "granddaddy" of casual sit-down eateries in the local region, it just might be Quaker Steak & Lube. Somewhere around a 25 years ago, it was, among other things, a popular gathering place for students and faculty members from the Penn State Shenango Campus in Sharon, Pa. (in the interest of full disclosure, I had the privilege of joining the fun with them on several occasions). The wings were delicious -- even if the joke was that they were plucked from notoriously teeny chickens -- and the beer was icy cold. If we wanted something more substantial, the burgers, steaks and seafood filled the bill nicely.

What a difference a quarter of a century makes! Not only have the wings thankfully grown to larger proportions, the number of restaurants has grown as well; today, there are 37 in about 12 states. Last year, Quaker Steak opened six new units, and another six (at least) are on tap for this year, according to company reports.

In fact, the origins of the motorsports-themed restaurant are reminiscent of what's happening today. This country's first gas crisis happened in 1974, sending prices sky high and resulting in the closing of gas stations. Two local "boys," George Warren III and Gary Meszaros, wanted a way to keep the memory of those old gas stations and gas-guzzling (and fast disappearing) muscle cars alive. They found it by opening Quaker Steak & Lube, where old cars were displayed. That theme has been carried out in all the restaurants; today, old cars and trucks, vintage motorcycles and more catch diners' attention -- generally hanging directly above patrons' heads from the ceiling. The food, too, is consistent throughout the chain; when we're on the road, my husband and I often will head to a Quaker Steak for lunch or dinner, whether we're in Columbus, Erie, Pa., or Newport News, Va., always knowing we're not in for an unpleasant surprise.

As might be expected, the menu reflects the motorsports theme as well. The huge onion rings that are wonderfully crunchy on the outside and juicy tender on the inside are delivered on an "antenna"; signature sandwiches have names like Mustang Chicken, and kids chow down on Kids Lube Cruiser meals, served in a custom Lube Cruiser racing car they can take home.

The main attraction, of course, is the wings; more than 70 million reported
ly are served up each year. That "Supercharged" sauce -- which back in the day was called "Atomic" -- is so hot that diners are asked to sign a release form before taking a taste. This, of course, means a die-hard heat-seeking freak like me would make a beeline to try them, right? In truth, no -- but it's not because I'm afraid of burnout. In fact, I'm not a big fan of barbecue-flavored wings at all; I'd much rather stick to flavors like Asian Sesame, Golden Garlic and Parmesan Pepper, which has the distinction of being my all-time favorite.

That is, until recently. Back when it was introduced, I fell in love with the flavor of the buttery sauce swimming with shredded parmesan cheese and cracked pepper. In fact, I actually craved it; more than once, I'd get a hankering for an order and beg my "driver" hubby to get me to The Lube as fast as he could -- there's a relatively new one closer to us in Austintown now. But then, everything went South
as the sauce suddenly became a heavy, thick, clingy concoction that was so overpoweringly rich I could barely stand to eat a single wing, let alone a whole order -- even though the flavor remained close to the original. So if you're reading this, guys, please gimme back that original, and irresistible, parmesan pepper sauce -- this new version will never pass my lips again!

Of course, there's much more to enjoy at The Lube than the wings -- the burgers, steaks and seafood are just as good today as they were back in the days when I hung out with the college crowd. My hubby enjoys the newer grilled boneless wings
-- usually in the ranch flavor ($7.99 for a single order) -- and one of my favorites, especially since the transformation of that parmesan pepper sauce, is the "Biker Chick" chopped salad ($8.99). It's romaine lettuce with dried cranberries, grilled boneless chicken and strawberries with Wildberry Poppyseed dressing -- and it's wonderful! When we're in the mood for sandwiches, our favorites include the corned beef reuben ($8.29) and turkey bacon club ($8.59).

Another very new menu addition is the The flatbread pizza, called "Flatbed Flatbreads" in keeping with the automotive theme. They're available in Philly Cheese Steak, Southwest BBQ Chicken and California Veggie Ranch versions, and they're excellent.

