Cheesecake Factory: The Final Causal Frontier

Guys. Guys. GUYS.






We did it.

After nearly 2 years, we made it to the top of the cheesecake mountain and completed (more or less) our list of casual dining visits. What started out as a classic “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” evolved into a full-blown project and we actually followed through on it. This club had everything: Road trips, pop-up campers, boozy slushies, and diarrhea. Plenty of diarrhea.

It’s not often that a group of adult friends follow through on a long-term hobby, much less one that involves multiple trips to the Mall of America (yeesh). But we stuck with it because of our passion for eating, and for judging. Maybe the real casual encounter was the friends we made along the way? Maybe, if you want to be weird about it. But let’s finish this the way we started, with incisive commentary from almost everyone in the group.*

*Yes, even for this final review, Aaron couldn’t be bothered to submit any comments or ratings. Now that this adventure is over, penalties will be created and enforced.

Food: CF is notorious for its gigantic menu. The menu has advertisments for other things on the menu, for god’s sake. This might be intended to signal abundance and decadence, but it really serves to distract you when you’re trying to stay on track and just pick a goddamn chicken dish out of the hundreds of chicken dishes they offer. Seriously, it’s borderline suspicious how much many menu items involve chicken. Maybe its original name was “The Chicken Factory” but that hit a little too close to home.

Rachel says: As the resident queen of panic-ordering, I knew this encounter had the potential for true disaster. If I didn’t do some preplanning I’d be left ordering a plain hamburger and a lemon slice, or something. So I went to their website and picked out a few possibilities. Then I wrote down those possibilities on a piece of paper. Then I took out that piece of paper during the ordering process at the restaurant and read my order directly from it. I did it, everyone! No panic ordering. All it took was a colossal amount of restraint that no normal adult should need to exercise. I had a kale salad with salmon on it. [Ed. Note: All that for a damn kale salad?] It was very fresh and tasty. I tried to fill up on free bread so I could bring some leftovers home. If the strategy ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 

A few more party platters, erm, single-person entrees.

John says: The menu is enormous! It’s probably the biggest menu for any restaurant I’ve ever been to. For someone like me who gets overwhelmed by the number of choices, it’s difficult. I finally settled on a Cajun chicken dish that came with corn succotash. It was fine. The chicken didn’t seem to be any sort of Cajun thought. So…kind of disappointing. 

Jenna says: That menu, yeesh, it’s just too many options. Overwhelming, and it always seems like they are out of at least 20% of the items. I went with a tomato and mozzarella pasta dish that was fine but unremarkable. That bread though, I’d take that bread home with me for sure. 

Food rating: 

Beverages: Drinks are served in glassware, yet waters are oddly served in plastic mugs that were maybe bought when all those A&W restaurants went out of business.

Rachel says: Since it was a celebration, I treated myself to a delicious Diet Coke. 

John says: Jenna arrived early in order to secure us a spot in line. Cheesecake Factory doesn’t take reservations on Friday nights [Ed. Note: You gotta want it!]. Anyway, I joined her early while waiting for the rest of the group. I had a happy hour priced margarita. It was basic but good. I had some whiskey with dinner which was unremarkable. 

Jenna says: They had a happy hour special on margaritas, and they were well made! Not mix-forward (ahem, Red Lobster). Good wine. 

Beverages rating: 

Ambiance: Far funnier people than our group have dissected the opulent tackiness of The Cheesecake Factory. Suffice it to say, the décor falls into the casual dining category of “reach exceeds grasp.” It’s trying damn hard to be fancy, but if you spend any real time focusing on any of the décor, you start to get really confused and possibly angry.

Rachel says: The ambience is a world of contradictions. There’s marble-style floors and tabletops, yet the drinkware is thick plastic. There’s dim lighting and cloth napkins, yet there’s also commemorative teddy bears and jars of salad dressing for sale. Also, the floor is super slippery! 

John says: This is where Cheesecake Factory really shines. The entire restaurant is dimly lit and well decorated. I mean, its faux columns even look good. And with it being so busy I was impressed with how clean the bathrooms and the rest of the establishment were. 

