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TGI Friday's
Cracker Barrel
Most food and restaurant critics refuse to review chains. They consider them not only inferior, but somehow artificial, in a whole different category than "regular" restaurants. We disagree. First, we're not sure what a chain restaurant is. If Columbia Steakhouse or Joe Bologna's is successful enough to open a second location, is it now a chain? How many locations does it have to open to become a chain? If we review a locally owned restaurant when it first opens, why do we no longer review it as it opens other locations? And what is it about the cooking in chain restaurants that somehow renders it inferior? We've read critics accusing chains of not baking their own bread or pies or soups. But we know of several gourmet restaurants who contract out for their bread, pies, soups and other items. If a local restauranteur wants to open a restuarant and buys a franchise so a regional office can handle advertising, accounting and purchasing so he can concentrate on the kitchen and greeting customers, why does that suggest his food is inferior? Just because a local restaurant is a chain franchisee does not mean they buy frozen food and microwave it, serve "fast food," or serve more high cholesterol high sodium items than any other restaurant. So, yes, we here review chain restaurants. We like them. We think they offer creative menus with good quality and reasonable prices. It is true that if you eat at a dozen Ruby Tuesdays or Applebees, you will see the same menu. But each location offers its own daily soups, desserts, breads or whatever, and they are usually very good. There are probably chains out there which are badly run and serve greasy food and should be avoided. But we're lucky in Lexington to have chains which are among the best in the nation and are very much worth a visit. Our definition of chain is six or more restaurants out of town owned. If it's just a couple of outlets locally owned and headquartered, we list it under the proper food type.
Applebees has three Lexington locations. Pictured here is the one on Richmond Road in the Lexington Mall parking lot. They have one page of items with less than 550 calories, and a "2 for 20" deal where you pick one appetizer and two entrees for $20. Yes, there are fried items. However, there are plenty of soups, salads, pastas and fajitas, under the seafood menu you can get your tilapia and shrimp grilled., and five of the six chicken entrees are grilled. One of their best entrees is a Fajita Combo : grilled steak and chicken fajitas on a cast iron skillet with Southwest rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, caramelized onions, and green peppers and Jack Cheddar Cheese. The steak menu offers six entrees priced from $10 - 15. Among their appetizers we like the Queso Blanco : white queso blended with fresh tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, roast pablanos, jalapenos and chips. There are also Wonton Tacos : pulled pork stuffed in crispy wonton shells and topped with crunchy Asian slaw. The dessert menu features strawberry cheesecake, chocolate mousse and a hot fudge sundae. Beverages include the usual beers, margaritas and mixed drinks. Kendall Jacksons are probably their best wines and they offer several good sangrias.

If you're hungry and not worried about a diet, O'Charley's is where you come. They make great use of cheese, bacon and other hearty ingredients, beginning with their outstanding soup rotation. Best are probably the Three Cheese Broccoli, Chicken Harvest, and Overloaded Potato Soup (two cheeses, potatoes, and hickory smoked bacon). Our favorite appetizer is the Three Cheese Shrimp Dip (shrimp, Asiago cheese, sun dried tomatoes, Monterrey Jack and Cheddar served with warm, freshly made tortilla chips). They offer six flashy salads, such as the Black and Bleu Caesar (blackened grilled sirloin cubes with bleu cheese on romaine lettuce and tomatoes) and Pecan Chicken. There are Southern Grilled Chicken Tacos, Baby Back Ribs, seven kinds of steak, five pastas, Caramel Pie and a solid beverage list including Beringer and Ecco Domani wines, Killian Irish Red Beer and Belgian Blue Moon Ale. OCharley's very best entree may be the Cedar Planked Fish. They fire grill 9 oz. filets of either Tilapia or Salmon on a cedar plank with lemon seasoning.


