Many travelers (or stay-in-town eaters, for that matter) tend to fall into one of several categories: when they travel out of town, they will only eat at chains with which they are familiar, thinking that way at least they'll know what quality to expect. Others will only eat in the hotel where they stay (this is generally the worst choice known to civilized humankind). There's the slightly adventurous, who will reach for their Blackberry, click on their "Yelp" ap, and type in "local restaurants", to see what others have thought about their dining destinations. And then there's the slightly more adventurous who will eat at any diner, restaurant or dive that looks interesting and has a lot of cars in the parking lot. My style tends to fall into the last two categories, and I have to tell you, I've rarely been disappointed.
But today's post is about wines from some well-known chains. Taking some info from February's Food and Wine, and some from my own experience, here are some suggestions:P. F. Chang's is a semi-high-end Chinese joint. I went to my first P. F. Chang's in Phoenix, Arizona many years ago on a date. Have to admit, I was under-impressed by the quality. The portions were ridiculously huge, and the prices were high (especially compared to the mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants found locally). Nonetheless, when they opened shop in my town, I tried them again. Still I find them over-priced, over-salted, and some items a little oily, but they've got a couple of decent wines. Their best red is a nice Pinot Noir from New Zealand. It's the 2009 Boulder Bank and is priced at $38/bottle, locally. I'm not much for reds from down under, but this one has aromatic herbal notes that brighten the fruit. Their best white is the Fillaboa Albarino ($33). It's a Spanish wine, produced in the Galicia region. Very focused and zesty. I'm going to try more Spanish whites this spring and summer.
Ah yes, Legal Seafoods. Gotta go there when you're in town, right? It's legit! It's local! No, it's a high-priced, touristy chain. I admit, the food is good. But I would not recommend it unless someone else is treating you. The wines: Red is the 2008 Ridge East Bench Zinfandel for $39 (see, told you they were a little steep.) Time spent in American oak barrels gives this juicy red a soft spicy bite. Their best white is the 2009 Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc ($38). This is truly one of the best Sauvignon Blanc's you'll find out of New Zealand. Crisp, focused, liquid nectar.
Go for the steak, not the ambience. Locally, our Capital Grille is generally quite noisy, starting early and going all night. But the food is delish and the wait staff is usually delightful. Their best red is also a big red. The 200 WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Noir, at $64/bottle, is a little rich, but so is the wine. It's a structured yet earthy Pinot big enough to complement any steak, and it's vinted in Oregon, one of my favorite wine-producing states. Their white is a little cheaper, at $28/bottle, but is just as good. The 2009 Tilia Torrontes from Argentina is floral and lively. You will love it.
Olive Garden, because when you're here, you're family. Right, whatever. My family has never charged me for a glass of wine. Ever. Olive Garden is a decent family restaurant, a good place to teach your kids about table manners and why you should always chew food with your mouth closed. Olive Garden has really stepped up their game with their Italian wine offernings. I generally drink their house red, which is ok. But if you're there with friends instead of small children, may I recommend you try their 2008 Feudo Arancio Nero d'Avola? At $24/bottle, you'll get a taste of Sicily's warm climate with a lovely, spicy depth. Prefer a white? Choose the 2009 Mandra Rossa Fiano for just $24. Western Sicily is the source for this citrusy, unoaked white wine.
I'm only going to say this once. Go to Macaroni Grille for the bread. Stay for the food and "honors" wine. Disregard Patric, who'll be your waiter tonight and write his name on your paper table cloth in three shades of crayon, upside down and backwards. Just get that part out of your head. Go with a bunch of friends, order a lovely meal and the house wine. Take it from there - you just can't go wrong with the Macaroni Grill.