Chain reaction

Every night, out-of-towners face a daunting decision: Where to eat? Trolling for tourists outside franchise joints, TONY treats some unsuspecting visitors to an authentic New York meal.

BITE AND SWITCH Wisconsin natives Tammy Jameson and David Scharlat agreed to skip Chevys and join TONY for regional cuisine (below) at Mi Cocina.
Tammy Jameson and David Scharlat
BITE AND SWITCH Wisconsin natives Tammy Jameson and David Scharlat agreed to skip Chevys and join TONY for regional cuisine (below) at Mi Cocina.

It's 8:30 on a Sunday night, and a long line is snaking down the sidewalk at 47th Street and Broadway—only this line has nothing to do with half-price tickets to Les Misérables. These people are waiting to eat at the Olive Garden...and will be waiting for the next hour and a half for a chance to dig into mass-produced fettuccine or chicken parmigiana at the popular Italian chain restaurant. The question is, Why? How can a restaurant that's found near every major shopping mall command such adoration in the dining capital of the world? Sure, the fluffy garlic breadsticks are tasty, and the all-you-can-eat salad is mighty refreshing on a steamy summer night. But who, short of motor-mouth Grandpa Giovanni from the commercials, would wait an hour plus to eat at a run-of-the-mill franchise when New York is stocked with thousands of distinctive, home-grown restaurants? Judging by all the cameras and sensible shoes in the line, the answer is obvious: tourists.

TONY approached out-of-towners on their way into the Olive Garden, Chevys Fresh Mex and T.G.I. Friday's, and offered to show them some genuine New York flavah. If they'd agree to eat with two TONY staffers, we'd treat them to dinner at a comparable Manhattan eatery. We hoped to get their opinion of the city and, most important, to see what they thought of our restaurant choices. Some tourists we approached were suspicious of the offer of goodwill. Some didn't have time for the detour. Some thought they were about to be robbed. But three groups eventually accepted the invitation; these are their stories.

Susan and David Dean
GUEST STARS Susan and David Dean joined us at Becco.

Susan and David Dean

Cranston, Rhode Island

Today is Susan Dean's 49th birthday, and she and her husband, David, are headed for the Olive Garden. And not just so the waiters can serenade her with the Olive Garden "Happy Birthday" song. The Deans, like many folks, didn't choose the Olive Garden so much as they were chosen by it. "We were walking around, and we happened to see it," says Susan, an initially reserved woman who, by meal's end, reveals a warm, funny side. "Not having anyone to guide us, we figured it would be the best thing." Says David, "The fact that it's a name franchise, you know what you're going to get . We wouldn't wander off into these side streets. We stay in Times Square where it's lit and where the police are."

But with a little prodding, they agree to forgo the Olive Garden and accompany us to Becco (355 W 46th St between Eighth and Ninth Aves, 212-397-7597), a popular Italian eatery. The place is crowded and noisy, even though it's 8:30, well past the post-matinee rush on Sunday nights. David and Susan, who met through a dating service a few years ago, took the bus from Rhode Island to spend the weekend sight-seeing—and enjoying some time to themselves. (Their teenagers stayed home.) They've spent the day running in Central Park and exploring on foot, so they're more than ready for dinner. Diving right into the Becco menu, David opts for the veal parmigiana, served on the bone and covered in creamy fontina cheese; Susan goes for the $21.95 all-you-can-eat special of three daily pastas. Back home, where he's the director of a senior center and she's a speech pathologist, the two enjoy local Italian restaurants. And they both say Becco is similar to those—only "with a New York twist." Which is probably a nice way of saying the prices are higher and the people are less friendly. After some wine (a totally drinkable $20 Montepulciano), salt cod brandade and silky buffalo mozzarella, the entrées arrive, and David and Susan are pleased. "Everything is better than the Olive Garden," Susan says (though to be fair, everything is twice as expensive). "The restaurant doesn't have that corporate feel," adds David. Best of all, no one involved had to endure a staff rendition of "Happy Birthday."

David Scharlat and Tammy Jameson

Recently of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

David is a big man with a well-groomed mustache that would be right at home on the face of any cop in America. When asked what he does for a living, he murmurs, "I work for the federal government, and that's about all I can say." David also looks to be carrying a gun beneath his untucked, short-sleeve shirt, and we're guessing David is not the type who likes strange people approaching him with fishy-sounding offers. He's also not a fan of Mexican food, but at the urging of his fiancée, Tammy, the two are headed into Chevys, the neon Tex-Mex palace on 42nd Street.

