Atmosphere: English pub with carnival overtones. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to midnight Sunday.
Price Range: Hamburgers $2.35 to $3.70; steaks and other beef $5.55 to $6.95; seafood $2.99 to $4.95; jumpbo frankfurter $1.95; other sanwiches $2.25; childrens dinners $1.79.
Credit Cards: Master and Visa.
Reservations: Not necessary.
Special features: Booster seats; high chairs; fully equipped for wheelchairs; parking lot.
The Ground Round, on Rte. 1 at Penn Serves up four-to-eight-ounce hamburgers and about two tons of prepackaged nostalgia. Ersatz Tiffany lamps, Whitebread Ale signs and framed reproductions of extra editions proclaiming "Valentino Dies" form a busy backdrop for silent movies, a peanut barrel, a popcorn machine and electronic pinball.
Young children love it. In the worlds of one 9-year-old, "It's excellent if you're under 8." There is a clown on Saturdays and Sundays, a magic show Sunday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and every day there are "magic" coins that buy prizes from machines that reject real money. (Wednesday through Saturday nights there is even live music for adults).
And for all that -- maybe in spite of it -- the food is cheap and not half bad. The hamburgers are ordinary as best, but the chili, while mild, is meaty and well spiced, and fried chicken is crunchy and well seasoned. Hot dogs, jumbo or junior, are all beef and heaped with cheese, sauce, sauerkraut or chili. Salads are fresh and large, and french fries are not, thick and crisp. Fried onions rings are of the average frozen variety but, mixed with fried zucchini and mushrooms in a "hodge podge" served in a basket, they are hard to resist.
There is a different soup every day and a daily 99-cent cocktail special (we had our first whiskey sours in 15 years, just to take advantage of the low price).
There is a basket of popcorn waiting on the red-and-white-checked oilcloth-covered table when you arrive, and an empty basket that you send in the hand of a child to be filled at the peanut barrel. On the way back, child gets diverted by the cartoon on the movie screen and -- voila! -- the grown-ups drink in peace.
Children's dinners -- hamburger, hot dog, chicken or fish served with french fries and a soft drink -- are all $1.79. The most expensive adult entree is steak and lobster for $6.95. The steaks are of good quality, if not always done as ordered. Steak teryaki ($5.75) was tender and juicy, but its marinade tasted heavily of the juice of its pineapple garnish.
Fish filets cost $2.99, or $3 for an "all-you-can-eat" fish fry special on Wednesday and Friday, Ribs -- baked, marinated, then broiled -- are offered in two quantities at $3.15 amd $5.95. There are two combination sanwiches -- a Reuben ($3.29) and a hot grilled tuna and cheese ($2.90) and assorted deli items. You get the idea: The menu is huge, varied and, if not poetic, at least imaginative.
If the whole thing sounds vaguely familiar, perhaps you have been traveling up north recently. The Ground Round is part of a 10-year-old chain based in Massachusetts, prolific in New England and owned by -- ready? -- good old Howard Johnson's.
Now making its move south, the Ground Round opened its Penn Daw restaurant in January, on the heels of one in Woodbridge and another in Manassas. Others are planned. The next, at Fairfax Circle, is slated to open later this year. All will look almost exactly alike -- the posters, prints lamps, wall signs and even the antiques are part of a "kit" that is mass-produced especially for Ground Round. Seems that these days, if it's not fast food, its pre-portioned surroundings.