Just about everything was breaded and fried, except the lettuce garnish. Zucchini slices, mozzarella sticks and chicken wedges were almost indistinguishable. Crosshatched fries had no discernible potato flavor, and stuffed potato skins seemed mutantly tiny. Cups of marinara sauce and sour cream accompanied the ranch dressing. The main-dish fare pleased the kids a lot more than it appealed to us. My 9-year-old lapped up the kid-menu spaghetti, doused in a bland tomato sauce sprinkled with cheese. Her older sister downed a reasonably juicy bacon burger and thick-cut fries without hesitation.

Our adult dishes, though, had the air of corporate calculation, not culinary inspiration. The chicken milano came looking exactly like its picture on the table-top promo card: three stalks of broccoli, three wedges of tomato, three artichoke hearts, sliced breast of chicken and a pile of noodles topped with slivered olives in a heavy cream sauce. It's a triumph of franchising quality control, not taste.

My wife's barbecue-chicken salad didn't work at all. What looked like the exact same sliced-chicken hunk that appeared in chicken milano, but covered with barbecue sauce, rested on a bunch of lettuce, surrounded by tasteless, grated yellow cheese and warm ranch beans--a bizarre mixture of temperatures, textures and flavors. Desserts were all show, and not worth the dough. Mud pie featured a mountain of inferior vanilla and chocolate ice cream with hot-fudge sauce and a peanut butter topping. The carrot cake was numbingly sweet and oily enough to lube the car.

Red Robin's all concept, no substance, a perfect American metaphor. It will probably make a mint. My advice: Skip the food and buy the stock. Spaghetti Vendors, 402 East Greenway Parkway, Phoenix, 548-8155. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.

The prospect of pasta coaxed the kids out the next evening. We headed to Spaghetti Vendors, a Valley franchise headed by the sons of Mama Celeste, of frozen-pizza fame.

The north Valley branch, tucked away in a cavernous shopping center, is certainly unprepossessing. It's done up in Italian-flag motif: red, white and green. From the parking lot, the bright lighting and blindingly white walls and ceiling give it the look of a storefront operating room. Stacked white lawn chairs don't help. Hanging baskets of artificial red carnations and a few pasta-oriented posters furnish some of the few splashes of color.

Here, you order and pay at the counter in the back. Then you get a number to place on the table, and wait for the server to bring the food.

Parents hoping to encourage balanced nutrition should get the Italian salad, a plenty-for-two bowl of greens, tomato, salami, pepperoni, olives and peperoncini. Put it in front of the kids, as we did. Then, when they refuse to touch it, you can have it all to yourselves.

The kids preferred to fill up on garlic bread, a chewy loaf that had less garlic than Wonder bread and not much more cheese. But the attractions here are the pasta and sauces, made fresh daily at a central kitchen in Scottsdale that serves the Valley chain. Like an old Chinese-restaurant menu, the menu board asks you to choose a pasta from column A--seven varieties, some also available in spinach and whole-wheat forms--and a sauce from column B. There's also filled pasta, like ravioli and manicotti.

And most of it's pretty darned good. Particularly appealing was spinach fettuccine, swimming in a rich pesto sauce dripping with garlic and olive oil. I'd like to find out who supplies the clams that appeared in my daughter's linguini and white clam sauce; they're the tenderest I've had in a while. Too bad there wasn't enough garlic.

Like everything else, the platter of ricotta-and-spinach-stuffed pasta shells contained a man-size portion. It's covered with mozzarella and a nondescript tomato sauce and baked. Nothing fancy, but reasonably priced, tasty enough and substantial.

The huge hunk of lasagna, though, lacked zip. It would fill up a lumberjack, but the ingredients were mushy and flavorless.

For pasta-loving families, Spaghetti Vendors is a good alternative to McFood. And cheer up: School reopens January 4.

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