BARFLY ON THE WALL

Off the chain: Drinks at T.G.I. Friday's,

I've got a friend who has a proclivity for chain-restaurant bars, likely a result of his stints working at several casual-dining places. As easy as it is to scoff at such a pastime, it's possible that he's onto something.

For one, these bars are usually fairly consistent. You can stop into one just about anywhere in the country and know what you're getting. They also present a reasonable value in terms of quality and pricing. For those who may not want to roll the dice when heading out for the night, an Applebee's or a Chili's might actually be a perfectly reasonable option.

I stopped into my local T.G.I. Friday's to see if I could support this idea. Friday's started out as a singles bar in New York back in the '60s, and the original Tiffany lamps, and wood-and-brass décor survive to this day.

Friday's serves plenty of food, but it has its roots as a bar, and this shows in the company's encouragement of flair bartending and emphasis on mixology for its staff. Remember Cocktail? That's a T.G.I. Friday's where Tom Cruise is slinging bottles.

Drink-wise, Friday's has a good mix of classics, such as several different premium margaritas, a Sidecar and a "Hemingway Daiquiri," which combines X-Rated liqueur, Skyy citrus vodka, ruby red grapefruit syrup, lemon, and lime. To say that this drink is "just as Ernest Hemingway drank it" is maybe just a bit audacious, but it's pretty tasty if you're not opposed to ultra-fruity fare.

Just down the block in St. Petersburg's Tyrone area is a Ruby Tuesday (you'll find many of these places close to one another). The focus here is on the food rather than the bar, which sits in the far corner of the Tyrone Square Mall, with an outdoor courtyard attached.

Food may be the big player here, but the drink menu is well thought-out and surprisingly varied, ranging from crowd-pleasing margaritas and frozen cocktails to signature drinks and high-quality craft beers, including brews from Stone and Dogfish Head. Beer cocktails are also an option, from variations on the Black and Tan to liquor-based cocktails spiked with beer.

Along with a well-made classic martini, I tried one of these beer cocktails — the Beer-Rita — and found it to be an interesting twist on an old standard. Premium cocktails are $5 all day, every day, which is not too shabby!

Next up was Romano's Macaroni Grill, a rustic-themed Italian restaurant with a small but interesting cocktail menu. You won't be surprised to learn that wines are a big seller here, but I would recommend perusing the "crafted cocktails" list for some inspired twists on recognizable favorites.

For example, the Italian Mojito features a rum and mint base but with the unusual addition of Campari and Prosecco. I enjoyed the Sorrento Lemonade, a mix of vodka, limoncello, and lemonade, and the Blood Orange Cosmo was quite tasty as well. What's better than blood-orange juice?

This was quite enough for one evening, so I saved The Cheesecake Factory for another day. Although its name might suggest otherwise, The Cheesecake Factory places a strong emphasis on its bar. Sure enough, I found the bar staff to be very knowledgeable and surprisingly skilled and confident in their drinkmaking.

I was glad to see the classic Caipirinha on the menu, and mine was served in a large snifter, expertly mixed. A subsequent Ritz Martini — think a Sidecar with pomegranate instead of lemon, and the addition of Champagne — was also quite pleasant.

With bottles stacked up to the high ceiling and beams of sunlight coming in from the window behind them, The Cheesecake Factory offered plenty of ambiance, with great drinks to boot.

Nine times out of 10, you're likely to find me in a dingy dive bar, a beer-centric brew pub, or a low-key cocktail joint. But after this sojourn in the land of big-name chains, I won't be so quick to rule them out in the future.

It won't be everyone's scene, for sure, but even a serious purveyor of fine beers, wines and spirits might be surprised with what they find once they slip past the host and take a seat at the bar.

— jg@saintbeat.com

T.G.I. Friday's

The vibe: A casual bar and restaurant chain known for its emphasis on flair bartending.

Booze: Beer, $2.50-$4.25; wine; $6-$9; liquor, $6-$10. House wines, mojitos, nargaritas, and Long Island Iced Teas are 2-for-1 all day, every day.

Specialty: The 2-for-1 specials are a good bargain, but the classic cocktail list also has some winners, like a strawberry-laced take on the classic Lynchburg Lemonade or the Sidecar. The signature Pink Punk Cosmo won't appeal to everyone, but it's creative to say the least — it's a classic Cosmo poured over a fluff of cotton candy right at the table!

Locations and hours: tgifridays.com

Ruby Tuesday

The vibe: A family-style restaurant with a small bar boasting a fairly extensive drink list.

Booze: Beer, $3.50-$5; wine; $7.50-$11; liquor, $5-$9.

Specialty: Ruby Tuesday has several signature cocktails, such as the Ruby Relaxer (a fruity, rum-based punch) and the Superfruit Cooler (a cucumber, açai, and elderflower-tinged cocktail). They also serve beer cocktails, ranging from classic beer-on-beer recipes to beer-and-spirit mixers, like the Beer-Rita, a classic margarita with a few splashes of Coronita Extra.

Locations and hours: rubytuesday.com

Romano's Macaroni Grill

The vibe: An Italian restaurant with cocktails to match, featuring regional spirits and wines.

Booze: Beer, $5.50; wine; $4-$10; liquor, $5.50-$8.50.

Specialty: Definitely check out the crafted cocktails list for an Italian spin on some of the classics. A mojito is given Campari, the Bellini features La Marca Prosecco instead of champagne, and even the spiked lemonade has an addition of Il Tramonto Limoncello. The wine list is also strong and features wines from all around the world.

Locations and hours: macaronigrill.com

The Cheesecake Factory

thecheesecakefactory.com

The vibe: A borderline-upscale restaurant with a bar featuring legitimately high-quality cocktails.

Booze: Beer, $5.50-$8; wine; $6.95-$11.95; liquor, $6.50-$11.

Specialty: The drink list features many fruity classics like the mai tai, piña colada and frozen daiquiri. Of these, I liked the Georgia Peach, which included actual frozen, puréed peaches and a sprig of fresh mint. This is also one of the few places that you'll find Brazil's national cocktail, the Caipirinha, on the menu.

Locations: International Plaza, 2223 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa, (813) 353-4200; Westfield Brandon Mall, 781 Brandon Town Center, Brandon, (813) 571-5599. thecheesecakefactory.com.

Off the chain: Drinks at T.G.I. Friday's, 01/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 4:59pm]

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