January 26, 1996 in Seven

Red Robin Appealing, Even With Hit-And-Miss Food

By The Spokesman-Review
 

I just don’t get it.

Last Friday night there was four inches of snow on the ground and more coming down. Yet Red Robin was still packed with people waiting for tables. (The restaurant does not take reservations.)

As I stood in the crowd, I wondered exactly what made this restaurant so popular. The few times I’ve eaten at Red Robin, I found the food underwhelming and the brightly ligthed, chock-a-block decor overwhelming.

I think part of the appeal definitely has to do with the way Red Robin treats kids - as if they were the ones picking up the tab.

In addition to a kid’s menu that includes everything from spaghetti and burgers to a “hot diggity dog” (for $3), children are issued their own pack of Red Robin crayons, a plastic cup and a balloon to take home.

Meanwhile, mom and dad can choose from a huge variety of dishes that, in my experience, range from fairly tasty to mediocre.

California-based Red Robin has long been considered a shining success story in the restaurant industry, a stubborn survivor among the dwindling number of gourmet burger restaurants. The 118-outlet chain operation, with locations throughout the Northwest, California and as far away as Denver, Dallas and Boca Raton, Fla., started as a tavern in 1938 in Seattle’s University District. In 1969, Jerry Kingen (Salty’s owner) bought the original Red Robin. He started branching out in the early 1980s. In 1986, Skylark Restaurants in Japan bought a majority interest and started a huge expansion. The Spokane location opened in 1991.

Over the years, Red Robin’s menu has expanded and done a credible job of staying current. (A couple of dishes even incorporate chipotle peppers - smoked jalapenos - that are among ingredients used in the trendiest kitchens.)

The menu is well-organized, starting with appetizers, soups and salads, burgers, sandwiches, pasta and ending with more-substantial dinners such as baby back ribs, a sirloin basted in a peppercorn mustard sauce and chicken fried steak.

Two entire pages are dedicated to beer, wine and elaborate cocktails such as the Screaming Red Zombie and Nuclear Ice Tea. There’s also a selection of fountain-type treats, including a Coke float, milkshakes and malteds.

During a recent dinner, one of our appetizers set the tone for the entire meal. On a single plate of “buzzard” wings, some pieces were, as advertised on the menu, fiery hot, having been bathed in a cayenne pepper sauce. Others were bland and fatty. The rest of the evening turned out to be a series of hits and misses.

At a restaurant with such a wide-ranging menu I usually try to stick with simpler, more straightforward preparations. My reasoning is that the kitchen will have a better chance of executing well something that is less challenging.

So, I went against my own advice and selected the Thai chicken pasta ($7.79). For an extra $1.49, I ordered a dinner salad that consisted of fresh lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, but came with a ranch dressing that tasted like it came straight out of the bottle.

The pasta was a nice surprise, though. It featured slices of lightly seasoned grilled chicken that was still moist and tasty, crispy pea pods and paper thin slices of carrots atop properly cooked linguine. The whole dish was dressed in a slightly sweet, slightly hot, light peanut sauce. It was hardly authentic Thai cooking, but it was pleasant.

Another diner in our party of five enjoyed the beef fajitas ($8.49). A small steak was grilled, sliced and delivered atop a still-sizzling mixture of green peppers and onions. It was served with thick, warm flour tortillas, a thin salsa, a bland (I’m guessing commercially prepared) guacamole, black beans, sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese. This dish could easily be split by two light eaters.

My husband ordered the roasted chicken ($7.99), which came with mashed potatoes and a nondescript selection of veggies. At first, he thought the bird’s flavor was fine, but after a few bites, he was struck by how greasy it was. By the end of the meal, he was feeling a little queasy. Also, I didn’t think it was possible to go wrong with mashed potatoes, but he said the spuds were pasty and too salty.

My 4-year-old daughter ordered the hot diggity dog. (I suspect because she liked the name). It was grilled and served with fries. After discarding the bun for no particular reason, she ate the dog. But only after we convinced her to put away the crayons. She also was impressed with the flashy atmosphere, the carousel horse in the middle of the dining room and walls packed with pop art and old movie posters.

Another diner sampled Red Robin’s biggest claim to fame. He ordered a Lone Star burger, which comes topped with melted jalapeno jack cheese, guacamole, salsa, lettuce, pickles, tomatoes and mayo. It sounded good on paper, but all that stuff simply overwhelmed the thin patty. It was jumble of flavors that was also messy to eat.

On the plus side, burgers come with good, thick steak fries that can be replenished as many times as you’re willing to boost your cholesterol count.

However, sandwiches are wrapped in waxed paper and served in drive-in style plastic baskets. Is that supposed to be kitschy-cute? Maybe it is, but when burgers cost almost $6, how about a real plate? Or, you could save a few bucks and eat at Wolffy’s or where there are golden arches.

In fact, Red Robin reminds me a lot of a fast food place. If you’re in a hurry, say, to a catch movie at the Newport Cinemas, this is a place where you can get in and out quickly. There’s a movie and dinner deal, where you can get a ticket to Act III Cinemas for $3 with the purchase of a dinner.

However, if you want to sit and visit before ordering, as we did, that seems to throw the servers off. Our waitress kept checking back, to her credit, until we told her we just wanted to enjoy our appetizers and drinks before ordering dinner.

Only 10 minutes after we finally placed our order, a manager stopped by to apologize for our meal taking so long.

It probably sounds ridiculous to nit-pick service that’s too speedy and efficient, but there were times when we felt rushed.

This is not a place to sit and dawdle, discussing the inspired cuisine. But for what it sets out to provide - plentiful portions of affordable fast food in a full-service atmosphere - I can see Red Robin’s appeal.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Red Robin Grill and Spirits Emporium Address/phone: 9904 N. Newport Highway/467-3382 Meals: burgers, sandwiches, pasta Prices: $5.29-$13.99 Days/hours: Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-midnight; Sundays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Alcohol: full bar Smoking: only in the lounge Reservations: no Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Personal checks: yes

The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = RESTAURANT REVIEW, COLUMN - Dining Out

This sidebar appeared with the story: Red Robin Grill and Spirits Emporium Address/phone: 9904 N. Newport Highway/467-3382 Meals: burgers, sandwiches, pasta Prices: $5.29-$13.99 Days/hours: Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-midnight; Sundays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Alcohol: full bar Smoking: only in the lounge Reservations: no Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V Personal checks: yes

The following fields overflowed: SUPCAT = RESTAURANT REVIEW, COLUMN - Dining Out


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