The ink has not even dried on fiscal 2004, and Brinker (NYSE:EAT) has slashed its outlook for 2005. One step forward, one step back. The company, which operates the flagship Chili's restaurant chain, as well as others including Romano's Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, and On the Border, posted a 60% increase in fourth-quarter earnings, but also trimmed full-year 2005 earnings guidance to $2.18 to $2.30 from $2.28 to $2.38.

Brinker's fourth-quarter net income jumped to $64.5 million, or $0.67, from $40.2 million, on sales that rose 16.2% to $1.02 billion. Excluding a $3.9 million charge related to store closings, and an even larger charge from last year's fourth quarter, net earnings rose 27% to $0.71, in line with estimates. Results were aided in part by an extra operating week this year (14 vs. 13).

Same-store sales grew 5.6% at On the Border, 2.5% at Maggiano's, and 1.7% at Chili's, but those at Macaroni Grill fell by 1.7%. Rival Darden (NYSE:DRI) can sympathize with the plight of mixed performance, with a thriving Olive Garden chain that lifted comps 5% last quarter and a Red Lobster that sank 6.4% lower.

Lately, overall same-store sales at multichain companies such as Darden and Brinker have been watered down compared with those that can focus on a single concept, such as Applebee's (NYSE:APPB), at plus 6.3%; Cheesecake Factory (NYSE:CAKE), at plus 4.5%; and Ruby Tuesday (NYSE:RI), at plus 4.6%.

On the positive side, Brinker's fourth-quarter operating margins improved substantially to 9.5%, although they fell for the year to 6.8%. Furthermore, the company has an active stock buyback program in place, picking up 6 million shares in the fourth quarter alone. However, management's pessimistic projections are troubling, and it is hard to get excited about Brinker's prospects until sales at Chili's -- which represent the bulk of the firm's total earnings -- show signs of improvement.

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Fool contributor Nathan Slaughter prefers On the Border's salsa to Chili's. He owns none of the companies mentioned.