How did I end up at East Side Mario’s? Well, our CIBC Run For the Cure Team (TEAM BON BURGUNDY) were the top family and friends fundraising team and our big prize was a sizable gift certificate for ESM. First and foremost, ESM deserves a pat on the back for giving back to the community and getting involved with such a great cause and fantastic event. A free/extremely discounted meal for our large group was a great excuse for us all to get together, reminisce and start planning ways to raise even more money for this year’s event.
This family dining chain was definitely not on my must-try list, and is typically the type of place I would try to avoid. As such, I went in with extremely low expectations and ended up having a surprisingly pleasant meal and overall experience.
Tucked in and away on the second floor of Lonsdale Quay, ESM has an amazing view overlooking the Straight of Georgia and is packed with kitchsy Italian décor (red-checked table cloths, elaborate/over-the-top chandeliers, plastic covered furniture, giant tins of canned tomatoes, etc). It has a very Old Spagetti Factory-like atmosphere. It was a pretty busy night and the place was packed with families taking advantage of all the kid’s meal offerings, the many value bundle dining options, and the unlimited garlic bread and salad that comes with every order.
Our server was very young, attentive, and remarkably enthusiastic. He offered to explain the menu (I didn’t really think it needed an explanation…) and then went into it, taking us page-by-page, going over the deal bundles, the different categories, the most popular orders, in extreme detail.
We had a few drinks while the rest of our party trickled in, orders were taken, and the unlimited garlic house loaf and salad were brought to the table.
The Garlic House Loaf was actually quite yummy- chewy, light, with a slight crunch on the exterior. Also, it was definitely baked in house and was warm with a nice melted garlic butter on top.
The salads were pretty standard: iceberg greens with a few skimpy mix-ins (olives, cherry tomatoes, sliced red onion, croutons) but there was a stand-out with the addition of a couple of pickled, slightly spicy peppers.
When the mains came- the general consensus was a shrugging"meh....it’s okay- I guess."
This is pretty much what I was expecting with a large, Italian-style chain trying to please the general palate and kids, so cranking out pretty bland food and not really taking any flavour risks.
Group dinner highlights:
*My meal actually had a pretty nice flavour! Hell’s Kitchen Chicken: Spicy seasoned chicken with mushrooms, tomatoes, chilli peppers and arrabbiata tomato sauce. Served with freshseasonal vegetables and spaghettini with primavera sauce. 18.99
I think this was a case of good ordering- after reading the description, getting a thumbs up from the server as one of his favourite dishes- it had a "spice indicator" adjacent to the description and I know these chains generally serve up food that is super bland, so I figured this would be a fairly flavourful, healthier (re: lots of veggies and mainly tomato based sauce). I chose well, and this dish did deliver some nice flavour with a rich spice. The chicken itself was pretty rubbery (probably just using standard jumbo-pack of frozen chicken), but the veggies and pasta were cooked quite nicely. The price for this dish is pretty high, even though my meal came with unlimited salad and bread- it is BANANAs that ordering a main at a hip, beautiful, inventive restaurant (Les Faux Bourgeois, Maenam, Glowbal) would make less of a dent on my wallet.
The only other dish that got any kind of thumbs up was one-year old baby Jasper’s chicken strips and fries. His mom, Christine, said they were actually really awesome: great texture, flavour, and size. ESM Chicken Strips come with 5 pieces, fries, and plum sauce for 13.99.
Everyone else felt pretty BLAH about their pasta dishes- even ones that were hyped up as the most popular like the
Seafood Linguine:Shrimps, mussels and sea scallops simmered in tomato-herb sauce with fresh basil (16.99)Scallop Carbonara:Three bacon-wrapped scallop skewers atop linguine with even more scallops, bacon, green onions and Alfredo sauce(17.99).
Those who ordered pizza weren’t fans, even the delicious-looking Roasted Chicken & Bacon Pizza:
Pesto-Alfredo sauce topped with spit-roasted chicken, bacon, green onions, roasted red peppers-just not very tasty.