Sunday, April 1, 2007

Restaurants Some Good and Some Bad!

I am sure we all have our favorite restaurants. They may offer great food, terrific value, friendly staff and atmosphere and of course convenience. Living in New Jersey, just 35 miles to the Big Apple has given me an opportunity to check out some of the best the East Coast has to offer. Add to this the fact that I am a photojournalist and my wife owns a travel agency and you can add many other opportunities to the list of establishments I have eaten in.

So you may ask, why am I writing this blog...well, over the past few months two of these restaurants stand out in my mind as the complete opposites and I wanted to share my opinions with my readers.

One of the best local restaurants I go to is called Houlihan's of Leawood, Kansas and has been in operation since 1972. They are one of 81 around the country and this particular store located in Holmdel, New Jersey is part of the A.C.E. Restaurant Group one of Houlihan's New Jersey franchise owner companies. Arnold Runestad president of ACE now has 13 locations in operation in our state with 10 more on the way and is now looking to expand into other geographic areas.

You can read more about Houlihan's by clicking here.

Now Houlihan's is one of the best casual dining restaurants we have dined in and we love to go back to our Holmdel, NJ location often. There menu is full of wonderful choices and I tend to be a picky eater, so this down home restaurant has many dishes I love. Some of my favorites include their Lettuce Wraps, Spinach Dip with Cheesy Lavosh, or their Blackened Chicken and Caramelized Onion Quesadilla for starters, and a hot bowl of their wonderful Baked Potato Soup which I order every time I go there. I like a soup that is thick and filled with goodies and I can tell you this soup will never disappoint you.

As far as their main dishes go, once again I love their Chicken Asian Chop Chop salad and usually order one and share it with my wife (they are huge) and then order either their Grilled Rosemary Chicken, Down Home Pot Roast, Blackened Chicken in a Spicy Cream Sauce over Pasta and a special dinner combo we order from time to time that comes on a huge platter with their Baby Back Ribs, Rosemary Chicken and their wonderful fried Shrimp (all this under $20). Since we often share this dish, we ask them to split it

Their entrees and a salad or appetizer should be shared , because they offer great food and true value to their customers. I won't go into their desserts, but let me tell you that if you do share dishes you can order one and once again, one is enough for two.

Now, why do we love Houlihan's? Well not only is the food my kind of food, the atmosphere is warm and friendly, their staff is exceptional and their manager Mr. Alfredo Rivera is one of the best we have seen anywhere. On occasion things may not go as planned. We might end up with poor service (it can happen anywhere), but rest assured if Mr. Rivera is there , he will come to your aide. He knows just the right things to say, will offer you a complimentary item to make up for your problem and make sure you are satisfied with the resolution and want to come back again and again.

My personal thanks to Alfredo Rivera for always showing us his special kind of hospitality. How can you tell who he is at the restaurant. Simply look for the hardest working man there. He might be showing you to a table or even serving you at a table, when his wait staff is short or in trouble. I have seen him clean off dishes from tables as well. Yes, boys and girls, he is a manager and a hard working one too.

Houlihan's is our top neighborhood pick and the best of the lot (Chili's, TGI Fridays, Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, Charlie Brown's). Now if all of the above makes you want to visit your local Houlihan's, I have one other Bonus suggestion. Complete the service questionnaire that they put on each table. Make sure to include your birthday, anniversary and your email address. On your special day, you will get an email mail with a gift of a free entree or a free dessert and their are no strings attached.

We tend to order their huge entree with the ribs, chicken and shrimp, share it and the total bill comes to $ heard me, if you don't order anything else, there is no charge. No restaurant I have ever gone to will give you a free anything if you don't buy something else. Of course we order a soup, some drinks so our last bill on my wife's birthday came to around $5 and change with the tax. By the way, no sharing charges ever, and if you tell them you are going to share a dish, they will break it up in the kitchen, make sure you both have plenty of potato's on each dish and serve it to you. These shared dishes are usually bigger then most restaurants serve as a single order.

Note: Read a full review with photos of Houlihan's at our International Press web site.

