Just say no to long lines at chain restaurants

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I’ve never understood why on any given night, there is a line of people waiting to get into Outback Steakhouse (615 Baltimore Pike, Bel Air) as if it was the newest hottest nightclub – which of course it isn’t as there are 11 within 40 miles of Bel Air alone. One night I decided I was going to find out why. I made my way through the crowd milling outside the restaurant and asked the hostess how long of a wait it was. She told me it would be a whopping 50 minutes. (Whopping is my word not hers). I was so stunned I asked her why. She just blinked at me twice. I gave up. With 50 minutes to kill, I went back to the car and ran an errand. Then I returned with my family and settled in for the wait. Finally, our table was ready. I expected to hear banner-draped horns heralding the moment, but it went by rather uneventfully. We ordered steaks, because I figured that’s what people come for. I recall they were tasty. Not in the melt-in-your-mouth way that The Prime Rib (1101 N. Calvert St., Baltimore) stakes are tasty. But they were nice. My husband noted that the stakes were relatively well-priced – in the $15 range (although a quick look at the menu shows most of the offerings heading up toward $20). And he surmised that perhaps the relatively reasonable price for a decent steak was what was drawing in the crowds. But seriously, in 50 minutes time you could hop over to the Giant Food right there in the same shopping center, select yourself an even nicer cut of meat for less money and cook it up to your liking. (If cooking it to your liking is the problem, check out www.recipezaar.com. It has recipes for cooking just about anything along with reviews and tips from readers who’ve tried each recipe.) So I left feeling a bit badly for all those poor folks that even yesterday (I noticed when I drove by) are still lounging on Outback’s outdoor benches waiting for a chance to eat. Now I think there’s nothing wrong with waiting up to 20 minutes for a seat at your favorite chain restaurant, but if the wait is pushing beyond that, let me suggest some local restaurants that have seated me, fed me and sent me on my way in less than 50 minutes:

(1 minute or ½ mile from Outback)

Double T Diner (543 Marketplace Drive, Bel Air (410) 836-5591) – This place is great when you want to eat quick. I can’t remember ever having to wait for a seat. And when they’re not busy, your food is delivered almost as soon as you order. Their menu is an 8-page book. It’s great for kids (they have a good-sized kids’ menu) and grandparents (the menu includes a list of the kinds of drinks I remember my grandparents sipping in the 70s) and young people out all night as it’s open 24 hours.

(1 minute or .41 miles from Outback)

Freddie’s (660 Boulton St., Bel Air (410) 803-4860) – They’ve dropped “Dead” from the name and gone family-friendly. The interior is still dark and smoky but just outside they’ve created a ladies-who-lunch feel complete with a gas fireplace and wrought iron street lamps. During the summer they have tiki torches burning and Caribbean music playing. Diners can eat with a full view of the pirate ship play set where children can climb while their parents enjoy dinner. With that music playing, I’ve felt like I was on vacation while eating here. I’ve seen mothers come alone with small children so that they can eat while the kids play. I like the Monday night special where quesidillas are $6.50.

(1 minute or ¼ mile from Outback)

Open Door Cafe (528 Baltimore Pike, Bel Air (410) 838-4393) – If the line is long at Chili’s, you can pop over here and not even have to move your car. This new restaurant has a coffee bar and full restaurant menu. The food is rather elegant with a décor mom would love. (See my earlier blog post on this restaurant)

(2 minutes or 1.24 miles from Outback)

Bill Batemans Raw Bar & Grille (1226 Bel Air Rd., Bel Air (410) 879-7748) – I like the wings and the wraps and they dress their burgers about a dozen different ways. They usually have little toys for the kids to go along with the crayons and a little poster coloring contest where they send the kids a coupon for a coloring job well done.

(3 minutes or .91 miles from Outback)

The Ropewalk (117 S. Main St., Bel Air (410) 420-1392) – While the bar scene goes on downstairs in this historic Main Street building, dining upstairs is decidedly family friendly. The owners are Reagan fanatics and the kids menu includes a Reagan crossword. They have an outdoor deck decked out with faux horses, which my daughter adores. (See my earlier blog post on this restaurant)

(5 minutes or 3 miles from Outback)

Red Pump Cafe (13 Red Pump Road, Bel Air (410) 836-1313) – This place is cute and cozy and great for a burger or shrimp salad sandwich.

(15 minutes or 9 miles from Outback)

Wargos Forest Hill Inn (3009 Franklin’s Chance Dr, Fallston (410) 879-9747) – This one is a bit of a drive. But it’s worth it for the roast beef sandwiches. It’s got a bar, but the restaurant in a separate room is a family place. Portraits of the owner’s family hang everywhere and you’ll recognize some of the same faces serving you.