Restaurant Review - A bit of everything

Max & Erma's specials a cut above chain fare

YEARS AGO, in the late 1960s and through the '70s, Columbus, Ohio, was known as the nation's test city. And proud of it. Every product of every description was test-marketed in the heart of Ohio. And every fast-food enterprise known to man got its start somewhere along a road in the northern part of the city. The road's proper name escapes me at the moment, but it also was known as Route 161.
As long as I lived there, I never did figure out what it was about Columbus that made companies consider the populace ideal guinea pig material. Everyone I knew there was either a really good cook or an enthusiastic lover of really good food. Although there was that one important formal fund-raising dinner for the art museum where the lids of the massive silver buffet servers were rolled back to reveal hundreds of steamed White Castle hamburgers. (You know them here as Krystals.) They were a huge hit.
Except for that memorable event and the occasional Wendy's Frosty (hey, it's chocolate, for which I am always willing to make allowances), I managed to avoid sampling all the latest additions to the fast-food strip. In fact, it wasn't until very recently that I made it to one of them: Max & Erma's. And that was in Dunwoody.
When Max & Erma's was born, the big thing in fast food was hamburgers. Not Burger King and Wendy's and so forth, but places like T.G.I.Friday's. Friday's gimmick was their day-of-the-week burgers. Max & Erma's countered with The Garbage Burger, topped with "everything but the kitchen sink." It lives today, should you be so inclined.
In the intervening years, fast-food tastes have changed, flip-flopping with each new scare on the health front. Suddenly, the burger chains faced competition not only from each other but also from pizza chains and taco chains. So while hamburgers are still on the Max & Erma's menu, you have to look hard to find them amongst all the current usual suspects: stuffed potato skins, chicken fingers, onion rings, pasta, tacos, ribs, Philly cheesesteaks and dinner salads (most involving chicken).
That's too bad, because burgers are what Max & Erma's does most consistently. Freshly made, freshly grilled hamburgers are what made the chain's reputation. To the extent that the company believes its menu has to offer at least one item from many cuisines, it has diluted its focus.
In spite of that, however, and keeping in mind that this is a chain we are talking about, the food here is a level above similar chains. Use your head, though. This is not the place to order New York strip steak; get it at a reputable steak house. Nor is this the place for seafood; the simple fact that neither the hosts nor the servers know whether the fish is fresh or frozen tells you that.
Aside from the burgers, I have had the most luck with the day's specials. Particularly if they are such classics as meatloaf and chicken pot pie. These are all too easy to do poorly, usually due to lack of interest more than anything. But taking the chicken pot pie as an example, interesting is a good way to describe it.
Specifically, the fact that it comes to the table in a large, white soup plate accompanied by a (too small, too light) soup spoon. The puff pastry crust really is golden brown, the cubes of white meat chicken really are plentiful, as are the vegetables, including whole baby carrots along with the peas and corn. Even better news, the gravy is not cream-based, but is grounded in sturdy broth. And the most unusual thing is that the whole thing rests on a base of creamy mashed potatoes.
I confess that my own love of ketchup colors my view of the meatloaf. Its rich, sweet-spicy tomato tang glazes a thick slab of the stuff. Another nice surprise was the accompanying vegetables: sugar snap peas, perfectly steamed.
Although it is a national chain, Max & Erma's makes a point of making itself part of the neighborhood. In the Dunwoody restaurant, for instance, there's a mural of Peachtree Street (featuring the Fox Theatre) along one wall.
__Max & Erma's, 1155 Mount Vernon Highway (behind Perimeter Mall), Dunwoody. 770-551-0055. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Inexpensive to moderate. Credit cards. Dress: casual. Ambiance: typical of national chains. No-smoking section. Wheelchair accessible.