Déjà Vu Story: Gray Lady Disses Suburban Dining

Anyone who reads EATER knows that we’re loyal Times readers. We link to the august broad(ish) sheet regularly, and relish our Wednesday lunchtime Dining section just as we would a meaty sandwich. What would our lives be without Asimov, Bittman, Flo Fab, etc.? And while we’re at it, we look forward to our Sunday Times Regional section and all of its suburban foodies, too—Emily DeNitto, Alice Gabriel, M.H. Reed, et al. We especially love the Quick Bite section: so trim, so useful, so informative.

Yet the Times really cheesed us off in their May 4 story, Déjà Vu Dining. In this article, the paper sent nine restaurant reviewers into the wilds of the ‘burbs to eat at chain restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and Chili’s. The premise? An ill-disguised sneer at the stereotypical suburban dining experience: a mediocre meal at a strip mall chain restaurant. (The verdict? “Surprisingly decent.”) I mean, why bother? And the critics didn’t need to visit the ‘burbs to eat at chain stores. There are plenty of Chili’s or Outback Steakhouses right in New York City — and the rest of America, for that matter.

While it’s common for urbanites to sneer at the food in the suburbs, this picture of suburban dining is as reality-based as a Polish joke. After all, Dan Barber is out here, Neil Ferguson—and soon—Andy Nusser, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. While it’s true that we have a shameful Chili’s in Westchester, we also have some excellent Mexican restaurants, some even operated by Mexicans and actually serving Mexican customers. And FYI—outer borough and suburban Mexican restaurants are where it’s at for foodies: prohibitive Manhattan rents exclude excellent, but modestly-priced, family-run Mexican restaurants.

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Why would anyone opt for an Outback Steakhouse when they could go to the Willett House? Why eat at an Applebee’s or a T.G.I. Friday’s—ever? And finally, why waste the limited space devoted to suburban food in the NY Times Regional section on a story evaluating national chain restaurants?

We were halfway tempted to do a retaliatory story—chain dining in Manhattan—but then we just couldn’t face a Bloomin’ Onion. Instead, we’ll write about what we wished the Times had covered: excellent, independently-owned alternatives to all those mediocre, hegemonious, “surprisingly decent” chain restaurants.

Chain: Outback Steakhouse
Our Alternative: Willet House
20 Willet Ave, Port Chester, 914-939-7500
Not only does the Willet house have great steaks, but it’s housed in a totally charming, patina-laden and unique re-purposed granary on the Byram River. With excellent wines, fascinating architecture, and top-quality steaks, why on Earth would anyone visit a Disney-fied, Aussie-themed chain store? In a mall, no less.

Chain: Cheesecake Factory
Our Alternative: City Limits Diner
Look, folks—big food is never good food. Think about it: if your food portions are huge, then the quality has to be lower—restaurants aren’t giving anything away. All-you-can-eat buffets? Pay One Price sushi? Endless margaritas? All this cheap garbage is like making a date with Pepto Bismol, if not Ralph on the Big White Telephone.

Instead, look for sane portions and better quality. City Limits is as bright, fun and as kid friendly as the Cheesecake Factory, plus it has an equally democratic menu—there’s something for everyone. Yet with higher quality and less O.T.T. portions, you can actually feel like a responsible parent if you bring the kids. Skip the Cheesecake Factory’s Super Sizes (is that a good lesson?) and hit the City Limits. Their desserts –which are baked in-house –are great, too.

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Chain: Bertucci’s or Olive Garden
Our Alternative: Serafina Trattoria
228 South Highland Ave, Ossining, 914-941-6382
If you’re looking for a cheerful, friendly, kid-welcoming place where you can get tasty salads, pizza, pasta, and risotto (along with a wide selection of secondi featuring chicken, veal and beef), then opt for Serafina Trattoria. Serafina’s pizzas are really good, and like Bertucci’s, it’s hand-made made right in front of diners. However, this is a family-run business, so you’ll never have the cold food or clueless, careless management that the Times reviewer found at Bertucci’s. Nor, for that matter, will you find the corporate anonymity of an Olive Garden. The Serafina family proudly mans the restaurant’s kitchen and floor, so while the Olive Garden’s motto is, “When you’re here, you’re family”, the Serafinas actually are a family—and not a corporate-designed marketing campaign.

Chain: Chili’s Grill and Bar
Our Alternative: Sunset Grille
Little Mexican Café
581 Main St, New Rochelle, 914-636-3926
We can’t even begin to express our horror at all the Chili’s and Taco Bells in Westchester. Hello? People…. get off the couch and go to Port Chester and New Rochelle, where there are real Mexican restaurateurs serving real Mexican food to genuine, real-live Mexican diners. This is food for natives, by natives, and it doesn’t get better than that. Our choice for great Mexican dining? Little Mexican Café in New Rochelle. Sit at the bar, order a cerveza, and chow down on excellent tacos al pastor or carne asada as cowboy-hat-wearing pool players crack a few balls.

If you need a bit more glamour (and better cocktails), then go to Sunset Grille. This is an independently-owned Mexican restaurant that grinds its own masa, presses its own tortillas, and has an authenticity that no chain store can match.

Chain: T.G.I. Fridays or Applebee’s
Our Alternative: Q (112 North Main St, Port Chester)
What are fans of Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s looking for? A great burger? Some great ribs? A great price? The fun atmosphere? Our suspicion is that they’re seeking an inexpensive place where the kids can make a mess as their parents sip a cocktail or two. Our thinking is …why not get great food while you’re at it? Q has better food, tastier drinks, funkier music and a cooler vibe than any Applebee’s or T.G.I. Fridays—plus, it’s kid friendly, so you can just glaze over and listen to the music for a while as your tyke smears BBQ ribs from ear to ear. (PS: There’s a kid-height hand-washing station, too.)

Chain: P.F. Chang’s China Bistro
Our Alternative: Aberdeen
3 Barker Ave, White Plains 914-288-0188
Take a peek in the kitchen at P.F. Chang’s—I’m guessing the cooks there are not exactly Sinophones.

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If you can’t make it into Flushing for great Chinese, then hit Aberdeen for peppery, gooey deep-fried chicken feet; spicy roasted pork buns; crunchy, finger-sized shrimp rolls and meaty (though meatless) bean curd skin rolls. This dim- sum palace is modestly priced, and the best Chinese food that Westchester has to offer—and that included glitzy Americanized joints like P.F. Chang’s.

Chain: Red Lobster
Our Alternative: Ebb Tide Seafood and Lobster Shack
One of the most shocking things to emerge from the Times piece is that Red Lobster ain’t cheap, folks. A single lobster tail will run you $34.95 at Red Lobster, which is horrifying. After all, you could spend that kind of money and get something good at a real restaurant. If you’re looking for a shoreside spot with a genuine maritime vibe, then get away from the strip malls and hit Ebb Tide. At this Byram-side clam shack, you can do any of the following: rent a boat, buy bait or eat a lobster dinner. Plus, you get more for your money at Ebb Tide. While a tail goes for $34.95 at Red Lobster, a 1 1/2 pound whole lobster, chowder, corn, butter and packaged towelette is only $31.95 at Ebb Tide. As if that weren’t enough, this Byram-side bait and tackle has outdoor seating, all the fried fish you could want, and loads of frosty beer.

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