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One Boomer’s explanation of polished casual’s rising appeal

Like a lot of Baby Boomers, I see a lot fewer casual-dining chains today than I did while growing up. Especially in the New York City metropolitan area where I spent my childhood and young-adult life. Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, Red Lobster and Sizzler were the ones I remember best. Once I had kids and moved to the ’burbs, we liked to go out as a family to Outback, Chili’s and occasionally Olive Garden. But there were plenty of independents that offered far better Italian cooking and more authentic Southwestern food. Some mom and pops were even cheaper than the chains. So I’m a bit picky when it comes to casual chain restaurants.

As are other diners in my demographic, according to the Chicago research company Technomic. In its Future of FSR: Family & Casual Dining Consumer Trend Report, Technomic found that Baby Boomers, who usually have higher incomes, are being drawn to more upscale chains that promise a unique experience. “To maintain and regain share, struggling full-service chains will need to revitalize their image … by refreshing unit décor to updating menu offerings.”

Says Sara Monnette, senior director of consumer insights & innovation at Technomic: “Revamped menus include the integration of healthy and seasonal fare and more
customization opportunities. Chains will replace 10 menu items with one base item that is customizable in 10 different ways. Along with the menu, creating a contemporary ambiance will be vital to growth. The consumers’ perception of the overall dining experience is strongly influenced by décor and atmosphere.”

I agree. And I am happy to say I have found several polished casual chains that fit the criteria and make me a satisfied, well-fed customer.

Seasons 52, which was named in the top five of consumers’ favorite chains in the January, 2015 issue of Restaurant Business, is definitely one of my favorites, too. Why do I like it? It feels like an independent: Great service, a seasonally changing menu, super wine list, mini desserts and plenty of shareables and samplers. That’s the way I prefer to eat. Not to mention the engaging open kitchen design. With entrées averaging $20 and a good glass of wine for $10, you can get out of here for less than a comparable indie.

Bonefish Grill is another chain that breaks out of the cookie-cutter casual-chain mold. The centerpiece of the space is the wood-fired grill, and guests have the flexibility of ordering steak house-style—choosing a fish that’s grilled to order, adding a chef-inspired sauce and finishing with a side. This is customization at its best. Bonefish recently introduced a Bar Bites menu with items such as oyster shooters and street tacos—an addition that makes the dining experience even more flexible and fun.

Speaking of bar menus, McCormick & Schmick’s is a pioneer in creating the sophisticated Happy Hour daypart. Daily from 4 to 7 p.m., customers can patronize the bar area of the seafood chain, sipping a handcrafted cocktail, glass of wine or craft beer and nibbling on snacks ranging from Bruschetta ($2.99) to Chicken Sliders ($3.99), Calamari with roasted tomato ($4.99) and Baja Fish Tacos ($5.99). I can make a meal of this bar food, especially when I’m traveling. The bar is the perfect seat for a single female diner.

Brio Tuscan Grill provides an Italian dining experience that is several steps above Olive Garden’s value-driven one. Thoughtful sourcing is evident, with sustainable suppliers such as Strauss veal and Compart Farms pork called out on the descriptive menu. I especially like the Lighter Side of Tuscany section, where the hearty, flavorful dishes, such as Grilled Salmon Fresca and Pasta Pesto with caramelized onions and grilled chicken, all are under 595 calories. But most of all, it’s the atmosphere and service—both are so unchain-like. And that’s a big selling point for this Boomer.

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