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Published: Thursday, 1/26/2006

Restaurant review: Champps ***

Champps is part of the Westfield Franklin Park shopping complex. Champps is part of the Westfield Franklin Park shopping complex.

Champps in the Westfield Franklin Park mall is a restaurant that raises a couple of questions right off the bat.

Start with the name: Is the national chain called Champps Americana or Champps Restaurant & Bar? I've seen it both ways. And what's with that extra "p"?

Second, is it a sports bar or a family restaurant? Well, the menu says that the founders decided to build Champps around a simple concept: "Burgers, beer, and sports." And yet, our eager server insisted that the target audience is families; witness the kids' menu, with games, mazes, and cartoon characters just begging to be colored in.

Actually, families and beer-swigging sports nuts can co-exist peacefully at Champps - not to mention mall shoppers and other passersby looking for a drink, a ball game on TV, or a bite to eat.

Oh, yes, the food. It may seem something of an afterthought amid the crayon-wielders and the blare of at least 14 big-screen TVs encircling the dining room and wraparound bar. But a look at the wide-ranging menu tells a different story.

Chain or not, the quality and variety of food is decent, featuring a long list of imaginative appetizers (chicken satay, calamari stir fry among them), dinner salads, steaks, prime rib, seafood, sandwiches, specialties, and desserts.

The owners boast that most of the dishes are prepared

from scratch, which may account for the rather lofty prices. Soup and salads, for instance, are served a la carte rather than included with entrees; a cheeseburger goes for a wallet-squeezing $8.79; a small garden salad is $4.99, and an order of chips and salsa - free at most area Mexican restaurants - costs $5.49.

At lunch one day, a cup of spicy Tuscan tomato soup ($3.49) put a delightful tingle on the tongue, accompanied by a creamy spinach and roasted artichoke appetizer dip ($7.99). It came with tortilla chips and salsa, as did the chicken ranch wrap ($8.79), a tasty combination of chicken strips, pepperjack cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce wrapped in a tomato tortilla.

Enticed by its name and description, we tried the simple grilled fish, a market-price daily special with lemon, butter, and vegetables. This day it was mahi mahi ($14.99), which came out dry. But the tartar sauce, chunky and not sweet, was so good that I'd be tempted to eat a bowl of it sans fish.

A club sandwich with turkey, bacon, ham, and cheeses ($8.99) was thick and filling, but our most satisfying meal was chicken parmesan ($12.99), a heaping portion of terrific crusted chicken breasts, mozzarella, and smoky pomodoro sauce with spaghetti and garlic bread - a feast for two or even three.

Now what about that extra "p" in Champps?

"They never really told us," a server said, adding that it could be there because the name also serves as a mnemonic for the cheeses the restaurant features: Cheddar, American, Monterey Jack, provolone, pepperjack, and Swiss.

Contact Bill of Fare at fare@theblade.com

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