Marie Callender's Grill

OC Metro
April 28, 2005

Marie Callender's New Concept
A California Craftsman grill in Seal Beach is a cut above.

Paul McCartney got a lot of mileage out of a road trip story he told a couple of years ago during his sold-out concert at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. During the West Coast swing of his "Driving USA" tour, he had been told about a "great little restaurant" in Santa Barbara . He and a friend jumped in the friend's Corvette and eagerly rocketed up the coast to what McCartney discovered was a Marie Callender's. They had, he said when the laughter died down, a very nice meal indeed.

And why not? Marie Callender's has built its success (it has about 150 restaurants in 10 states and is headquartered in Aliso Viejo) on serving generous portions of good quality comfort food - and those excellent pies - at reasonable prices. It has become known for being a significant cut above several lesser priced, chain family restaurants.

Now Marie Callender's is trying out a new concept restaurant in Seal Beach , Marie Callender's Grill, and it's yet another cut above the more familiar Callender's locations. It's still very much a family place, but it has a few pointedly grown-up features that elevate it in terms of both food and beverage choice and visual appeal.

Its overall look is California Craftsman – woody and rich, with the walls and pillars lined with used brick. There's a hearth in one of the dining areas, a display kitchen and even a tiny, snug bar area adjacent to the front door. For fair weather there's an outdoor patio are.

And while the standard Marie Callender's locations offer homey diners such as roasted turkey, pot roast and chick and turkey pot pies, the new Grill features such departures as a one-pound rib eye steak, barbecued chicken and Angus tri-tip, and mesquite-grilled salmon fillets. You can even wash it all down with a selection of specialty cocktails.

All entrees come with a choice of either cornbread or garlic bread to start, and we went with the garlic bread, which arrives in the form of a small sliced loaf. It's soft, buttery and tasty, not too pungent – and it will be replenished on request.

I started with a generous baby spinach salad in vinaigrette dressing with the standard accompaniments: finely chopped tomatoes, crumbled hard-boiled egg, sliced red onions and bacon. Quite fresh and well blended, and more substantial that would be expected from an appetizer salad. That, the garlic bread and a cup of soup would make a very decent lunch.

My friend ordered from a short two-fer menu that allows you to pick smaller portions of two entrees, which is a boon to the indecisive surf-and-turf fan. She went with the barbecued tri-tip and the jumbo shrimp with Cajun spices. The shrimp were slightly tough, but subtly spiced. The Angus tri-tip was a standout: lean, just this side of rare, thinly sliced and succulent, and the barbecue sauce didn't overpower. Side dishes included "loaded" potatoes (mashed potatoes with cheese and chunks of skin) and three asparagus spears (quite good and finely cooked) about the size of baseball bats.

I decided on one from the "classics" section of the menu, the bacon wrapped meatloaf. Meatloaf appears on the regular Marie Callender's menu, but this one gets slightly sexier. It enjoys the extra edge that the bacon flavor imparts and, rather than simple brown gravy, it's topped with mushrooms and a cabernet reduction sauce. It's fine comfort food taken to the prom, home cooking in its glad rags. It comes with the Louisville Slugger asparagus and a choice of several incarnations of potatoes, onion sides, pilafs, beans or coleslaw.

We skipped dessert reluctantly (yep, those pies…), but the Grill upholds company tradition by serving portions for hungry people. Still, there's a separate counter near the door where pie fans can order their favorites to go. OCM