The menu of course has evolved over the years, and it's quite possible more changes are in the works as evidenced by last month's hiring of Dudley McMahon in the newly created position of vice president of culinary development and purchasing. McMahon, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who's accumulated considerable experience at chains similar in style to Quaker Steak & Lube, worked with Quaker Steak President and CEO Ken Cole for six years at the California-based Sizzler restaurants and for three at Damon's International in Columbus.

“Chef Dudley’s research and development, purchasing and operations experience will help us build on that heritage as The Lube continues to expand into new U.S. and international markets," Cole stated in a February news release, noting that Quaker Steak & Lube opened six units last year, and with at least that many scheduled for this year, the 37-unit chain’s growth is in high gear.

Exactly what Dudley will add to the organization isn't known yet, but we'll certainly keep our fingers crossed (hey, maybe he won't like that new parmesan garlic sauce either)!

So popular are the Quaker Steak restaurants that if you go at a "regular" lunch or dinner hour, it's likely you'll have a wait. A favorite "trick" of ours is arriving somewhere around 1:30 p.m. -- a bit late for lunch, but still in time to enjoy Quaker Steak's wonderful lunch buffet (which ends around 2:30). I'm not quoting prices for much here since they can vary depending on the restaurant location, but the lunch buffet goes for somewhere around $7.99 and is, in my opinion, a real bargain. Do be aware, though, that there's no buffet on Saturdays.

At our most recent visit, we filled up on meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, at least one flatbread pizza, clam chowder and cream of carrot soups, salads and a variety of desserts. Oh yes, and one flavor of boneless wings (Golden Garlic) and two of the regular wings (Ranch and Buffalo). The salad bar had a bowl of chopped lettuce as well as regular pulled-apart kind -- always a plus for me -- and the tomatoes are finely chopped as well (also a plus). Toppings included red raisins, hot banana peppers and jalapenos, and the several dressings including Hidden Valley Ranch (which I chose). I also tried some of the three-bean salad and a couple of the Tai-flavored chicken bites that weren't on the published buffet menu.

The green beans had a tasty seasoning and were deliciously interspersed with sliced red peppers. The meatloaf was tender and juicy, the gravy tasty. I got two ranch wings -- not necessarily my favorite, but good -- before our server told us if we wanted a flavor that wasn't on the buffet that day, they'd be happy to make up special orders of five or six of any flavor I wanted (we declined on this day, but the fact that it's an option sure is a great idea and one we filed away in our heads for the next time).

Among the several desserts were banana custard and fresh-fried dough that resembled a cross between elephant ears and curly waffles, the latter of which could be topped with a variety of temptations like cherries and chocolate sauce. The chocolate dipped pretzel sticks were tempting, but I forced myself to "settle" for a few chocolate-covered strawberries. At the end of our meal, our server delivered, as is customary, warm wetnaps to clean our sticky fingers and a couple of those yummy red Twizzler sticks.

If your appetite is bigger still, don't miss the buffet on Sundays. It, too, ends at 2:30 p.m., and it's all you can eat for $11.99. This is an especially great deal; if you order straight off the menu and get a wings-and-rings combo, for instance, it will set you back close to $11; so why not spend another buck and eat your heart out?

Buffet items the day we were there included fresh chef-cooked scrambled eggs with red peppers, onions and cheese, bacon strips and sausage links, buttermilk biscuits and thick white gravy, a waffle station with toppings like chocolate sauce, whipped cream and syrup and more -- and that's just the "breakfast" items. Ham slices, sausage and peppers, peel-and-eat shrimp, macaroni and cheese, hash browns and a salad table (the Caesar is especially good) and two kinds of wings were among the heartier fare (and yes, you can order other flavors of wings at this buffet as well).

It's always fun to eat inside the restaurants, but when the weather permits, it's even more fun -- for us, at least -- to sit outdoors. Both the Sharon and Austintown locations have open patios of sorts; while the views are less than spectacular, those yummy wings always seem to taste even better when they're mixed with fresh air and sunshine.

If you go:

Quaker Steak & Lube
101 Chestnut St.
Sharon, PA 16146
(800) HOT-WING

Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to Midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Note: The site listed is the original Quaker Steak & Lube. There are a number of other locations, so check the Web site to find the one closest to where you are (or going to be). The full menu is available online as well.