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Chain Reaction

"If you can't fight 'em, join 'em" -- that's the operational philosophy of four veteran Florida restaurateurs who started a prototypical chainlet last May in Clearwater, GrillSmith (2539 Countryside Blvd., Suite 6, 727/726-6061). The chainsmart Johnston brothers, Bob and Mark, founders of Tampa-based Melting Pot restaurants currently counting 72 units nationwide, are joined by former managing partner Todd Dziubek of the Tampa-based Carrabba's Italian Grill collection, whose links are an integral part of the Outback conglomerate, and Golden Spoon Hall of Famer Marty Blitz, whose Mise en Place gem in Tampa could never be a chain but whose genius was needed to define and redefine "food on the fire" concepts.

Together the foursome found a winning location and then spent two years and close to a million dollars developing the woodsy setting to render a sense of place that is definitely more class chain than some kind of unique themeploitation.

The individualism comes with Blitz's menu, with such extras as "Carside To Go" service, made-to-order milkshakes and root beer floats, ground-to-order espresso and cappuccino, strawberry shortcake and Blitz's beautiful Key lime pie with pecan-accented graham cracker crust, and an intelligently selective wine list with 23 choices by the glass.

There are eight appetizers, $5.99 to $11.99, including Creole crab cakes zapped with jalapeno-mustard remoulade, grilled chicken and black bean fritters with kernels of sweet corn and roasted chilies in jalapeno-mango jam, and roasted pulled pork croquettes bound with pepperjack cheese accented with chipotle barbecue sauce.

One-plate meals include a quartet of grilled tortilla pizzas, $5.99 to $7.99, seven salads, $5.49 to $8.99, including one featuring bourbon-glazed salmon tossed with greens and broccoli, feta and tomatoes in a Dijon-horseradish vinaigrette. There are also pastabilities with grilled chicken, shrimp and portobellos, $8.99 to $11.99, a half-dozen burgers and seven grilled and deli-stacked sandwiches, $5.99 to $8.99, and 16 other temptations, ranging from $8.99 for Marty's grilled wild mushroom meatloaf with sherry-strengthened gravy to $11.99 for grilled shrimp paella and $12.99 for grilled grouper coated with brown sugar-macadamias or a steak given the chimichurri treatment, meaning basted with spicy citrus-based parsley and cilantro garlic pesto, and $19.99 for 9 ounces of filet mignon with a green peppercorn port wine blessing.

GrillSmith will have to get its act together and improve waiter standards beyond what was experienced during the shakedown period -- especially if it hopes to expand as early as the end of the year, in the Tampa Bay area and beyond, from New Port Richey to Sarasota. The other chains offer some impressive competition, especially in the Mimi's Cafe group.

Mimi's Cafe
It was in Reno, Nev., where I first discovered the charm of the California-based Mimi's, which started in 1978 and is now opening a new one almost monthly, all with antiqued stone floors, tile walls and beamed ceilings, accented with New Orleans fun colors and lots of jazzy art with a spiffy staff that is extremely well-trained and accommodating to a surprising degree, at breakfast, lunch or dinner. No nonsense, no pretense, no expensive entrees, no slow service, but lots of comfort foods served in a country cottage kind of setting, including superior brewed-fresh-out-back soups, fantastic Yankee pot roast, my favorite, and eye-popping desserts.

The first Florida link opened two years ago in Tampa, in Carrollwood (11702 N. Dale Mabry, 813/265-4460), followed by the second a few months later in Brandon (804 Providence Road, 813/684-1184). Another opened in Orlando earlier this year (4175 Millenia Blvd., 407/370-0333).

Bar Louie Tampa / Red Star Tavern
Another chain recently discovered is that of the RDG Chicago, formed in 1990 "to design and operate multiple full-service restaurants" initially in the greater Chicago area, from Irish pubs to chophouse, Mexican to contemporary brasserie with "Upscale Comfort Food."

The chain expanded to Indiana and Minnesota and then as far afield as Arizona, North Carolina and Texas and last year to Florida with Bar Louie Tampa (International Plaza, 2223 N. West Shore Drive, 813/874-1919) and earlier this year to Boca Raton with Red Star Tavern (Palmetto Place, 99 S.E. Mizner Blvd., 561/391-3463).

There are 11 other Red Stars in the company collection, similar to the Boca tavern I checked a few weeks ago.

Loyal to its name with red walls, lots of clubby tavern-type woods, large, comfortable booths, a wall-dominating bar and a very eager-to-please staff knowledgeable about the menu selections and the philosophy. The menus noon and night are extensive, with daily soup specials -- the Angus chili on Saturday and crab-corn chowder on Friday are favorites as is the sesame-crusted tuna with mushrooms and spinach in a ginger soy butter sauce.

At dinner, there are crab-shrimp quesadillas, "main plate" salads, $11 to $16.50, and a good selection of steaks among the entrees that range from $14 for rotisserie chicken to $23 for New York strip, $25 for filet and $18 and $22 for 12- and 16-ounce cuts of prime rib.

Rather ambitious for what we used to think of as tavern fare, but that's the cost when the chains start to rattle.