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As fast-food reaches saturation in the U.S., a growth spurt in casual dining is creating a new roster of national brand-name restaurants.

Leader of the pack in this $74 billion industry, up 6%, is General Mills spinoff Darden Restaurants, the $3.1 billion parent of Olive Garden and Red Lobster. The marketer last month gave up on 50-unit China Coast, a five-year-old Chinese dinner house unit, but is plotting to replace it with possibly a Caribbean-themed concept.

Darden can enter new ventures with greater confidence, having halted a sales slide at 715-unit Red Lobster's with a makeover of menu and decor. Olive Garden continues to register solid growth.

Buoyed by double-digit unit growth, varietal menu chains like Chili's, T.G.I. Friday's, and Applebee's Neighborhood Bar & Grill are boosting ad spending considerably. These restaurants were part of the Top 10 that boosted media spending a collective 13.7% to $217.2 million in '94, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

The 505-unit Applebee's this fall breaks its first brand campaign, having previously concentrated on quarterly promotions.

Facing stiff competition from newer, splashier restaurant chains, Denny's Restaurants last year began overhauling its menu and decor and this year recruited former Burger King CEO James Adamson to turn its 1,500 restaurants around.

Denny's last September broke a new campaign themed, "Denny's. Where value hits a grand slam every day," but is considering a review of its $20 million account now at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Greenville, S.C.

The mature steakhouse concepts in the top 10-Ponderosa and Sizzler-don't appear to have benefited from the steak craze driving explosive growth for new chains like Outback Steakhouse.

Sizzler sales slumped 12.8% to $627.2 million last year. Last month it moved its $20 million account to Foote, Cone & Belding, Los Angeles. It continues remodeling some of its 480 units into the Sizzler American Grill format.

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