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No, you're not seeing double. Joeys, the casual fine-dining chain that recently opened its first restaurant in Vancouver, does indeed look and taste an awful lot like Earls. Both companies feature four-letter men's names with an absence of possessive apostrophes, an abundance of stacked rock in their decors, executive chefs with impressive pedigrees (Chris Mills at Joeys, who apprenticed with Earls's Michael Noble) and vaguely trendy yet safely comfortable menus that lean somewhat incongruously toward Asia and the Mediterranean.

It's no wonder they're similar. The two B.C.-based companies (which both opened their first restaurants in Alberta) are owned by the same family. Jeff Fuller operates Joeys, his brother Stan runs Earls (and also owns a substantial share in the Cactus Club chain). Stewart, brother No. 3, owns Saltlik, the casual steakhouse chain that also opened recently in Vancouver. Their father, Leroy Earl, is the patriarch who built the family empire as one of the original A&W franchise owners (which, coincidentally, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year).

Over the years, Joeys has gone through several incarnations. The first restaurant, which opened in Calgary in 1992, was a family-style pizza and pasta joint called Joey Tomato's. Eight years later, as the chain expanded and grew slightly more upscale, the name was changed to Joey Tomato's Mediterranean Grill. Then Mills was hired last year and added more Asian flavours to the menu. As part of its rebranded image, the name is gradually being scaled back to just Joeys.

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The company now has 13 locations in Manitoba, Alberta, B.C. and Washington State. It also owns the U.S. chain Cucina, Cucina. But this new restaurant, on West Broadway between Granville and Oak, is the company's first foray into Vancouver.

Each restaurant, and company within the family, is supposedly custom-designed. But the new Broadway location, with its stacked-rock exterior and swaying palm plants by the entrance, has the same generic genes as it cousins. Much like Saltlik and the new Paramount Earls, the interior is dark and depressing. The carpets are brown, the leather booths are brown, the table tops are speckled brown and the rough-hewn wood back wall is stained brown (with only a scattering of mirrored tiles to lighten things up).

Also like Earls, the Cactus Club, Milestone's, Moxie's and virtually every other "casual fine-dining" chain on the West Coast, Joeys is primarily staffed by attractive young women with well-practised smiles. Earls, in particular, is known for the extensive training it provides to new recruits. Some say these restaurants create an invaluable pool of talent that eventually filters up to finer dining rooms, but I think the corporate training is most successful at draining its employees of personality. Although our server was friendly enough, it felt as if she were speaking to us with well-rehearsed lines lifted straight from a manual.

We started with the Mediterranean Tapas Picnic ($19.99). The huge platter was loaded down with warm pita wedges, garlicky hummus and tzatziki and (not so "crispy") tempura-battered calamari, drizzled with a mysterious, mouth-puckering orange cream sauce. We certainly didn't need the bruschetta that was supposed to be included, so it maybe it's just as well that it never arrived.

Jumbo ravioli stuffed with lobster, crab and ricotta ($16.49) was another extremely large portion, tossed with lots of sweet grape tomatoes. The lemon cream sauce was nice and tart, but the dill seemed to be missing. I couldn't taste it at all.

My favourite dish was the rotisserie chicken and rib combo ($21.99). I wasn't crazy about the half back of ribs (very soft, so obviously boiled, and slathered with a wet and sugary BBQ sauce). The slow-roasted chicken, however, was really well done. It was moist and juicy, with a crispy skin and lots of herbs, served with buttery mashed potatoes and crunchy asparagus.

"It's almost as good as St-Hubert," said my impressed companion, referring to the popular Quebec rotisserie chain.

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"It's a lot better than Swiss Chalet," I agreed, giving it higher marks than the roasted-chicken chain of choice in Ontario.

Of course, Joeys should be much better than those places, which are more comparable to White Spot in terms of price and ambience. Joeys, Earls and their ilk tout themselves as "premium casual restaurants" (sometimes referred to in the trade as casual fine dining). They might have been cheap places to grab a bite once upon a time, but they're not any more. They attempt to cover the middle ground, an increasingly crowded market, especially in Vancouver, where we now have celebrity chefs such as Rob Feenie and Vikram Vij downstreaming their luxury brands with casual bistros.

Casual fine-dining chains have their place. They provide predictable, fairly consistent food in comfortable surroundings that project an aura of pseudo-sophistication without being too intimidating. They're kind of like the Starbucks of dinner. And in smaller rural communities, they're often the best thing going, or at least a safe bet.

Joeys is obviously doing well. According to the company's press release, sales in Canada were $55-million last year (up from $23-million in 1999). And as reported by the Pacific Prairie Restaurant News Magazine, Joeys has the highest average sales per restaurant in Western Canada.

Still, for the same price as a dinner at Joeys, I could buy a much better meal at Bin, Lolita's, Cru, Aurora Bistro, Hapa Izakaya, Cassis and numerous other casual fine-dining independents, where the servers have sass and the rooms have sizzle. Call me radical, but I'd just rather support the struggling independents with heart and passion than line the pockets of an extremely wealthy family that already dominates the market with mediocre food and corporate conformity.

Joeys is located at 3035 West Broadway, 604-737-7062.

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