Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Permanent Farewell to Chili's and Romano's Macaroni Grill

I was going to write about my yard sale today, but I got sidelined by my dinner experience tonight and it has really pissed me off so I feel the need to vent. I'll get to the yard sale tomorrow, but.......

Two of my favorite restaurants have now gone to the stinking dogs. And I don't mean any old dog, I mean the stinking back alley dogs you run from when you see them walking down the street. That's what one should do when they see the signs for Chili's or Macaroni Grill when searching for any decent food to eat. With excruciating regret, and feeling a bit pissed and ripped off, I bid a farewell to ever stepping foot into either place because of their consistent decline in quality, and common sense in running a restaurant with pride and dignity. All of which have been replaced by the bottom line profit margin.

We may be in a recession Mr. Brinker International and Mr. Darden Man, but you don't need to downsize everything into the gutter!

I have been a big fan of both for many, many years. To say I had constant cravings for either place is a serious understatement; I ate in these places in my freaking dreams. When I left Chili's tonight, I nearly cried; sorry, I did cry, because I knew this too, would no longer be one of the places I craved to go when tired and weary, and too beat to cook. I would rather open a can of Campbell's soup than to repeat my experiences with these two places every again.

First, I remember my desires for Romano's Macaroni Grill were greater than my need to breathe sometimes. I love Italian food. In fact, I use to think that I was actually an Italian who was adopted by a WASP family from North Carolina (my mom's gonna love that!). I dream of the day when I can finally backpack through the hills of Italy for a few months in peace without dragging the kids as they kick and scream for the nearest hotel with a bath. They are still too young to appreciate the experience yet.

Macaroni Grill constantly reminded me of that dream every time I walked through those heavy wooden doors into what resembled "Mama's" open-style kitchen. It was designed to make you feel like everyone there was your family (better than the stinking Olive Garden commercial), and that we were all eating together like one. Every thing from the thick stone walls, and ceilings laced with twinkling porch lights, down to the gallon jug of "help yourself" Chianti on each table, and an Italian opera song sung by one of the servers each night, made me feel like I was less in the states and more like I had landed in a Tuscany village. It was a place that gave you goosebumps every time you visited.

I remember when I was laid up in the hospital for a month with pre-term labor while pregnant with twins; I couldn't wait to get out so I could go to Macaroni Grill. All the nurses knew that was were I was headed when they let me go. The day I was released, it was a bright and sunny October day in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My husband picked me up and took my big, fat pregnant belly straight to the restaurant.

When I walked in and sat down, the staff remembered me, asked me how I was doing, and I felt like I had come home. We laughed as we drew pictures on the sheets of paper laid down like tablecloths, with our ample supply of crayons. Even the servers were in on it as they had learned to spell their names upside down on our drawing paper while introducing themselves. They genuinely seemed happy to be working there.

I reveled in the sounds of a server singing while watching food being prepared in the kitchen beside us. I felt as if I was visiting my imaginary Italian Nonna's Casa as we sat by the fire and my husband poured himself a glass of wine from the Chianti on our table. I was so glad to have the brimming plate of Capellini Pomodoro with chunks of fresh basil served along with our huge loaf of warm, fresh, crusty bread, which we dipped in freshly ground pepper and cold-pressed olive oil.

Nothing is warm about Macaroni Grill now and my goosebumps have officially left the building.

If this all sounds good, well then wipe that from your mind because it doesn't exist now. Macaroni Grill has joined the masses in it's new, metro corporate interior design. Translation: cold and uninviting. Shit, they have outdone Olive Garden in the tacky department. Gone is the home experience and the jugs of wine on each table. They have been replaced by dark lights and a kitchen that has been safely placed behind glass; sanitized for your protection and away your enjoyment. It just looks like a regular cold metal kitchen, except now you can see that cold metal kitchen while you eat your downsized, bland tasting entree' which is also now available in the frozen food section of your local grocery store.

Insert Valley Girl reaction: GAG ME!

I haven't heard anyone sing since they closed one of their restaurants down in Montgomery, Alabama a few years back. The servers now match the coldness of the "redesigned" kitchen, and less friendly as they may - or may not - draw their names for you. Menus, especially for children, have been downsized in diversity, and in proportion size as well.

Macaroni Grill may still exist, but Romano is dead - long dead. Macaroni Grill has become nothing more than a twin to Olive Garden - they both suck!

I guess both restaurants are downsizing these portions in response to the obesity levels in children. But they forgot about the fat grams in the crap they have decided to start serving now. And I will give a point to Macaroni Grill for still making available the grilled chicken and broccoli for kids, but will deduct 1/2 of that same point for making it smaller.

Chili's use to be the same way. I went in tonight only to find the interior had been changed to a new sleeker design. Frankly, it sucked as well unless you are three sheets to the wind on their "Presidente Margarita". Which I might say was the only thing I enjoyed about tonight's experience. I mean, how can one really screw up a margarita?

