New breed of chains adds spice to city dining scene

February 07, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

They don't call you "Hon" at Sfuzzi.

Or at Mick's. Or L & N Seafood. Or any of the other restaurant chains to hit the Baltimore area in the past year.

Locally owned favorites such as Tio Pepe, the Prime Rib and Haussner's continue to pack in diners. But the face of the Baltimore dining scene has been irrevocably changed by a wave of imported "concepts" that range from the plush elegance of Ruth's Chris Steak House to the sanitized nostalgia of the Silver Diner.

And you ain't seen nothing yet.

Red Hot & Blue has barbecue outposts in Annapolis and Laurel and plans to open a Baltimore restaurant in about three months. Outback Steakhouse has picked an Annapolis location and is looking at Baltimore-area sites. And Cheesecake Factory, Houston's and Rio Grande -- all doing booming business in Montgomery County -- are making Baltimore developers' eyes gleam.

Full-service chain restaurants are not a new phenomenon in Baltimore. They've been coming and going for years. But restrictive liquor license laws and the area's reputation as a conservative, stay-at-home town held the influx to a trickle until recently.

The new breed may not make gourmet diners abandon the Milton Inn or Hampton's, but they're unlike the 1970s-style fern bars where laminated menus listed nothing more exotic than nachos. The decor is more appealing, the service is more polished and the cuisine can occasionally be described as adventurous -- Sfuzzi, for example, offers calamari.

What's happening in Baltimore today is part of a gradual nationalshift from small restaurants to a more corporate culinary scene.

"The dominant industry trend during the 1990s will be the growth of casual, full-service restaurant chains," Alex. Brown & Sons analysts Steven A. Rockwell and Camille E. Humphries wrote in a recent report. Chains account for 30 percent of the $80 million in annual full-service restaurant sales, and by the end of the decade, their share could approach 40 percent, they wrote.

Much of the growth of full-service restaurant chains is being driven by demographic factors. Baby boomers are moving beyond the haul-the-kids-to-McDonald's stage, and resuming some of the indulgences they enjoyed before they had children -- even if they can't find a baby sitter.

"The yuppies are aging, and they're taking the children out to dinner now," said Marcia Harris, executive vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association.

And most of them, she said, are choosing chains. "Their palates aren't going to be as adventurous now that they have kids in tow."

Neither are the parents of the 1990s likely to be as adventurous about spending money as they once were. They might want a glass of wine with dinner, but they don't want a three-figure check for a meal for four.

"Consumers are more price-value conscious than they were several years ago," said Barry Stouffer, a partner in the J. C. Bradford brokerage firm in Nashville, Tenn.

Also working in favor of the chains: diners' increasing reluctance to suit some restaurateur's dress code. It isn't just a matter of being allowed in without a tie. Diners expect the same service -- and no funny looks or crummy table -- whatever they wear.

"It used to be that suits and ties went to one restaurant and the jeans and sneakers went to another restaurant. Now they go to the same restaurant at the same time," said Robert Colombo, president of Sfuzzi, whose Baltimore restaurant is the 16th in the chain.

Much of the national expansion of full-service restaurant chains is being fueled by aggressive, publicly traded companies. Some examples: Brinker International, the Dallas-based operator of Chili's and Romano's Macaroni Grill; Morrison Restaurants Inc., the Mobile, Ala., owner of Ruby Tuesday's and L & N Seafood; and Quantum Restaurant Group, which trades under the names Mick's and Morton's of Chicago.

Other chains are part of large, diversified companies, such as General Mills' Olive Garden, which opened its first Baltimore-area restaurant in Columbia in 1991.

In Baltimore, the invasion is reinforced by several proto-chains born in the Washington area. They include the five-unit Paolo's, which started in Georgetown and now has restaurants in Harborplace and Towson Commons; and four-unit Silver Diner, which started in Rockville and opened in Towson Town Center last September.

Large chains have some advantages in the all-important race for good locations. Landlords like the security that comes with a provenconcept, and lenders feel more comfortable with a corporation than an individual operator.

Recently, high-profile, upscale chains have picked off some of the area's most desirable pieces of real estate. Sfuzzi landed a prime site on the corner of Pratt and Calvert streets. And Towson Commons' street-level quartet -- Mick's, L & N, Paolo's and Pizzeria Uno -- draws heavy weekend crowds.

But chains can get tangled in Maryland's web of local liquor laws.

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