RATING |

After dinner at Bonefish Grill the other night, I lay awake deep into the morning, pondering the unstoppable force of the American chain restaurant. What is it, I wondered, that compels the public to stand in ridiculously long lines at an Outback, a Bahama Breeze, or an Applebee's?

There is the unspoken thrill of watching your beeper, and waiting with bated breath for that ecstatic Christmas- light flash to suddenly erupt, blinking the tidings of an open table. But there has to be more than that.

The allure, no doubt, is the ingenious spell of marketing that promises substance with affordability - a spoonful of homespun goodness, a brush with jungle fun, or even a taste of the exotic - all in the safety of your local strip mall.

But I am inevitably disappointed. That is not the edict of a cranky, elitist critic. OK, maybe cranky. But definitely not elitist. I've happily tried all the chains, from the high-end to the low, only to have my hopes wilt like a Bloomin' Onion? past its prime. In my experience, you don't just get what you pay for at big-name chains; usually you get less.

Every steak I've ever eaten at Outback tasted like liver. Dinner at the Old Country Buffet sat in my stomach like a feast of mattress stuffing. The ribs at Applebee's in Hershey had a lingering aroma of fish. Such Asian-themed concepts as the Bamboo Club and P.F. Chang's are appealingly sleek, but so removed from authentic, they can't even properly cook rice. Bahama Breeze is basically Red Lobster with a Caribbean theme. Maggiano's Little Italy is a slightly lesser chain evil, yet I always leave longing for the genuine gravy of South Philly.

Marc Oppen knows a thing or two about such chains, having opened and managed the Center City Maggiano's for three years. And he recognized a concept with promise when he signed on to manage the new Outback-owned Bonefish Grill in Willow Grove as a 10-percent owner. The 70-restaurant chain focuses on serving simply grilled fresh seafood in a snazzy setting at affordable prices, and there are plans to spawn three more locations across the region (Exton, Deptford, and Egg Harbor, N.J.).

But would Bonefish ultimately be any different from the rest? Early reports from readers had been positive, and that's a good thing coming from the dining Sahara of the near northern burbs. How about a reservation for Saturday night?

"We have either 3 p.m. or 9 p.m.," the cheery hostess reported when I called the day before.

It would have been nice if she'd mentioned that two-thirds of the 215-seat restaurant is left open for walk-ins, but chains know that creating the illusion of popularity is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Just the aroma of oak logs smoldering in its grill would seem enticing enough to draw the hordes to the giant fish-bone sign that sits in the middle of a strip mall just south of the turnpike. Inside, the two-room space is pleasant but not pretentious, with deep padded booths in the dining room, polished granite community tables in the bar, and a corporate polish to the decor that is bland but refreshingly unkitschy - save for the servers' chef outfits.

That straightforward character applies to the menu as well, which gathers a familiar assortment of seafood favorites and a selection of simply grilled fish with mix-and-match sauces. Delivering them with reasonable quality and consistency at less than $20 an entree would be the key.

Our first visit went well. The crisply fried coconut shrimp avoided the common trap of being too sweet. The crabcakes had the perfectly shaped look of something industrially made, but inside they were full of sweet crab in a lightly spiced mayo binding. The creamy crab and corn chowder had a nice, full sherried flavor and the tingle of pepper.

Our entrees were equally good. A pan-fried trout was meaty and crisp, crusted with a nice blend of pistachios and crumbs, then sauced with caper-studded butter. Bonefish's grill worked nicely on a slice of Chilean sea bass, the sweet oily meat soaking in the perfume of wood smoke beneath a teriyaki-style Asian glaze.

Of course, it helps that Chilean sea bass is a hearty, durable fish. Delicacy, as I later learned, is not a hallmark of the Bonefish kitchen.

Our second visit began with some equally tasty starters. The fried Bang Bang shrimp came glazed in a fiery mayonnaise that didn't shy from spice. The tuna sashimi was a bit thickly crusted in sesame, but the fish was fresh and sweet.

The calamari were disappointingly chewy. And the "saucy" shrimp appetizer with olives and feta was too buttery-sweet for a Mediterranean-flavored dish. But the bacon-wrapped scallops were a hit, the big plugs of sweet white meat wrapped in crisp bands of pork with a notable horseradish kick.

As the meal progressed to the bigger dishes, though, Bonefish's kitchen started to falter. Or, perhaps, it was the intrusively loud mall music - from Love Shack and Carribbean Queen to the soundtrack from Shrek - that finally began to gnaw away the thin veneer of sophistication that remained.

Grouper piccata was a nice idea, but the caper-strewn fish was cooked to mush. Thick cuts of sturdy mahimahi and swordfish weren't quite destroyed by the heavy-handed grilling (I also liked the mango salsa), but they could have been more carefully watched. Certainly no such luck for my fontina-covered pork chops - so leathery they ate like shoe-sole marsala.

Two special entrees had ambition but also fell short. A grilled salmon topped with spinach and bacon was overwhelmed by the clumsy saltiness of unmelted gorgonzola crumbles. The surf-and-turf was actually not bad, but for $28, at a restaurant that offers house-salad value if nothing else, the petite lobster tail and filet mignon were dispiritingly puny.

By the time we got dessert - unremarkable renditions of creme brulee, Key lime pie, and strawberry shortcake - the Bonefish Grill had completed my cycle of chain disappointment once again. Intrigue. Hope. Excitement. Mediocrity.

Normally, I would have just closed the book when we drove away. But there was this mixup with the coffee when our pleasant but spacey server kind of lost track of which cup had decaf (my order) and which had regular. By 3 a.m., after mulling the order of the chain restaurant universe, I knew which one I'd drunk.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/craiglaban.