I moved to Brookfield a few months ago and have rued my decision since. And it’s not just because there’s nothing to do or that I have no friends nearby or that I’m surrounded by Republicans. Or that I have to drive everywhere, and if I’m home alone I can’t stop thinking, “In the suburbs, no one hears you scream.” (Or more aptly, they do hear you scream and ignore it.) No, it’s that the closest restaurants near my house are all chains. Surreal, flavorless chains that serve bland food to white people who don’t know any better but seem appeased by all the crazy crap on the wall and deep-fried appetizers. I’m a city girl, a vegetarian, a liberal and I can’t stand for this. But, I thought for argument’s sake, it might be fun to try out these chains I’ve been avoiding and save that 15-mile drive downtown for a decent plate of pasta.
THE OLIVE GARDEN
The gold standard of suburban chain restaurants. Milwaukee has named it “Best Italian Restaurant” more than twice over the past few years. (And The Onion picked up on it and made a sidebar out of it, and my friend Jennifer and I make a joke about that at least once a week.) Free unlimited salad, free unlimited soup, free unlimited breadsticks. The actual food is okay–bland, dependable, inoffensive. They claim to have this “school”—oops, “Institute”—in Tuscany (that you can actually visit while on vacation there–because when in Italy, the first thing most Americans crave is The Olive Garden) where they think up new recipes. But even “Institute-developed” food (something I never, ever want to see on a menu) still tastes like everything else. However, the minestrone soup is fantastic and usually fresh and quite cheap for unlimited portions. Plus, it’s vegan.
It’s like the Olive Garden gone upscale with a little hint of Chicago. By upscale I mean severely overpriced. By Chicago, I mean the mob runs it. Just kidding. I have eaten here a few times and am usually quite disappointed. Plus the red sauce tastes like Chef Boyardee made it. I wish I were kidding. The crackers at the table are tasty, though.
Mayfair’s other answer to upscale, non-threatening ethnic dining. (See: Maggiano’s.) Not brilliant, but edible and perfect for taking out your friend who claims to hate Chinese (the food, not the good people of China). The steamed vegetable dumplings are quite tasty and the restaurant seems more than willing to accommodate for picky, vegetarian eaters on break from a Saturday afternoon J. Crew binge. They even offer special menus for those on diets or those training for marathons. Plus, the bar is fantastic, the wine list is good, and they make my martinis just the way Homer Jay likes them—filled with alcohol.
True story: I met the guy who championed the “Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide” ads that feature a lobster running for his or her life, and I thanked him for making some of the best, most subversive, pro-vegetarian advertising I’d ever seen. We were at the dog park in Chicago and needless to say, my Oliver wasn’t allowed to play fetch with his Lab anymore.
Eating good in the neighborhood? Are you kidding me? I’d rather go hungry. Plus, I know way too many people who have found odd “extras” with their meals. (Okay, hairs and lots of them.) And in my limited experience, the waitstaff is surly and will often accuse you of putting that 8-foot-long hair in your onion rings, which I can attest that I surely did not. In fact, I’ve never eaten at an Applebee’s in which some portion of the meal didn’t have to be sent back. However, some women I have worked with said that the Oriental Chicken Salad was good, but I’m not trying it–even if they’re paying me. Which they are. Sorry, editors.
(Originally published October 21, 2004)