Lexington has two Chili's locations : Richmond Road (shown) and off Man o War by Nicholasville Road. The appetizers are mostly fried but we really like the Southwestern Egg Rolls (six flour tortillas filled with smoked chicken, black beans, corn, jalapeno, Jack cheese, red peppers and spinach, served with avocado ranch dressing), and there's a hot spinach artichoke dip served in a hot cast iron skillet with fresh warm tostado chips). One of Chile's claims to fame is its Chicken Green Chile Soup (rice, green chiles, lime, avocado, cilantro, and tomatoes), but there's also the Chicken Enchilada Soup and a very good Terlingua Chile (slow cooked with beef, onions, chiles and cheese). Eight salads include the Caribbean (pineapple, mandarin oranges, cherries, green onions, cilantro, grilled chicken or shrimp, and honey lime dressing) and Quesadilla Explosion (grilled chicken, cheese, corn relish, tortilla strips, cheese and citrus balsamic dressing). Chile's other claim to fame is its 11-entree Grill Menu : Chicken or Beef Fajitas, Buffalo Chicken Fajitas, Steak/chicken/garlic/lime/shrimp Fajitas, Southwestern Quesadillas, Salmon, Monterey Chicken, Margarita Chicken, Cajun Pasta, Classic Sirloin, and Flamed Ribeye. The menu includes very traditional sandwich, burger, taco, dessert and beverage pages.
Bob Evans uses a down home country America theme, giving old fashioned farm cooking a 21st Century twist. Breakfasts are so bounteous they have a cult following; in every town there is a group of people who begin every day at Bob Evans. Lunch is very traditional, but it's Dinner where Bob Evans really shines. Of appetizers, we like their Blue Ribbon Apple Pie Fries, Country Fair Cheese Bites and Loaded Baked Potato Bites (breaded and fried potatoes stuffed with cheddar cheese, sour cream, bacon, scallions and buttermilk ranch dressing). Deep Dish Dinners, Deep Dish Pastas and Slow Roasted Dinners put you in mind of big family Sundays out on the farm. Soups and salads are excellent, and the open face sandwiches are the best still being commercially served of what was once a staple in every small town restaurant in the country. The Meat Loaf (made with sausage and Angus beef) is outstanding. This may be the best of all chain restaurants.

TGI Friday's was created in 1965 by Allan Stillman because he wanted to meet girls and noticed there was no bar they would consider classy enough to go to. He decorated the New York City original with hardwood floors, brass railings, leaded glass, Tiffany lamps, upscale tables and chairs, and antiques. The menu featured classic American food and a wide choice of the kind of drinks that would appeal to young professionals in their 20s and 30s. Stillman and partner Dan Scoggin began franchising the concept in 1971. They've evolved the menu to appeal to families but the bar at Friday's is still a popular hangout featuring a wider variety of drinks than most. The Appetizers are "bar food" pushed to its upscale extreme : Warm Pretzels with Beer Cheese Dipping Sauce, BBQ Chicken Flatbread, Skillet Potatoes, Garlic Parmesan Wings, etc. There are six very good Salads to appeal to those single girls Stillman targeted. We think Friday's best Entrees are their Jack Daniels Grilled Chicken & Shrimp, Sauteed Garlic Marinated Chicken & Cheese, Dragon Fire Salmon (fire grilled with pineapple pico de gallo, mandarin oranges, ginger lime slaw and broccoli), and the Salmon & Grilled Shrimp Scampi. Save room for Dessert : There's the best ice cream sandwich in America, called Oreo Madness, or Caramel Cake, or Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie.

Cheddar's is on Tates Creek Road, at the top of the hill at the Armstrong Mill Road light. This is a particularly large and impressive facility, to go along with Cheddar's contemporary menu. The 1979 Texas chain builds its interiors with lots of brick and timber. But it's still the food you go for. Of their appetizers we like the Spinach Dip and accompanying tortilla chips. We always order a cup of the Baked Potato Soup (with celery, onions, spices, cheddar and bacon), but the Chicken Tortilla Soup is very good with just the right amount of spicy. They offer the usual list of sandwiches, but we think their best is their Monte Cristo (smoked turkey and ham, plus several kinds of cheeses). Of the entrees, their most popular nationally for 20 years have been the Lemon Pepper Chicken, Hickory Smoked Baby Back Ribs and Chicken Pot Pie. However, locals order a lot of the Catfish, Salmon, Tilapia and Shrimp. New in 2010 is Shepherd's Pie, and it may now be their best entree. Cheddar's makes a very good Burger and the accompanying Fries are excellent. Their Chicken Fajita Casadillas are competitive with good Mexican restaurants. Among desserts, Cheddar's offers the biggest, richest Cookie in town and a Hot Fudge Cake Sundae that you'll need a week in the gym to work off.
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