Did Ray Kroc of McDonald's bring us the chain restaurant? More likely, it was Howard Dearing Johnson, who rose from his drugstore beginnings to create the Howard Johnson's restaurant and motel empire. Johnson was a pioneer in franchise ownership and theme restaurants, and was a tycoon with 107 restaurants by 1939.
Perhaps Johnson's most enduring legacy was the "Howard Johnson Bible," the exhaustive set of rules under which franchisees had to operate. Johnson laid out menus, recipes, service standards --- even a section titled "Howard Johnson's Waitresses --- Your Appearance Head to Toe." It was a blueprint for a consistent experience across the chain, and as such, a blueprint for all the chains that followed, from McDonald's to Bugaboo Creek.
I'm not fundamentally against chains; the success of a consistent, affordable product is understandable. And you actually do support the local economy when you patronize a chain. Usually, a local franchisee makes money, and these restaurants employ scads of high school and college students, ostensibly keeping them out of trouble.
Still, there's a manufactured quality to a chain restaurant that goes against my aesthetics. Food that is overly uniform seems suspect. In his song Two Triple Cheese, Scott Goddard sings, "Onions, pickles, special secret sauce / What goes in the patties only known to the Big Boss." Also, there is a difference between a local franchisee and a local entrepreneur.
But this column isn't about chain restaurants. Rather, it's about Brio, an example of the trend toward locally owned restaurants that look and act like chains. Ciao, Benucci's, Bazil, and now Brio are all restaurants about which people ask, "Isn't that a chain?" Well, no. But the formula is the same. And it seems to work, as all these places have enjoyed considerable success.
Brio has its formula. The surface is polished to a glossy sheen; well-trained, young waiters and waitresses look sharp in white shirts and ties; everything is pretty and very clean, from the cloth napkins, to the open kitchen, to the lovely bathrooms; and the food is safe, centering on pizza and pasta. It goes the Olive Garden one better in every respect.
The problem is that Brio aspires to be a fine restaurant, which it is not. The "ceviche" is not ceviche, and the "cioppino" is not cioppino. My French neighbor, Laurent, was greatly disappointed by the paella. Pasta dishes are between $8 and $16, and entrées run from $16 to a whopping $26. Salads and soups aren't cheap, and your dinner bill will get into the 2Vine range. The food doesn't justify such prices.
Many dishes were over-flavored, like linguine limone with artichokes, asparagus, and sun-dried tomatoes ($12.50), or linguine alla Genovese, with olives and sun-dried tomatoes overwhelming pesto ($11.50). The red sauce with spaghetti and meatballs ($10) was fresh, but watery and salty. The veal and beef meatballs, at least, were large, light, and tasty.
Lunches are a better deal. Pasta goes from $6.50 to $10, with more strong flavors: olives, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and cream sauces. Individual pizzas, cooked in the hybrid wood-gas oven, are the best deal, with generous pies just $6.25. Even here, I was somewhat disappointed. The crust has a dry, cracker texture, not nearly as good as at Veneto or even Ciao. The "chorizo" pizza features a sliced, finely-ground, mild sausage. Some might like that, but chorizo is spicy, coarsely-ground, and usually crumbled. The menu described "caramelized" onions that were only mildly sautéed.
Brio scores big, though, with kids. On Sunday and Monday evenings, they get to don chefs' hats, make their own pizzas in the kitchen, and get their pictures taken. The staff treats them like royalty, and my kids loved both the experience and the pizza. The high chairs are good, and there is a general feeling of welcome for families (another hallmark of chains).
Brio is successful in some ways. It's clean, comfortable, and friendly. Fundamentally, though, it's much like Romano's Macaroni Grill, a slightly better version of the Olive Garden.
But what do I know? Brio is always packed, so it must be hitting some common pitch right out of the park. Not surprisingly, it's owned by the same person who owns Aladdin's, another fairly uninteresting spot that attracts its following with surface gloss and "natural," salty foods. Olives, Sinbad's, and Mykonos are better than Aladdin's, and Veneto is better, cheaper, and less pretentious than Brio.
Brio Mediterranean Bistro, 3400 Monroe Avenue, 586-7000. Hours: lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30-2:30; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5-10, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday till 9.
Rochester has a new Van Gogh-style cafe in the old Moonbeans location (696 University Avenue at the Atlantic fork). In addition to the cappuccino, chai, and smoothies, Pamela Merritt Kramer's Starry Nites Cafe serves pastries, desserts, and a light menu of wraps, salads, and dips. Starry Nites is open Thursday through Sunday evenings. Also, Slow Food's second annual cheese and wine tasting is April 13 at Casa Larga (328-8300). And sadly, Balsam Market, a Rochester institution at 288 North Winton Road, has closed.
--- Michael Warren Thomas
Michael can be heard on WYSL 1040. Tune in on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel from 9 a.m. to noon, and on Sundays for antiques and wine from 10 a.m. to noon. Archives of past shows are available at www.SavorLife.com.