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They're not chains. They're family owned and operated. Their culinary charms have won the affection of the dining public.

So how does a popular independent restaurant begin to lose its thrill as a special destination? Perhaps it's when its owners start hearing cash registers ringing and decide to they want to hear more.

More independent restaurants lately are taking advantage of the Valley's inexorable growth, cloning their successful operations in all reaches of the county.

Bistro Provence, a topnotch French restaurant at Pinnacle Peak and Pima roads, is opening a second location in Chandler. Blue Adobe Grill is scouting another spot nearby for its tasty New Mexican meals. Arriba Mexican Grill is everywhere lately, expanding its spicy Mexican flair from Phoenix to new shops in Glendale and north Scottsdale. And good lord, how many Barcelonas do we need? The packed-to-the-rafters one in Chandler is frightening enough; now we've got one going into the Scottsdale Airpark. Even Voodoo Daddy's, a cutting-edge Cajun affair in Tempe, has stretched octopus-like arms into the Paradise Valley Mall.

Think it doesn't matter, as long as the money's good? Just look at Tomaso's. Once the culinary darling of Italian food eaters across the Valley, Tomaso's is now so out that its owner is starring in television commercials, imploring diners to experience the "real" Italy right here in Phoenix . . . and in north Scottsdale . . . and in Chandler. The food is the same as it was when lines snaked down the street from Tomaso's original Phoenix location. What's gone, though, is Tomaso (Maggiore) himself, the owner who welcomed each diner with movie-star charisma and the suggestion (even if false) that he was personally preparing each meal in the kitchen. He can't be in three places at one time.

Diners go to Vincent's, not only for his toe-trembling beautiful food, but to see Vincent in action (or at least, to believe he's crafting our salmon quesadilla himself). Put a Vincent's on every corner, and you stomp on the status. It happened with Marco Polo, once a hot spot, now a has-been. Add to that the Bamboo Club and boutique-themes-gone-haywire like P.F. Chang's, Z'Tejas, RA Sushi and Roy's.

If owners of fine restaurants want to expand, they should do it like chef Mark Tarbell, who opened a second eatery called Barmouche near his signature Tarbell's. The restaurants complement each other, rather than offering the same food in a different location. In fact, he's recognizable on the streets between the restaurants as he walks from one to the other dressed in his chef's whites.

Independent owners or no, a restaurant concept copied can crush the cachet that made it so special in the first place.


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