There are a lot of reasons why it might seem pointless to review a chain restaurant: the recipes are mostly the same at every location from San Francisco to Jacksonville, and, as a friend pointed out, if a formula is successful enough to generate franchises who am I to argue? Well, over the years I've eaten at Boston Pizza, Red Robin & Ricky's All-Day Grill, and the only thing they do well is back up what H.L. Mencken said about getting rich by underestimating the taste of the American public. The quality of a restaurant depends more on the competence of those preparing the food than it does on recipes alone so if the folks behind the scenes have as much enthusiasm for food as I do honest work then your dining experience will be as much fun as mopping the floors in an adult theatre.
Almost any franchise that opened up in my hometown of Revelstoke over the years has either folded or maintained a consistently execrable standard, the only obvious reason being the available pool of listless halfwits willing to work for the wages on offer. Paying peanuts will most assuredly get you monkeys. Dan has always been a devoted fan of the Earls chain, for which I've hassled him endlessly but his ability to ignore me is almost unparalleled. Only my wife does it better. So when Dan informed me that Earls would be the chosen venue for his 26th birthday I figured there was no point poking fun and that inferior factory-prepared food would vindicate my snobbery. And you know what? The bastards made us a great meal and I barely had enough room left to eat my words.
We hadn't bothered to make reservations so when we showed up at 8:30 with a party of seven to see a busy restaurant I thought we were sunk. The hostess though was completely unfazed and in less than five minutes had managed to put a suitable table together, earning my admiration & setting a high standard of service that was kept to the entire evening. The decor of the Earl's on Government is baffling, with it's hanging lights, mirrors, orange glass and wood panelling it looks the Starship Voulez Vouz from planet ABBA, crash-landed in Victoria a thousand years ago when its engines ran dry of cocaine and polyester. I told myself that the repetitious, bowel-shaking bass note coming over the speakers wasn't actually the work of the mad DJ Hochschulegeld Vergeudet but was instead the Voulez Vouz's ancient SOS casting its plaintive cry for rescue to the stars: "Dear Emperor Gibb - Send the Manero-bot. And roller-skates." We could still hear each other with minimal effort so the music wasn't as loud as it could have been, or had this been Friday night, would have been, but in my heart I am a seventy year old man and would have preferred it either turned down or off.
A few of my previous reviews have commented on the fact that our food spent some time getting a heat-lamp tan before deciding to join us at the table so I was thrilled with the speed at which our appetizers arrived and the fact that my "Cracked Pepper Ribs" were still too hot to touch. While they cooled I exercised my right to eminent domain on Max's spinach & feta dip with bread and was very impressed. Nicky found the feta taste overpowering but it hit the right notes with everyone else and we were all happy that the amount of bread provided was just enough to finish the dip. We were all in agreement on the ribs as well, they were evenly covered in cracked pepper and cooked to perfection with very little fat on the bone. My main course was the grilled chicken & baked brie ciabatta with apples, spinach & fig jam ($13) and it too arrived quickly and oven hot. The chicken was juicy & the apples provided a nice sweet counterpart to the heavy taste of brie. The fries were competent if not on par with those on offer at Red Fish, Blue Fish, and they combined nicely with a side of hot sauce.
Nicky ordered the oven-roasted chicken with potatoes and seasonal vegetables and while she said everything was up to par it felt a bit on the light side given the $19 price tag. For dessert we shared the sticky toffee pudding with chocolate sauces and vanilla bean gelato ($7.55) which was nicely presented with oh-so-artistic swirls of chocolate sauce and a lattice of brandy crisp but turned out to be very dry in the middle, probably owing to too much time in the microwave. Concerns about price aside the table was almost unanimous on the food's quality and we all walked away satisfied and considerably heavier.
Birthdays are a strange kind of celebration, the one day a year when Death makes sure to softly tap us on the shoulder and say, "Hey buddy, how you doing? Been thinking about you lately. You look good, been working out? Careful with that bench-press stuff - drop one of those weights and, well, you know. Drive safe." Then he palms a a few canapes into his pocket for later and heads off into the sunshine to fill someone else's big day with nagging thoughts of mortality. We're not the only species that mourn the dead but as far as I know we are the only ones who merrily tick off the beads on life's abacus while singing a song.
When I was a kid birthdays meant running through Oliver's backyard or cramming down handfuls of Brenda's delicious peanut-butter Rice Krispie bars and these thoughts couldn't be farther from my head. The world seemed endless, the people in it ageless and the only thing I needed to worry about was what my grandmother was going to inflict on us for dinner - pork chops and potatoes or potatoes and pork chops. Now I see that we're all of us aging just a little bit each day, and the birthdays keep stacking up, but I've concluded that as long as we have more good days than bad we're doing just fine. Dan's birthday dinner at Earls was a good day and a great time and I can't think of much that could have made it better. Except some of those Rice-Krispie bars.
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