I operate under the benevolent assumption that not all chain restaurants stink. But my good will is rarely rewarded with an exception that bears it out.
So when I moseyed into the faux-western saloon that is Ted's Montana Grill, it was with ever-hopeful expectation tempered by experience.
For every nice surprise - a Capital Grille or an In-N-Out Burger - there have been a hundred other chains that sank to the cliche, churning out artless prefab meals in one overdesigned theme room after another.
Would Ted Turner's bison steak house be any different? Sorry, pardners.
The chaining of the American hinterlands is an unavoidable fact of life, as genuine local restaurants are increasingly scarce. The chaining of Center City, though, strikes a more alarming chord. Isn't this one of the most fertile pockets of vibrant urban dining in America? Apparently not when it comes to the Avenue of the Arts, where Ted's replaces Avenue B in high-rent territory that only a few intrepid independents (Bliss, Varalli) have survived.
Simply reviving a space left vacant by a failed local is not in itself a blessing. The phony cheer and banners of the Applebee's that recently debuted in the old Bookbinders Seafood House on nearby 15th Street - a big red apple now glowing where a lobster sign used to hang - simply grate on my adopted-Philly soul.
The space where Ted's landed just a block away, at the corner of Broad and Spruce, has its own grim history of failed restaurateurs, most notable among them Neil Stein. But with the Kimmel Center now up and running across the street, this corner room was never so prime.
And Ted's arrives, of course, with the promise of something unique - a taste of exotic meat (bison raised on Turner's 16 ranches) and other dishes cooked from "scratch," and served in casual style at reasonable prices.
In the steak-chain spectrum running from low-end Lone Star to the upscale heights of Capital Grille, Ted's is aiming for somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, it's much closer to the Lone Star end than I had hoped.
The room itself is appealing, duded up with a pressed-tin ceiling, mosaic-tiled floors, a tooled-brass register on the bar, and cozy mahogany-clad booths that lend it the feel of a western speakeasy.
But I knew our hopes for a great meal were dim when our friendly waitress, after several minutes of strenuous effort, finally turned to the table for help in opening the wine.
Ted's doesn't pretend to be fine dining - in fact, the chain began four years ago as a high-concept burger joint. It has since evolved into a full-service steak house with a small but affordable wine list the staff should know how to serve. But the cooking at this location showed as much skill as our waitress did with a corkscrew.
The famous burgers, available in beef or bison, come in nearly 20 variations, admirably ground on the premises and hand-packed to order. They are a reasonably good grade of meat, the bison a little sweeter than the beef, but so loosely formed that ours fell apart in the bun. The use of a little dome to steam the burgers on the griddle also gives the patties a char-less gray complexion that lacks the texture of a well-grilled crust.
Ted's steaks are a slightly better bet, especially the leaner bison Delmonico and filet mignons. I'd say these fairly priced, tender cuts were even delicious, except for the insipid Accent-like spice blend and lemon butter that Ted's slathers on each one.
The menu is strangely thin on starters, unless you count a pile of doughy, double-battered onion rings or chili cheese fries. The chili is made from bison, and the fact that it's made fresh daily means it has more zip on some days than on others. But even on a good day, it isn't nearly exotic as it sounds.
There are a number of boring salads to choose from - a wedge topped with a milky drizzle of thin blue cheese dressing, a watery "eggless" Caesar, or a plate of "vine-ripened tomatoes" that, from their pale pink hue, look to have been ripened on a vine somewhere close to Broad Street.
Ted's is obviously a main-course kind of place. And the focus is on country comfort. The bison pot roast was probably the closest item on the menu to home cooking, the hunks of chuck slow-braised to melting tenderness beneath a gravy that was full of flavor. I enjoyed it even if the gravy had congealed to brown jelly on the meat.
In fact, an entire meal of entrees was served with tepid, gooey sauces, but the other items didn't have the qualities of the pot roast to redeem them. The "chicken fried" chicken was fried too pale, its egg-wash batter lacking the requisite crunch of the chicken-fried genre. The meat loaf might have been decent, but I was served only two slices of crusty loaf ends.
The grilled chicken breast that can be substituted for any of the burgers was rubbery. The cedar-planked salmon was dry as a board. Even the creamed spinach - a seemingly can't-miss steak-house ringer - brought a dish of strangely tangy, thickened cream filled with shreds of chewy spinach.
Ted's makes a modest comeback at dessert, where you can slurp a root-beer float, dive into a soupy apple crumble, or nibble some homemade cookies (the snickerdoodles are best).