Chain Gang | Quirks aside, 99 a pleasant experience

No 99 bottles of beer to choose from, though

Posted: March 16, 2007

WHEN MEMBERS of the Chain Gang drove through New England a few weeks ago, it seemed like we passed 99 Restaurants about 99 times. Finding out the chain had migrated down to Philadelphia, we decided we had to check it out.

Not being familiar with 99, the Gang found it to be similar to Applebees - big drinks, big All-American menu, big desserts, not too big a bill. At the location on Roosevelt Boulevard, we also found the service to be exceedingly friendly even when it was slow or forgetful.

While we were trying to figure out what the 99 stood for - we think it's 99 reasons to come back - we overheard a server at the next table going over the day's soup. It sounded good, but it was completely different from the soup of the day our waitress described. A table diagonally across from ours kept getting a bowl of popcorn refilled - we didn't even know popcorn was on the menu. Most odd, we thought, was when a mother nearby requested a child's size Caesar salad she was told that the children's menu had only a chicken Caesar salad.

Can't you just not add the chicken?

But given the atmosphere of 99, these little gaffes were not much of a bother. Everyone's so amiable. Then again, we thought, maybe the 99 stands for 99 different menus.

As for dinner, we started with tasty toasted ravioli ($6.99), crispy pasta pillows filled with gooey cheese and a tomato dipping sauce. One Gangster also got a garden salad ($3.29), which had crisp lettuce, tomatoes, croutons, red onion, etc. Our dressing was a surprising blueberry pomegranate vinaigrette - surprising in both its exotic fruitiness and that it really tasted like normal vinaigrette.

We tried three main dishes. The combination dinner ($12.99) featured lemon peppered salmon and barbecue pork ribs. The salmon was moist but could have used a bit more bite in the pepper, and the three ribs were meaty but too smothered in a thick sauce.

The prime rib ($14.99) was a plate-sized slab of beef cooked to the proper redness, but had a faint taste of liver. It would have been better with a light au jus instead of the heavier pool of brown gravy it rested in.

Best of the main dishes was the Maryland crab casserole ($13.99), which had a lot of sweet crab beneath its crumb topping. A winner.

Side dishes were all good - the cole slaw was fresh and cabbage-y, the baked potato was neither dried out nor rock hard and didn't need butter or sour cream to improve it, the mashed potatoes were a touch spackle-y but fine, and some may find the corn too buttery but we liked it.

For desserts, we engorged ourselves on a hot fudge sundae ($3.99) and midnight fudge cake ($4.49) which seemed like the hot fudge sundae with a piece of chocolate cake crammed into it. The only issue the Gang had with the sundae was it took so long to shovel through the whipped cream that the ice cream got too soupy. Next time we'll ask for a dollop of cream instead of a mountain.

Drinks are what you'd expect - humongous, sweet and colorful - and beers are also what you'd expect - boring. The menu even said to ask about local beer selections, but our waitress knew of no "local" beers except Sam Adams - which may be local in New England but not here.

Would it be too much to ask for any of the big restaurant chains to keep a craft brew six-pack in the fridge in case someone tired of Miller walked in?

99, however, was a pleasant dining experience, better than our trips last year to Applebees and Friday's, and that's saying something because our bench was very uncomfortable.

99 might want to think about a 99-cent cushion.

The chain truth

Chain: 99 Restaurant, 9183 Roosevelt Blvd. (Northeast Shopping Center), 215-464-9099. Other area locations at 1440 Almonesson Road in Deptford, 856-251-0099; 3617 Horizon Blvd. (cross from Neshaminy Mall) 215-355-9099; and 675 Shannondell Blvd. in Audubon, 610-635-0799.

Reservations: No.

Parking: Yes.

Price: Dinner for three was $72.15 plus tip, which included three main dishes, two desserts, an appetizer, a salad, one beer and and one iced tea.

Portions: Plenty. And you can always stuff yourself on popcorn instead of dinner rolls.

Overall grade: Three out of four links. Friendly, decent food, good for kids - it's prototypical chain dining. *

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