Atmosphere: Alpine architecture, inexpensive chicken and ribs menu.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Price Range: Platters from $2.15 to $4.50; a la carte chicken dishes from $1.60 for an open-face sandwich to $2.90 for half a charcoal-roasted chicken; a la carte salads, side dishes and desserts from 35 cents to 70 cents for pie a la mode.
Reservations: Not necessary.
Special Features: High chairs; carryout; parking on adjacent lot on same level with entrance; doors wide enough for wheelchairs.
The Swiss Chalet on Rte. 1 just south of the Beltway in Alexandria is the first member of a long-established chicken and ribs chain to open in the Washington area. The obvious question about this ersatz-Tyrolean building with its "barbeque" sign in front is: How come?
Simple: The man who founded the chain in Canada some 35 years ago was from Switzerland. It started with roast chicken cooked Swiss-style -- that is, on a rotisserie over charcoal. The chicken is still cooked in charcoal ovens and now ribs have been added along with barbecue sauce.
The swiss theme is apparent in the spanking clean, new building with low, long-eaved roof, interior wood beams and spoked-wheel chandeliers that cast everything in a yellowish glow to approximate firelight and take the harsh edge off the formica tabletops and vinyl seats.
For families, especially large ones, the Swiss Chalet has one of the cleverest design features we have seen to date. Booths that seat four are lined up side by side and divided from each other by low partitions, which can be removed to connect the two tables. We were five for dinner, so the double-length booth allowed plenty of room for the three children to do their thing at one end of the table while we talked and pretended not to know them at the other.
The menu, printed on the placemats, is short limited and cheap. According to the Alexandria franchise manager, the idea is that a family of four can eat dinner for under $10. And it works, if you plan better than we did. The most expensive item is a barbecue rib plate for $4.50, the only way ribs are served. The ribs are tender, meaty and plentiful and the sauce mildly spicy. Extra barbecue sauce served in a cup with the rib platter seems hotter, with a raw edge of chili powder.
The rib plate and four different chicken platters ranging in price for $2.15 to $3.60, come with a buttered, grilled toasted roll, delicately crisp medium-thick french fries and milk (plain, or chocolate), a soft drink, coffee or tea. The rib plate also includes creamy minced coleslaw.
Chicken is prepared in two styles -- plain charcoal roasted or barbecued. The first is the Swiss Chalet's original style, roasted without butter or basting liquid, which comes out juicy and crisp-skinned, with meat nearly falling off the bone. A half or quarter chicken is available as well as a chicken sandwich (off the bone). The chicken barbecue is a huge mound of chicken slices permeated with the same sweet-tart barbecue sauce used on the ribs and served on a long, split and toasted roll.
Fresh salads of iceberg lettuce with unremarkable dressings are available a la carte. Desserts are also a la carte and some are well worth trying. The restaurant uses Barricini ice cream, some of the richest around, and serves pies that would bring tears to nostalgia to any roadside dinner fanatic's eyes: coconut custard meringue stiff and sweet, and chocolate cream just like pudding from a box.
There is beer, all bottled, at 70 cents to $1.15, and wine at 70 cents per glass to $1.50 for a full carafe; the restaurant is awaiting a full liquor license.
The Swiss Chalet plans to open from 12 to 18 restaurants in the Washington area -- the next is scheduled for Springfield in January -- all similar to the one in Alexandria. Assuming that all are managed as well as this first one, and that the prices do not soar (five of us ate heartily for about $15), they will be a welcome addition to family outing.