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We've all been there. Somewhere in the middle of a nine-hour shopping marathon, loaded down with bags from Crate & Barrel and the GAP, the stomach announces its need for refueling.

Chain reaction 

The area's recent mall additions bring new franchise choices to the Triangle.

We've all been there. Somewhere in the middle of a nine-hour shopping marathon, loaded down with bags from Crate & Barrel and the GAP, the stomach announces its need for refueling. Only the most intestinally courageous of us will brave the chaos of the food court. The rest of us seek something a bit more ... well ... quiet. Enter the chain restaurant.

Oh, sure, it would be great if malls were chocked full of locally owned stores and mom and pop restaurants. In a perfect world we would only patronize local merchants within walking or biking distance of home. In a perfect world we would also finish all of our holiday shopping two months early. But, inevitably, there's something that requires a trip to the mall. Drastic times call for drastic measures. That means malls and mall food.

The opening of two new malls this year has meant an influx of chain restaurants to the Triangle. With them they bring a new breed of mall food. Gone are the Ruby Tuesday's and the Spinnaker's.

What stands in their place run the gamut from family-friendly mall grub to fine dining. This new breed have forgone the canned sauces and pre-made dishes and replaced them with fresh ingredients and made from scratch soups, sauces and desserts.

Executive chefs have replaced line cooks and with them carefully crafted entrees now appear in the place of mass produced fare of the past. In addition, most of the recent additions making their chain debuts in the Triangle are not the part of a widespread conglomerate chain like Olive Garden and Red Lobster (which boast a combined 1,200 stores in the United States and Canada). When the Bamboo Club at Triangle Town Center opens, it will be only the sixth in the nation.

Not that all of these differences guarantee a good meal, but it sure helps the chances.

Because of their newness to the area and the popularity of the new malls, the restaurants have generally been extremely busy since their openings. On a Friday or Saturday night be prepared to wait close to two hours during the dinner rush. As the holidays approach, plan to wait even longer. And despite our best intentions, like masochistic moths to the flame, at one point during the holiday season, we all end up at the mall. I guess the perfect world will have to wait until after the New Year.

Here's a little of what you can expect from selected restaurants at the new Southpoint and Triangle Town Center malls.

Champps Americana (SP)
This is your typical chain reminiscent of a Houlihans or TGI Fridays with a sports bar slant. Potato skins, French onion soup, steaks and basic pastas with a dash of ethnic cooking throughout the menu make this a good place to take the meat and potatoes crowd. Inventive salads will keep vegetarians happy, as well. The interior is unremarkable (unless you are there to catch a game--TVs are plentiful) with the exception of a nice patio and bar area. $$. Open 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m.-midnight Sunday. The kitchen stops serving one hour before closing.

Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill (SP)
Firebirds is a Colorado-themed high-end restaurant with tasty wood-fired steaks, seafood and pizzas. For the adventurous diner the menu offers buffalo meatloaf and elk medallions. The building is based on a Colorado lodge with vaulted ceilings, exposed wood beams and stone fireplaces. Nice ambience for a mall restaurant and a nice wine selection, this may be the best bet for a date. Firebirds also has a bar area with a fireplace and comfortable seating. $$$ Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

California Pizza Kitchen(SP & TTC)
Gourmet pizza restaurant with good salads and creative hearth-baked pizzas like Thai chicken and carne asada. Bright and family friendly, California Pizza Kitchen is probably the best bet for shoppers with the kids along. The small-sized pizzas (one pizza per hungry diner or, if having salads, it could feed two) allow everyone in the family to order their own favorite. Also offers pasta dishes and foccacia sandwiches. Look for the famous pizzas in the freezer section of local grocery stores. $ Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.

Maggiano's Little Italy (SP)
Probably the best Italian chain restaurant going, Maggiano's menu is extensive. Most salads, pastas and entrees come in your choice of half or whole portions. Unless you have an unusually large appetite, stick with the half portions. The folks at Maggiano's don't know the meaning of the word moderation. Family-style dining is available for groups of four or more (a five course meal including appetizer, salad, pasta, entrée and dessert for $21.95 per person). The dim interior, decorated with antique photos and red and white checkered tablecloths might fool you into thinking you're in a Little Italy hang-out. Maggiano's also periodically offers wine-tasting dinners. See their Web site (www.maggianos.com) for more information. $$-$$$ Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon-9 p.m. Sunday.

Coming soon:

The Bamboo Club (TTC)
An Arizona-born chain, The Bamboo Club will offer upscale Pacific Rim cuisine, though the menu seems to be missing the Polynesian aspect of traditional Pacific Rim cooking and focuses more on Thai and Chinese flavors. The prices are high, but the menu claims that the entrees are "perfect for sharing" so it's a safe bet that the portion sizes will be quite large. The interior, designed by original owner Debbie Bloy, will feature lots of black lacquer, bamboo sculptures, lush foliage and handmade lighting fixtures, all arranged according to the ancient art of Feng shui. Feng shui in a mall! Go figure!

Puccini and Pasta (TTC)
Opening to mixed reviews in Memphis, Puccini and Pasta will open their first North Carolina restaurant in 2003. Owned by noted-restaurateur Piero Filpi, a native of Palermo, Italy, Puccini and Pasta will offer casual Italian fare specializing in veal dishes and gourmet desserts. No novice to running Italian restaurants (Filpi owns five others), this is only the second Puccini and Pasta in the country. To see a review of the Memphis store, visit www.gomemphis.com and click on dining reviews.

Big Bowl (SP)
A Chicago-based noodle restaurant, the small menu looks tantalizing with inventive appetizers and Asian noodle dishes that vary from Vietnamese to Thai to Chinese. The Southpoint Big Bowl will be the 15th store in the country. Big Bowl also offers an award-winning children's menu and a cookbook that can be purchased at their Web site (www.bigbowl.com). The interior will feature warm woods and paper lanterns.

Champps Americana
(TTC) - See above description

Price key:

$ - under $10
$$ - $10-15
$$$ - $16- $20
$$$$ - over $20 EndBlock

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