The big jalapeno-green building catches your eye. Trimmed in the color of bone-dry desert sand and accented with red, it is the first Virginia outpost of the Texas-based Chili's chain.
The Southwest theme is everywhere. The lettering in the Chili's logo suggests the shape of a saguaro cactus, the table tops are covered with colorful Mexican tiles, and clay planters are perched on window sills and room dividers.
The interior is sprawling and charming. Inverted copper cooking pots hang above tables as light fixtures. Shelves mounted high on the sage-green-paneled walls are lined with funky yard sale items such as old bird cages, a model of the RCA dog listening to the Victrola and a Shriner's hat. One such item, a popcorn box, is all that remains of the Jefferson Theater, which used to occupy these premises.
After all this visual hype, the menu seems modest by comparison. There is chili, of course, and a few Tex-Mex dishes, but most of the offerings are variations (12) on the hamburger. The prices are modest, too. Only the fajitas and the quart of chili "to go" came in over $5, and refills on soft drinks are free.
Several of the dishes are pretty good. Two colorful salads, one a meaty taco salad and the other a mixture of greens with enough shredded cheese and other toppings to make a meal, were beautifully arranged and fresh tasting. The super nacho and quesadilla appetizers were also attractive, with a scoop each of sour cream and guacamole.
Although the burgers are big and fairly thick, they tend to be bland and need the enhancement of the toppings, such as the guacamole, lettuce, tomato and swiss cheese for the verde burger. The peppery home-style fries are delicious.
If Chili's could improve one thing, some decent flour tortillas would get my vote. At present they taste like flattened Wonder Bread. Much of the flavor of the fillings in the quesadillas, soft tacos, and fajitas was lost to the doughy wrappers.
In spite of the restaurant's name, the bowl of chili is not very special. Although there is a generous amount of ground beef, the seasoning tasted like packaged taco spices.
For dessert, Chili's makes a thick chocolate shake with lots of ice cream, and a hot fudge sundae in a fried, cinnamon-coated flour tortilla shell. This is definitely the best way to eat the flour tortillas.
The service is prompt and solicitous, but at times it goes into overdrive, rushing entrees into unfinished appetizers and threatening gastric gridlock if you try to keep up.
At Chili's, the surroundings can give your spirits a boost and the prices won't blow your budget. A family of four can fill up for $25 to $30. On the whole, however, don't expect the food to be more than average chuck-wagon fare.