Our beef with chain restaurants is that they take dollars away from local independent restaurateurs while contributing to the general dumbing-down of American palates. Still, it's always good to keep an eye on the market; with that in mind, we recently dropped in on two chain-link newcomers.
Upscale, youthful Bahama Breeze (3900 Orange Place, 216-896-9081) blew into Orange Village in April, with free valet parking, a large dinner-only menu of Caribbean-themed salads, sandwiches, and entrées, and a gigantic menu of beer, rum, shooters, frozen drinks, and boozy ice cream concoctions. The ramblin' restaurant, built in the style of a tropical plantation complete with covered verandas is part of the Darden Group, which also brought us Red Lobster and Olive Garden. So predictably, much of the food is Caribbean in name only. Still, a pressed Cuban sandwich ($7.95) hit all the right notes, big coconut prawns ($7.95) were sweet and crisp, and pan-seared pork tenderloin ($15.95), with creamy mashed redskins and a sheer rum demi-glace, sizzled with rich flavors.
But booze is the real attraction at Bahama Breeze. A granite bar dominates the dining area, and the house specialty, the BahamaRita ($4.95; a frozen Cuervo Gold margarita, with kiwi, strawberry, and mango ice and a cute little sidecar of margarita schnapps), went down as smooth as a slushy in August -- and didn't seem much stronger either.
Considerably less chic is Hoggy's Barn & Grille (5975 Canal Road, 216-328-9871), open since November. Overalls and feed-store caps look right at home in this re-created barn, with its poured concrete floors, rough-hewn walls, and full-size Farmall tractor suspended from the ceiling. The lunch-and-dinner menus revolve around pulled pork, barbecued ribs, and smoked brisket, with Southern-style sides like hoppin' john and whipped sweet potatoes. The food's not bad -- in fact, Cajun-spiced catfish with cornbread dressing ($11.99) was delightful. And with its outdoor dining areas, full bar, and proximity to the Towpath Trail, it makes a convenient pit stop for hikers and bikers.
Diners with a yen for the different will note, however, that several locally owned restaurants can kick these newbies' butts. For authentic Caribbean meals, for instance, we'd recommend Rachel's Caribbean Cuisine (14417 Cedar Road, South Euclid). For a really great Cuban sandwich, there's Lelolai (1889 West 25th). For a big menu of fanciful drinks, try Lure Bistro (38040 Third Street, Willoughby). And for Southern-style eats, go to Alexandria's on Main (1275 Main Avenue) or Phil the Fire (2775 South Moreland). Your tummy, and our local restaurateurs, will thank you.