I don't claim to be an expert on Guy Fieri, the Bay Area dynamo who has become a national celebrity through his Food Network shows, "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives" and "Guy's Big Bite."
I did witness, however, the crazy attention he attracted on the sidelines at a Raiders game last year. Since when did foodies get so loud?
The bleach blond, pinky-ring wearing Fieri has devoted the last eight years to building a huge brand. While the rest of us frittered away the past couple months, Fieri opened a now-infamous (thanks to a the New York Times review) 500-seat restaurant in Times Square and launched a whopping six lines of cookware.
Long before all the hoopla, Fieri and his business partner Steve Gruber opened the first Johnny Garlic's in Santa Rosa in 1996. There are currently five locations, including one in Dublin's Hacienda Crossings.
Walking into Johnny Garlic's for the first time, I realized immediately that my preconceived notions were way off. Anticipating a restaurant reflective of "Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives," I instead found a well-appointed space more akin to a chophouse. I expected to stand in line to order from a guy in a bowling shirt, but was greeted by a very professional server delivering complimentary onion-topped focaccia. Johnny Garlic's serves bona fide, stick to your ribs meals, not the burger on the run I envisioned.
While a large display in the lobby pedals branded T-shirts and Fieri's signature -- complete with exclamation point -- adorns the signage, the restaurant's appeal is certainly not limited to those hoping to catch a glimpse of the self-styled rock star chef." Fieri might well be spending more time at his new Manhattan restaurant anyway, after it was hit with a "poor" rating and scathing New York Times review that quickly went viral.
The Dublin location features an open kitchen, a sizable bar area, and lots of dark wood. The dining room feels masculine but is softened by the many hanging blown-glass pendants, which lend a sense of intimacy.
Johnny Garlic's diverse offerings include rib eye steaks, cherry barbecue baby back ribs, pasta, burgers served on pretzel rolls and Neapolitan-style pizza. The inclusion of rotating "exotic game" such as alligator and chicken-fried quail adds a sense of adventure.
While the French onion soup ($7.95) is a house specialty, I found a lot to like in the mildly aromatic roasted garlic soup ($3.95), made with chicken stock and heavy cream. The recipe -- available on the Food Network website -- is something I'll try soon.
We also ordered the JG Famous Caesar ($4.95/$9.95), selecting it from among the six salad options simply for its claim to fame. We found it to be skillfully dressed, but we didn't happen upon the promised focaccia croutons or uncover the merits of its self-proclaimed celebrity. The accompanying shrimp (an additional $5), however, were a real delight, pulled from the grill at just the right moment.
The chain's bestseller is the Cajun chicken fettuccine ($16.95 or $10.95 at lunch with salad), a dish Fieri pulled together at the eleventh hour during a culinary final at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Small bits of fiery blackened chicken breast wade in a creamy Parmesan sauce with sun-dried tomatoes and pasta. I appreciated the chicken's spiciness, but still relied on a bright Sonoma salad ($5.95/$10.95) -- a spring mix with dried cranberries and blue cheese, available as a pasta/salad combination at lunch -- to cool things off. The pasta was a tad greasy, but I still craved it the next day.
For more poultry, the Volcano Chicken ($16.95) is another house specialty. The chicken breasts are tender and juicy. The bold sauce is spicy and sweet, but slightly borders on cloying. Sides of fried Maui onion straws, Yukon garlic mashed potatoes, and brussels sprouts create an attractive variety of flavors and textures.
Our server also steered us to the Double R Ranch flank steak ($22.95), a peppered steak with a cabernet-balsamic reduction, sized generously enough to feed two people, and adorned with the precise cross hatch marks of a grill. But as with the chicken's Volcano sauce, the reduction struck me as a notch too sugary.
As for the mashed potatoes, those who are tired of the overuse of garlic -- a la fries drenched in garlic at the ballpark -- will appreciate the restraint used here. It's noticeable, but not suffocatingly so.
We found the molten lava cake ($7.95) with oozing caramel a decadent chaser to our entrees, but others may be tempted by the seasonal cheesecake, s'more pizza, "Old Skool" Bananas Foster and other dishes on the dessert menu (all $7.95).
I have only positive notes about the service, particularly one well-trained and thoughtful server who knew every crevice of the menu.
Johnny Garlic's is a versatile spot for a family dinner, date night, or to watch a game. With stable management, a tested concept and, of course, the star power, this chain should be a staple in the Bay Area dining scene for some time -- unless you happen to be a New York Tmes reviewer.
Reach Chrissa Ventrelle at email@example.com.
" * * ½
FOOD: * * ½
AMBIENCE: * * *
SERVICE: * * *
WHERE: 4920 Dublin Blvd., Suite 265, Dublin
CONTACT: 925-248-2347, www.johnnygarlics.com
HOURS: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
CUISINE: All-American fare
VEGETARIAN: Several options, including Morgan's Veggie Burger
BEVERAGES: Full bar
RESERVATIONS: Recommended for dinner
NOISE LEVEL: Medium
PARKING: Free parking in the Hacienda Crossings lot
KIDS: Childrens menu ($5.95) includes mini-cheese burgers, pizza, chicken tenders and grilled chicken breasts, which come with a choice of sides and animal crackers.
PLUSES: Especially fun for fans of Guy Fieri. Clean restaurant with a well-trained staff. Spacious private dining room available.
MINUSES: Merchandising overkill in the entry way, as if this were the Hard Rock Cafe.
DATE OPENED: August 2011
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