After hearing TONY's pitch (and performing a quick probe and retinal scan to make sure we're on the up-and-up), David, 37, and Tammy, 38, agree to hop a cab with us to Mi Cocina (57 Jane St at Hudson St, 212-627-8273), a bright, regional Mexican eatery with killer cooking and a renowned mole sauce. The couple has spent the day getting the lay of the city from the top of a double-decker sight-seeing bus, and you can almost see ripples of heat pouring off their sunburnt skin as they speak. The two recently relocated from Wisconsin to New Jersey and plan to get married soon. Both enjoy the energy of the city, but they chose to live in the suburbs because Jersey offered a few things Manhattan didn't: mainly, fresh air and a yard.

After a round of drinks (including a margarita that Tammy rates as "average"), the food arrives. Though David was hoping for chimichangas, which aren't on the menu, he proclaims his dish—an unusual chicken enchilada ($14) doused in thick peanut sauce—delicious. And Tammy is pleased with her carnes a la parrilla, seasoned skirt steak served with tortillas ($19, about $5 more than the average entrée at Chevys). "There's no comparison between here and Chevys," she says. "This is not like your standard Mexican. This was a lot more flavorful." David refuses to talk into the tape recorder. The two are so pleased with Mi Cocina that they plan to come back again—on their own dime.

Rafael Guimaráes, Rodrigo Ferreira Coelho and Flávia Marques Lisboa Antony

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rodrigo Ferreira Coelho, Flávia Marques Lisboa Antony and Rafael Guimaráes
GUEST STARS Rodrigo Ferreira Coelho, Flávia Marques Lisboa Antony and Rafael Guimaráes (below, from left) dined at Frankie & Johnnie's.

It doesn't take much to persuade this group of Brazilian tourists to ditch T.G.I. Friday's for a local steakhouse. We just had to use a little salesmanship—and produce business cards, assure them that no one was going to steal their money, promise that an armed gang wasn't waiting for them at the steakhouse, show them a copy of Time Out New York and point to our names in the issue to prove that we are, in fact, employed there. After a hasty group conference in Portuguese, the trio finally agreed to head to Frankie & Johnnie's (269 West 45th St at Eighth Ave, 212-997-9494). The crusty 76-year-old red-meat joint is a former speakeasy that occupies the second floor of an old Theater District building. Rafael Guimar*es, a financial consultant from Rio de Janeiro, does most of the talking—mainly because he's the only one in the group who speaks fluent English. Throughout dinner, he pokes lighthearted fun at ignorant Americans. "What do you know about Brazil besides Carnaval?" he asks sarcastically. "And just so you know, Rio is not the capital. Braslia is." Guimar*es is tagging along with Rodrigo Ferreira Coelho, a recent university grad who's in the States visiting his girlfriend, who has an even longer name: Fl*via Marques Lisboa Antony. She was recruited in Rio by Six Flags to work at the New Jersey amusement park, but after a few weeks running various games, Antony felt more abused than a tower of milk bottles on the midway, and quit. With her job (and visa) gone, she has to leave the country in a few weeks, so the three plan to spend the time touring; this is their first night in New York.

So how'd they stumble on T.G.I. Friday's? In a revelation that's bound to inspire antiglobalization protesters to chain themselves to police cars, Guimar*es says he's familiar with the restaurant because Brazil is full of them (Coelho points out that one of Rio's hottest restaurants is Outback Steakhouse). "The exchange rate in Brazil for the dollar is 1 to 2.6 reals. It's very expensive to come to the U.S.," Guimar*es explains. "We knew Friday's wouldn't be that expensive." (For the record, the average entrée at Friday's is $20.)

Taking citizens of South America—home of the world's greatest beef—to a steakhouse north of the equator is risky, but Frankie & Johnnie's delivers. All three love their sirloins ($30), which were aged, thick and perfectly charred from a run under the broiler. "Very tasty, very juicy," raves Guimar*es. The meat, delivered by Jurassic waiters in starched uniforms, was accompanied by heaping plates of hash browns and Caesar salad, served la carte. The Brazilians, like the other two groups, enjoyed everything about their meal, and all said they were glad to have met us. But then, that could have been because we were picking up the check.