Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Dining in the burbs - Review: The newly updated Outback Steakhouse (yes, that Outback Steakhouse)

Everyone knows times are tough, so it's no big surprise that dining out is down. With food raw material costs way up at the same time as revenues decline, restaurants are hurting, and the news has been filled with struggling restaurant chains. Bennigan's and Steak and Ale declared bankruptcy not long ago, and Ruby Tuesday's is trying to completely revamp its tired decor and image, even going so far as to televise the destruction of one of its flagships. It was with all that casual chain dining drama in mind that I went to check out the newly revamped Outback Steakhouse the other day. Outback certainly isn't hurting as much as some national chains, but they surely know they have to do something to curb drops in same-store sales.

I'm certainly not a chain restaurant fan. In fact, I avoid them typically, which is easy to do when you live somewhere like Inman Park. But what is one to do in the burbs where the streets are chockablock with chain restaurants and nary an independent food purveyor to be found? Last weekend after a day at the lake with the fam, the boyfriend and I decided to check out the newly revamped Outback in Johns Creek. Rathbun's Steak it ain't, but it's also far cheaper and overall was a surprisingly pleasant experience.

The newly opened Johns Creek outlet sports an updated decor, and is the first of its kind if Georgia. I hadn't been to and Outback in years but my recollection is of sports jerseys, surf boards, koalas and kangaroos - nice enough but very casual and nothing worth particularly remembering. The new decor is a Disney-fied take on Australia with aboriginal art, colorful didgeridoos and a windmill. It reminded me of an Epcot take on Australia, and I always loved the magic of dining at Epcot's restaurants. Who cares if they're accurate, they're still charming! Compared to the overly chotchkied glare of a Chili's or Applebees, this Outback was downright sophisticated.

It was Saturday night and the place was beyond packed. Clearly someone is still eating out! Living in town, it's easy to forget that for most people dinner out at Outback is pretty special and is better than most of your suburban options. Mental note to never go to Outback in the burbs on a Saturday night unless I'm prepared to wait an hour for a table! From what I could tell, everyone in Johns Creek was there that night.

I love steak but I rarely go to steakhouses because they're such a costly investment. So it was a pleasant surprise to find that Outback's 7 oz Victoria Filet was a mere $17.99. Compare that with a $35 10 oz filet at Bones and it looks like a pretty amazing deal. My steak was prepared perfectly medium rare as I'd requested (which didn't happen at the much more expensive Shed at Glenwood!), and the meat was really quite tasty. The boyfriend enjoyed his NY strip, too. Outback's steaks are pretty heavily seasoned, so they're not for easily-overwhelmed palates, but I'd have to say it's unlikely that a steak at a higher-end restaurant would really be twice as good.

The boyfriend and I also tested out the coconut shrimp and seared ahi-tuna. Not sure you find much ahi-tuna in the outback, but it was the better of the two appetizers. The soy dipping sauce was pretty good, and wasabi vinaigrette was addictive enough that the boyfriend used it as a dipping sauce for the shrimp, too.

In addition we also ordered a blue cheese chopped salad with sweet roasted pecans. There was nothing earth-shattering about it, but it was a flavorful and had more going for it than a boring side salad with just lettuce, tomato and croutons.

And to finish things off, we split a Chocolate Thunder from Down Under, which is chocolate pecan brownie topped with ice cream and chocolate sauce. I can probably find something similar at other restaurants, probably even in the same strip mall, but it doesn't matter. It was as decadent and delicious as you'd expect such a combination to be.

And yes if you're wondering, the boyfriend and I did totally stuff our faces, but for a total bill of $67 (including 2 alcoholic beverages), why not pig out?

This new outback really does look great, plus it has consistent service and a something-for-everyone menu going for it. So it's no surprise to me that suburbanites of all shapes and sizes head there to chow down.

It remains to be seen if this decor revamp and new menu items will be enough to carry Outback through the recession, as its competitors flounder, but if the insane crowd there the other night was any indication, I think they'll be just fine.

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