Warning: This blog post may offend both chain restaurant lovers and haters. Admittedly, I’m a chain hater, but I’ve found some love for these five places. In any case, I encourage you to continue reading for my delicious notes.
As an 11-year-old, I remember being ecstatic when I heard that T.G.I. Friday’s was opening in the Harrisburg area, mostly because there weren’t that many exciting places to eat at around here. But anyone who knows me today will tell you that I turn my nose up at the mere thought of chain restaurants — except for these.
Until recently, I was completely oblivious to the likes of Carrabba’s Italian Grill, with locations in Mechanicsburg and Lancaster, but I had a gift card and it was time to use it. Since my mom is native Italian, it’s hard to beat her home cooking, so I look at Carrabba’s as food with “Italian flair” more than anything else. Considering I won’t even step inside an Olive Garden, this is high praise.
Call it good marketing or the latest trend for chains, but the first thing the waiter mentioned was how Carrabba’s is a “scratch kitchen,” meaning it makes most things by hand daily. That caught my attention, especially because you can see this magic at work in the open-style kitchen. I recommend dishes here that are made on its wood-burning grill, as the meat and seafood get that rich, smoky flavor.
For fast food that doesn’t taste like fast food, my vote is Chipotle Mexican Grill, which can be found in Harrisburg and York. This chain is all about “food with integrity,” serving sustainably raised food whenever possible. That means antibiotic- and hormone-free meats and organic and local produce. Orders can be placed at the beginning of an assembly line, where servers help you build burritos, burrito bowls, tacos and salads. I especially appreciate that the Harrisburg location has started offering a brown rice option.
I see Houlihan’s in Hershey as an all-ages place, with a fun menu that pretty much has something for everyone. What really gets points with me (aside from the adorable mini martini flights) is the small-plates menu, which features mini entrées as well as various sliders and sharable appetizers. Don’t leave without trying the white bean and artichoke hummus, seared sea scallops and s’mores fondue crock. And if chicken tortilla is the soup of the day, you must order it, as it’s quite outstanding.
Just next door is Devon Seafood Grill, whose chic ambiance gives it an upscale feel without the excruciating upscale prices. Devon is probably best known for its top-notch happy hour, during which it offers a sea of $5 and $6 appetizers, along with a 1-pound Maine lobster at cost (usually around $12).
I’ll go out with a “bang” by mentioning Bonefish Grill, which just opened in Camp Hill and also has a Lancaster location. Stop by on Bang Wednesday, when its signature Bang Bang Shrimp appetizer — crispy shrimp tossed in a creamy, spicy sauce — is only $5. While not nearly as fancy as Devon, the seafood here is consistently good, prepared on a wood-burning grill and with the option of smaller entrée sizes. My personal favorite is the Baja fish tacos, grilled Cajun-style and topped with mango salsa.
Honestly, it’s purely coincidence that four of my five picks have the word “grill” in their names.
So, if you have to eat at a chain, what’s it gonna be?
Erica Streisfeld is the editor for custom publishing at Journal Multimedia, parent company of the Central Penn Business Journal, but she moonlights as a foodie and wino. Many people also know her as founder of the Harrisburg Cupcake Cup, a community cupcake competition that benefits the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, and owner of Little Ditty Pops. Follow her at @HbgFoodandWine.