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The Orlando, Florida-based Darden Restaurants is sniffing around Houston to find a likely spot for a restaurant concept called Bahama Breeze. Darden is the company that brought you Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens by the hundreds, as well as a few (read: failed) China Coasts.

Bahama Breeze has an island theme and falls into the "casual dining" category. They'll dish out $7$14 entrees ranging from Jamaican jerk chicken to paella to coconut shrimp.

Darden has hired a New Jersey telephone polling firm to randomly dial Houstonians at dinnertime to find out (a) if we'll eat Mexican/Caribbean/Cuban/Spanish food (duh!) and (b) how far we're willing to go to get it.

Their statistical whiz kids have narrowed potential Houston sites to three: the Westheimer610 Loop interchange (double duh!), somewhere in Sugar Land, and Willowbrook Mall.

Their initial two test locations in Orlando have done well since the first opened in February '96; a third outlet opened in Memphis this spring, and the group is also considering Miami and Ohio (huh?) for its next sites. When Bahama Breeze does finally open a Houston store, maybe in two to three months, you won't be able to miss it: The 9,000-square-foot eateries are painted in eye-popping tropical colors, sport lots of neon and boast a fire pit in the dining room.

Bottomed Out
Fortunately for Darden, one of their top national competitors has already bowed out of the local eats and entertainment arena: Colorado-based Rock Bottom Brewery closed its only Houston location in February. That leaves only two Texas outposts of the restaurant's ambitious 1995 expansion plans, side by side on Beltline Road in Addison.

Though the company claimed the Houston store was the only unprofitable one the 65 Old Chicago and Rock Bottom locations, they shuttered three more outside of Texas around the same time.

Shark Bite
There was speculation that yet another chain might be circling Rock Bottom's abandoned microbrewery site at 6111 Richmond: the Shark Bar, brought to you by Soulfood Concepts, Inc. The Shark Bar got its start serving "African-American soul and Southern" cuisine in New York City in 1990, and bolstered by mentions on Saturday Night Live and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, went on to expand into Chicago, L.A. and Atlanta.

Soulfood president Brian Hinchcliffe recently scotched that notion, though. He says the company is "still looking" for the right 8,000- to 10,000-square-foot site, and will probably go downtown (surprise!) or to the Galleria area. Watch for the fins late this summer.

-- Margaret L. Briggs

 
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