Chain restaurants do not really thrill me. Granted, there are a few rare exceptions. I like Old Chicago, mostly for the 110 beers, but generally, the idea of a homogenized America with an Applebee’s, Chili’s Ruby Tuesday and Olive Garden on every corner, spewing forth calorie-laden dishes developed in a corporate kitchen/laboratory depresses me. Don’t even get me going on fast food. Give me an independent mom-and-pop place any day of the week.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the population seems to favor the idea of every American city (and now European and Russian and Asian) being exactly the same. That way, we can go someplace different, but not have to actually deal with anything different. While we are at the different place, (over)eating our same (supersized) formulaic chain restaurant food, the only differences we’d need to deal with is that the WalMart in this town, which probably sells exactly the same stuff as the other two WalMarts in the area and the four we left at home, may not be a “Supercenter” – no food and not open 24-hours! Oh my, how do people live like this?
On the recent business trip, our host explained that, because it was Sunday night, the mom-and-pop restaurants he prefers were not open. (So much for "any" day of the week ...) Well, that’s one disadvantage to the small family-run places, but I can forgive that – everyone deserves some time off. After a discussion involving five people, three with no preference beyond “some place we don’t have in Clarksville,” Bennigan’s was chosen.
The Guinness glazed bacon cheeseburger won the selection process, becasue it sounded interesting. Just like in Clarksville, (and every other town) the chain restaurant server asked how I wanted my burger cooked, and as always, I replied, “medium rare,” because I hate dry meat. I don't even like fancy white Albacore tuna, because it feels too dry to me. And, like so often happens, the Bennigan's kitchen issued a burger (over)cooked to within one nanosecond of becoming a roofing shingle. Was the question about meat cooking merely a formality? Is it to create the illusion of choice? Or are the cooks there just idiots who don’t understand how to cook? Thank goodness for the moisture provided by the Guinness glaze on the bacon and the mayonnaise on the bun. The fries were anemic and limp.
Before returning home, we had the chance to eat lunch at an independent restaurant at an apple orchard. The place was cozy, had a small but creative menu and an array of fresh pastries. Apple pumpkin soup, anyone? Four of us opted for the chicken salad with dried cherries on flat bread. Someone ordered a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie which four of us then ended up sharing. Yummmm. It about made up for the night before.
On the drive from the airport to Clarksville, I invited my friend who took care of Moose to dinner as thanks. I was considering Tandoor Indian Bistro (an independent place) untiI remembered my favorite sandwich – the Roasted Filet Focaccia at Outback (yes, a chain). I love that sandwich, their take on a French Dip. I crave that sandwich, which is the only reason I go to Outback. Suddenly, it had to be Outback.
We settled in at our table, and I scanned the menu. No longer any such sandwich listed. I read it again. Still didn’t see it. I asked the server, who had, by now, already been to our table four times to see if we’d decided. Nope, it is gone. My favorite sandwich in the city was a casualty of the corporate menu redesign. I could taste my disappointment, which could not be washed away with my ice water with lemon. I told the waitress the only reason we were there was because I wanted that sandwich, and snarky with hunger and dismay, added that there was no reason for me to come here anymore. Yes, it’s true, I sulked like a five-year-old. I was tempted to suggest we just leave, but there was no Plan B, we were already seated. We ordered some new appetizer featuring chicken and artichoke hearts on what was described as a crispy flatbread, but was actually limp, soggy flatbread with edges that were crisp because they weere nearly burned.
After much deliberation, (and staring at the menu hoping if I blinked and refocused, the dream sandwich would magically appear) I chose the Bloomin Onion Burger. The server asked “what color” I wanted it cooked. Is this the Outback slant on the dumbing down of America? I ordered it medium rare. Using words, not colors. I wondered to what extent that would confuse the server. Or the kitchen.
I was settling with the burger. I didn’t want the burger. The memory of the latest beefy disappointment on a bun was still fresh. But I also didn’t want chicken, which violates the rule about ordering things in restaurants that can be made at home. I wasn’t in the mood for seafood. Or any of the salads which, by the menu descriptions, are just expensive, leafy beds for a bunch of chicken, shrimp or steak.
The burger arrived, cooked as ordered (hooray!) and served with limp, anemic fries. What is the deal with fries lately? Overall, it was adequate, in the way that a canister of bread crumbs might be adequate to person craving a nice, fresh baguette. In the end, half the burger came home for Moose and the fries stayed on the plate, prompting a decision to enjoy a less expensive flavor of disappointment and eat at home for a while.