So now that we know about Houlihan's and their good food, value priced menu and excellent service, lets look at one of the worst I had the displeasure to visit.

The Okeechobee Steak House in West Palm Beach, Florida is a restaurant that I had the misfortune to go to because of a recommendation from another couple that now live in Florida. Here is something I found on the net that gives you a bit of their history:

Open since 1947, Curtis and Jeannie Lewis have earned the right to call their restaurant a "classic American steakhouse." They cut and dry age all USDA prime and certified Angus beef on the premises. Come for the beef, not the sides, some of which could use updating...

So let me tell you what I hated about this restaurant...everything...

The place was so old and crummy that it looked like an old bar with very old wooden benched booths and old decor, tables and chairs. They were smart enough to keep the lights low or you would have walked out when you saw their menu and prices. I gasped when I saw most entrees ran from $25-$40 or more and they came with virtually nothing other then the main dish. Not being a big steak eater, I knew I was in the wrong place, but with any good steak house like Ruth's Chris, Morton's, Smith and Wollensky or others, you might pay these prices, but they are clean, modern, beautiful restaurants with exceptional service and food. I can tell you that the Okeechobee Steak House is not in this class at all, yet their prices are.

After looking at their prices and their lack of selection, I decided to just write off this one and ordered a $14 hamburger, thinking that at least it would be the best burger on the block for $14. They proved me wrong here too. I asked what came with the burger and was told I could have a potato or vegetable so I opted for a baked potato. I asked if they could put some onions on the grill for me so I could put it on the friend pointed out they charge $4 for fried onions. I asked if they could just put a slice on the grill for the burger and I didn't want a side dish. The waitress said she would ask.

My wife ended up ordering a fish dish and shared it and the pork chops that my friends wife ordered. I believe the two chops were $28, nothing special here and way overpriced considering none of these dishes included a trip to their shameful and sparse salad bar. Most salad bars are an exciting excursion and usually contain tons of fresh vegetables and some have fruit and nuts (Charlie Brown has a great salad bar), but not this one. Ice Berg Lettuce and a few other items and that was I believe $4.99 extra...can you believe their nerve.

So we passed on the salads, not worth $1.99, got the 1/4 pound dried out hamburger with a crummy small baked potato, nothing else on the dish except some lettuce, tomato and onion on the burger. Now remember, I asked the waitress to have them simply put the onion on the grill, right...well they wouldn't do it. The hamburger bun was nothing special and worse then a McDonald's bun. I think my wife had a glass of wine, the other couple had two drinks too. The check came to around $150 for the 4 of us and I ended up paying $57 including my tip for me and my wife. She had one pork chop, small piece of fish, I had a terrible burger, no ambiance at all, uncomfortable chairs and to top it off, I had to have them valet my car, because their lot was too small to park my own, so of course I had to tip just to get my car.

Now don't get me wrong. If I go to a nice restaurant, I expect to pay for their overhead, their decor, their exclusive location, their exceptional service and great food, but how in the world can this joint get away with this, I wondered. I figured they have to be living off the old customers, that for some reason, have remained loyal. I just can't imagine anyone in their right minds going there and enjoying their dining experience. After all how many people can sit down and eat a 38 ounce steak today, unless they were from the old world and didn't have to worry about eating this much poison in one sitting or paying $50+ by the end of the meal.

I give the Okeechobee Steak House my "Hall of Shame" rating for poor decor and atmosphere, inferior salad bar, overpriced menu, poor sides, and very poor value for the food they serve.

Oh, I forgot to mention, they wanted a $7.50 sharing charge if you wanted to share that huge is that for Chutzpah!

You know, I now realize why many of the independent restaurants have been unable to compete with the national chains...they just can't compete any longer when it comes for consistency in their menu, value, decor, professional staff and learning the proper way to treat their customers ... No Grilled onion, plate share charge, over priced salad bar and not included in their expensive entrees...Forget visiting this "Landmark Restaurant", their time has come and gone and they should sell out to the next developer that offers them a few bucks for their location.

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