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The Waiting Game 

Service and food need polish

"Reservations?" asked the woman holding a clip board, standing immediately inside the front door in the bar area. "No? Hmmmm. That'll be a 60 to 70 minute wait." She thrust a restaurant pager into my hand and then began addressing the family behind me.

Some patrons waited in the 70-seat bar area of the 6,500 square foot Bonefish Grill. The bar was crowded and smoky since this area is also the smoking section of the dining room. Some waited outside on benches or wandered the aisles of the neighboring Total Wine store.

A handful of people came back ahead of time to return their pagers saying they had already waited 70 minutes and just didn't have any more time to wait for dinner. One couple asked if they could enlarge their deuce to a four top since they had enough time to make new friends while waiting.

On a return visit, I made reservations. Reservations are taken until 4pm the same day. "We recommend reservations," says general manager Bob Kirby. "We don't have call-ahead seating, but you can make reservations well in advance. About 30 percent of our business is reserved." But on a second trip with reservations I still waited 15 minutes for a 6:15 table.

Some of the service touches are nice. Employees with large umbrellas greet patrons at the curb on rainy nights. One employee opened the door to greet and bid farewell to diners.

The concept of Bonefish Grill is "polished casual." However, the service at Bonefish Grill is less than polished. Servers, clad in chef's jackets, rarely anticipate needs. Utensils are not replaced. The warm white bread, served with an herb and olive oil dip, is not brought out in any prescribed method. One night it was brought out with the entrees. Dishes are whisked away from one patron while others are still eating. Plates are stacked on the table and then removed. One server had the particularly annoying habit of not moving around the table to remove dishes, but rather asked me to hand the dishes across the table.

Another annoyance was the "auctioning" of food. Servers here have no method to denote which diner ordered a dish. Most restaurants use one point of reference, such as the chair facing the kitchen as first position thus enabling anyone to deliver dishes correctly. Runners arrive holding plates of food and having to ask, "Who had the calamari?"

Our meal was frequently interrupted by runners coming by and asking, "Did you order more bread?" or the overhead PA system announcing "Smith, party of two your table is ready." Why does that have to be announced in the dining room where people are already eating?

Since servers are responsible for timing the meal -- by that I mean they are responsible for having the kitchen fire specific dishes at specific times -- I questioned whether the kitchen was that backed up or whether my servers were just negligent in ordering dishes. Either way, I spent hours waiting for entrees to be delivered and, subsequently, folks waited longer to get my table.

A short wine list is printed on the menu (without vintages). Some wines are offered by the glass. Prices for these range from $4.50 for the questionable "homemade" white sangria to $10 for a Stonestreet Cab. Kirby says there is a reserve wine list which is offered at the server's discretion. Entrees range in price from $13.50 to $18.50 while three of their eight appetizers are at least $9.

The dining room has an earthy-hued color scheme, oak floors, hand blown glass lamps, and three-dimensional art on the walls. Tables are set with linen and then butcher paper. Grind-your-own commercially labeled salt and pepper shakers dot the tables.

According to Kirby, the menu was designed by Tim Curci, a Culinary Institute of American graduate, and Chris Parker, who together opened the original Bonefish Grill in Florida. Both Curci and Parker had been executives with Hops Restaurant Bar & Brewery. Bonefish Grill is part of Outback Steakhouse Inc., which also owns Carrabba's Italian Grill.

"We have no real chef (here)," comments Kirby. The food concept at Bonefish Grill is cooking "market fresh" fish over an oak-burning grill. Diners have a choice of nine common finfish or shellfish served with three sauces. Carnivores may choose from a short list of poultry, pork, and steaks.

Entrees are served in that pre-1990s fashion of the Dr. Pepper plate: food is positioned around the plate instead of centered. The seafood entrees were fresh and some were good, particularly the salmon. The sauces, however, are not good. The mango salsa has no verve while the lime tomato garlic sauce is so potent it takes hours to wear off. The fish is better served without a sauce. The entree sides were even less appealing. The tiresome band of predictable vegetables was limp from overcooking and the cheese of the potato gratin had a processed cheese mouth feel. Although ordered without a sauce, the jumbo shrimp and scallop skewers (four shrimp and four scallops for $16.50) arrived with a heavy burden of garlic.

Salad greens struggled for survival against a tsunami of overly sweet vinaigrette. If you opt for the crumbled blue cheese on the salads, be forewarned that it may well overwhelm all beneath it. Better than the entrees were the appetizers. Meaty crab cakes highlighted this bunch. Next up was the bright tasting Ahi Tuna Sashimi. The herb flecked fried calamari, though tender, lacked a good sauce. The most unsuccessful dish was Mussels Josephine, a gathering of terribly small, tough mussels in a sweet broth containing Anisette, the licorice liquor. The finish at Bonefish, though, is excellent if you choose the well-balanced Key Lime Pie.

Some restaurant chains have wormed their way into my heart. However, if a diner waits an hour or more to be seated at any restaurant, certainly he should expect to enjoy well-prepared dishes or at least good value. Or how about a trained chef in the kitchen? But at oversubscribed Bonefish Grill I found a rookie service team and a kitchen without sparks. In the amount of time I waited for dinner I could have bought fish from a neighboring store, grilled it at home, and still have had time to drive through my favorite chain, Krispy Kreme.

Bonefish Grill, 10056 E. Independence Boulevard, Matthews, 704-845-8001. Hours are Monday through Thursday 4pm until 10:30pm; Friday and Saturday until 11:30pm; and Sunday until 10pm. AmEx, MC, Visa, Diners.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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