I felt like I was more in a swanky place in San Fran than I did a semi-Mexican, Texan-style eatery. The kids use to love the items on the wall shelves. It was a way for me to distract my three year old from pre-dinner hunger tantrums. She kept asking tonight where all the good stuff on the walls went. She thought they were about to close down due to the blandness of the new decor.

The whole menu change was a disgrace as well. To put it bluntly, we were all still very hungry after leaving and had to go across the street to Chick-fil-A to feed the kids all over again. Then we went back over to TCBY for dessert. Dinner was such a drastic change at Chili's, I just couldn't handle seeing how they had destroyed their desserts. Somehow having to feed the kids twice for dinner does not seem right in my book especially since the first dinner already costs us $50.

Gone are the diverse choices for kids. It has been replaced with the typical kids fair of, meat, cheese, and pasta. It seems these corporate restaurants think that is all children eat these days besides Kit Kat's and Skittles. Gone are the ribs for kids, as well as the mashed potatoes that mine just loved. My daughter's quesadilla consisted of a small tortilla filled with the least amount of cheese one could put in it. Her broccoli is now served with gooey cheese melted all over it which nearly resulted in a new kind of meltdown itself.

The twins burgers were pathetic. I guess because of the recession, they have decided to eliminate about 1/4 of the burger they use to serve to children. We had to "special order" the mash potatoes for them, and when they arrived, they were served about 3 tablespoons worth of the stuff. When I asked about it, they said that was the serving size for children. OH NO IT'S NOT! It may be now, but it wasn't before.

My husband and I decided to try out one of their new "Under $7" meals.


His quesadilla looked about as pathetic as my daughter's, except his came with pieces of dried up fajita-style steak with a bit of shredded lettuce, tortilla strips, and a glob of sour cream on the side. Mine was a "bit" better as I had the Cajun Chicken Pasta. For $7, one gets a 1/2 portion of the regular priced portion. Basically, I was served a lunch portion at a discounted dinner rate, which was still more than the lunch rate, but the same amount of food as the lunch portion.

Did you get that?

Now, what has all this taught me you say? That if it's a corporate run restaurant, stay far, far away! I should have learned my lesson when Red Lobster sunk it's boat by messing with it's menu to such a point that I can get more food sucking the head off of a crawfish without taking a loan out in the process just to pay for it.

These restaurants have stripped all character from what made them great in the first place. They have forgotten their roots, and what made them become popular. Red Lobster has all but raped its own self from anything I remember of it as a child. They all sold themselves out for more profit and less quality. I'm also getting the hint that these restaurants don't like catering to children anymore based on the changes in their kids menus. They are nothing more now than culinary whores for people who don't know any better.

My advice is that if you want anything close to Chili's, hunt out a local mom and pop's Mexican restaurant; your money will go further. Hell, Taco Bell serves better and you won't financially regret it if you don't like it, but we all remember that E Coli thing, so that might not be a good choice. Okay, stick with mom and pop's places.

As for a substitute to Macaroni Grill, open a jar of organic Ragu, pop in a good Italian opera CD, open a bottle of wine and you are closer to Italy than they will ever be at this point.

If you want Red Lobster style without going bankrupt over the check, your money will go further and your stomach will be fuller by making a homemade Low Country Boil.

And to Brinker International that owns both these restaurants, Darden Restaurant who owns Red Lobster and a few others: give them back to whoever you bought them from because they apparently know how to run a restaurant and you do not!

And that is my rant for the evening - now I'm going to make a late night pot of linguine with clam sauce for the family!

Buono notte!


Gondooo said...

Not to get away from the gist of your article but...
I was trying to picture us in a restaurant with Calum *faints*
Oh the horror! I just cannot even fathom it!
Kudos to you for such lovely, well behaved children Carolyn. Me? Well I think my child is either a changeling or was deposited in my belly by an alien with a warped sense of humour for I cannot even fathom taking my son into a restaurant at this moment in time, so hell bent is he on humiliating me each moment we are in a public place together.
I'm stressing over the thought of being stuck on a flight for 10hrs with him! HELP (really)

Tara R. said...

So when are you going to tell us how you really feel? You go Girl, testify!

I would much rather go to a local mom and pop diner than a franchise restaurant. The portions are bigger, the prices better, the atmosphere richer and on the whole, the people are more, well, peoply. Hope you find a new foodie haven.

melissa said...

all the macaroni grills and chili's in my area closed a couple of years ago. we were left with two vacant chain restaurant buildings, just sitting there. i used to LOVE macaroni grill! i loved that wine that they put on your table...the honor system...oops, did i tell you two glasses? i meant 4...shhh...
but it went downhill. closed. so did chilis. sad. but tgi fridays did the same thing. and i LOVE tgi fridays. oh well, i guess i'd better start cooking again. :(

Cindi ~ Moomettesgram said...

*Sigh* I don't care for chain restaurants either.

If you want some of the best authentic Italian food around, come to Connecticut. And you can add Rhode Island & Massachusetts in there too.

If you want some awesome, fresh Seafood, again, New England at it's best!

Can't say enough about the local restaurants here! They're the best!

Yes Tara, I think I live in foodie heaven.