It's Friday night at The Cheesecake Factory in Huntington Station. The big, upbeat place is packed, and diners wait to be buzzed to the next open table. Some check the spiral-bound, something-for-everyone menus. Many already know what they want to eat before looking.
But what to drink? Choices all over the place.
Navigating a wine list, the Cape Horn of restaurant decisions, often is difficult and pricey. Markups alone could make you a teetotaler. Details about choices: frequently minimal or vague. And you think there are better odds at a Vegas roulette wheel.
In the past few weeks, I've eaten and imbibed at local branches of six national restaurant groups to find the safest passage through the listings and the prices.
In addition to The Cheesecake Factory, the stops included Legal Sea Foods, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Ruby Tuesday and T.G.I. Friday's. On the upside, service was friendly, accommodating and unpretentious at each one.
Looking for a bargain, you may start believing white zinfandel is the only alternative. There are, however, worthwhile choices - and a few surprises.
WINES A distinctive, well-chosen list with about 100 wines, 30 available by the glass. The wines are selected twice a year, following tastings under the direction of Sandy Block, beverage vice president and Master of Wine.
BEST BETS Exclusives to Legal Sea Foods, such as the 2009 Louis Latour "LSF" Cuvee ($8.95; $29), a match for shellfish and simply prepared finfish; and the 2008 DeLoach "1950" Pinot Noir ($11.50; $39), which goes with meatier fish, including salmon and tuna. Also try the 2009 Louis Métaireau Petit Mouton Muscadet ($7.95; $27) with raw-bar fare.
BREWS On-tap beers are led by winners from Samuel Adams, Dogfish Head, Yuengling and Bass.
WINES The list includes 39 bottles, with 31 available by the glass. No vintages are provided on the list.
BEST BETS Reliable choices include Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc ($11.95 a glass; $42 bottle) with shellfish and salads; Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel ($7.95; $30), Ruffino Chianti ($7.50; $28) and Rosemount Shiraz ($7.95; $30) with pizzas and red meat.
WINES 38 wines by the bottle, 35 by the glass, most Italian. Updated one to three times annually by beverage strategy director Jennifer Arguello and manager Dan Saginario. No vintages listed. Headings such as "slightly sweet" and "light and fruity" identify whites; "soft berry flavors" and "robust and rich," reds.
BEST BETS Ironically, the most expensive wine, Bertani Amarone. It's $110 a bottle; retail, $120. Not offered by the glass. More economical and good picks include Gabbiano Chianti Classico ($6.95; $27) with red-sauced dishes; Arancio Nero d'Avola ($6.50; $25) with huskier courses; Sartori Pinot Grigio ($6.95; $27) with lighter dishes.
BREWS In addition to the usuals, there's Peroni, a modest, food-friendly lager from Italy.
WINES 10 wines on the list, all available by the glass. Vintages not listed.
BREWS Led by Samuel Adams Boston Lager on draft.
WINES 26 wines on the list, all available by the glass. They're designated, with some accuracy, by category as "good," "better" and "best."
BEST BETS A "good" one is Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling ($5.99; $20), with trout and tilapia. "Better" are Simi Sauvignon Blanc ($8.99; $30) with salads; and Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel ($7.99; $30) with burgers and steak.
BREWS The $3-to-$4 lager of the day is a sudsy deal, especially if it's Yuengling. Right with any burger.
WINE 14 wines listed, all available by the glass. No vintages listed. The wines are described by fruitiness.
BEST BETS Layer Cake Shiraz ($9.79; $36.49) works with steak; La Crema Chardonnay ($9.79; $33.49), with much of the seafood.
BREWS Blue Moon draft beer recommended with Buffalo shrimp. Notable on-tap brews: Samuel Adams Noble Pils and local Blue Point Toasted Lager.