Dining Out in Southern CA: What's Hot & What's Not

Juggling prenatal doctor appointments, maternity classes, and shopping for baby, I’ve only had limited leave to pursue gourmet adventures in Southern California. Most days, I’ll toss a fresh salad of kale, spinach, crumbled feta, blueberries and pomegranate seeds – nothing like a nutrient-packed bouquet of produce to keep me energetic and hydrated in this parching weather.

Other days, the realization that I’ll soon be on indefinite house arrest hits me like an icy slap in the face. So after poring over the nutrition facts of an eatery’s menu, readily retrievable online, I prepare myself physically and mentally for a culinary pampering session. And out we go!

Red Robin has been on my radar since last year’s visit. Where else can you enjoy a delicious burger with bottomless fries, steamed broccoli or a house salad for under 10 buckaroos? Speechless? This place is worth holding your breath for!

The latest promotion features a lineup of four burgers at $6.99 each. And did I mention they’re double beef patties? I opted for the Smoky Jack Tavern Double, boasting a duo of fire-grilled patties with melted Pepper Jack cheese, pickles, red onions and lettuce all on a sesame seed bun. Hold the Campfire Sauce and bourbon-infused Whiskey River BBQ sauce – it’s all about the meat anyway, isn’t it?

Red Robin's Smoky Jack Tavern Double sans sauce

In that vein, I swapped the steak fries for steamed broccoli – grimacing, are you! I snuck a few of those mischievous spuds from my father’s basket, in the name of preserving his own waistline. The sacrifices I make, right? They’re addictive indeed, especially when dusted with Red Robin’s special seasoning served alongside the traditional condiments.

Tough call: steamed broccoli or steak fries?

What I love about Red Robin is the infallible service. Hosts, waiters, and servers are quick to please and dote on your every request. Food comes out in no time, and the sides flow without cessation. There’s not a better deal in town, I’m convinced!

On the other side of the spectrum, I was absolutely livid with my first-time foray to Romano’s Macaroni Grill, which according to its website sources some of its ingredients from Italian farms. I’ll tell you one thing – absolutely none of it evoked ANY of my dining excursions in Italy, neither in the north – Torino and Milano – nor in the center – Roma, Siena, Toscania, Perugia, or Pisa.

In fact, the experience from A to Z was appalling, a far cry from the hospitality you’re sure to meet with in Europe’s most inviting peninsula. It started off with a stale, hard-as-rock bread loaf intended to soak up the olive oil. We were offended the kitchen would send out something so conspicuously un-fresh. You couldn’t even run a knife through it!

We asked that the waitress kindly replace it, and she brought out another one indistinguishable from the first. Around us, other tables were complaining about the same issue, reaffirming that we were not coming from left field or being royally fussy. On trial #3, a self-smug manager emerged with a soft, freshly-baked roll, blaming a “new recipe” for not sitting well with the standard oven heating temperature. Bollocks!

We tried to put this faux pas behind us, but I had a gut feeling the bread was a harbinger of continued disappointment. Sure enough, the chicken breast in my father’s Pollo Caprese was grilled to a charred-black consistency. The charred side was not immediately visible, as it was turned face down on the plate, cached in a mountain of boiled cappellini. A bite or two into his chicken, my father flipped it over to expose its disturbingly black profile. We beckoned the waitress, who by now was avoiding us like the plague. 10 minutes later, the manager issued forth once more, bearing a specimen of a much more edible state.

Pollo Caprese at Macaroni Grill: doesn't it look as wilted and sad as that spinach?

Things couldn’t get any worse, right? Hah!

Just as we were finishing our mains and tallying our losses, the waitress plopped down the bill on our table. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t waiters usually ask whether you’d like a sweet finish? In the US, it’s a restaurant reflex: “D'ya save room for dessert?”

The truth was, given how shoddy our meal experience was, we were half expecting staff to offer us a complimentary dessert as an apology for how things had fared. Nope, not the case. Our waitress was shooing us out!

At the foot of the receipt, in unmistakable typeface, there appeared an invitation to submit feedback online. I went home hell-bent on relaying the ordeal to customer service – they were soliciting it, after all! Over a week has elapsed, and I have yet to hear back from Macaroni Grill. A tweet to their handle also remains unacknowledged, reinforcing just how much this institution cares about customer satisfaction.

Whatever. I won’t let them be a burr in my boots. I’m going back to Red Robin to lick my wounds!


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