Jenna says: Of all the casual encounters, CF has by far my favorite decor. It’s like the Bellagio and Venetian hotels in Vegas, so gaudy and over the top and faux fancy that they win you over. Or at least they win me over. I waited in the bar for a bit (of course I waited in the bar) and found it to be a lovely place to enjoy a solo drink. Only complaint was the weirdly slippery floor, which is just a lawsuit waiting to happen. 

Ambiance rating:

Service: The Cheesecake Factory is a cut above, and you’d expect the service to be likewise. But this experience was spotty. Some people in our crew thought it was great, others thought it left something to be desired. One thing is for sure: We did not write down or remember our server’s name. So there you go.

Rachel says: Our server was good. The place was packed and he was clearly trying to go quickly, but he was patient with us and politely chuckled when I showed him the note with my order written on it. He answered our questions (the busiest day of the year is Mother’s Day, in case you were wondering) and asked about refills in a relatively timely fashion, considering the circumstances. 

John says: This one is difficult to rank. It was incredibly busy and so things came out pretty slow. I don’t necessarily fault the server for this. The dizzying array of dishes they have on the menu has to be a challenge for any kitchen/server. But there was a notable look of disgust when we asked for a picture of our table. While I understand it’s busy, try to keep your emotions in check dude. But…this coming from a guy who can barely do that himself as a 36 year old man. 

Jenna says: Was our server’s name Nick? [Ed. Note: Sure, why not.] I’m blanking. Nick was very busy, but very efficient. You’d have to be super patient to work there because that menu is such a beast to go through, so bonus points for Nick’s patience. No bulls**t small talk with Nick but he got the job done. 

Service rating: 

Casualosity: CF might be one of the most ironically named restaurants out there. The word “factory” conjures image of blue-collar efficiency and very few frills. This place is nothing but frills, so it screams out as a special occasion restaurant. If you are between the ages of 15 and 22 and your parents want to take you out for dinner, there is a 90% chance you are choosing this place.

Rachel says: Not very casual. I used to make my mom take me here for dinner when I was in college and I wanted to feel special. There were plenty of casual-looking people dining, but it was clearly Celebration Central for the majority. I saw more than one mylar balloon. 2 cakes.

John says: Not casual. It does feel like a place where one needs to dress up a little. That’s totally fine though. 3 cheesecakes

Jenna says: This is a special occasion restaurant for sure, though I think food prices might be slightly lower than Friday’s. But Aaron definitely would feel out of place wearing his slipper sandals. [Ed. Note: We’ll never know.]  2.5 CC

Casualosity rating:

Dessert/Cheesecake: Well duh, here we are at the restaurant that inspired this very category. It’s a factory for cheesecakes, for chrissakes. We came to play. We smartly decided to order a selection of ‘cakes, divided into categories: Fruit, classic, chocolate, wild card. That meant: Key lime, Original, (the exhaustively named) Adam’s Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple, and coffee.

Choose wisely.

Rachel says: I was riding high after my not-panic-ordered entrée, so I let the rest of the crew take the lead. We were so smart to divide the flavors into categories. I wouldn’t have wanted to eat an entire piece of any of them, so I was glad to have the sharing option. I scoffed at the choice of Original flavor at first, but it really was a smooth and classic cheesecake that tasted great. The peanut butter whatnot flavor was too rich, even for me. 

John says: It’s what they’re known for. Cheesecake Factory didn’t disappoint. We ended up getting 4 pieces of cheesecake to share among six people. This was probably overmurder (I am trying out a new word for overkill). [Ed. Note: Keep trying.] We ordered an original, peanut butter chocolate, key lime, and coffee cheesecakes. I think most people liked the original the most. However, I really enjoyed the peanut butter chocolate. But I was happy with all the delectable tastes exploding in my mouth. [Ed. Note: Remind you of your college years, John?]

Jenna says: This is why we came, right?? And why this whole casual encounter of the food kind was started? They do a really fantastic plain cheesecake. Light and creamy, I’d do curbside to go and just get that cheesecake. I might stir up controversy here, but I could do without all the flavored cheesecakes. Too rich. But the basic bitch one was my favorite of the casual encounters.


After. Just a bite left of each one, because that’s how we roll in Minnesota.

Cheesecake rating: 

Favorite part:

Rachel says: The final stop on our project! We did it! I was relieved that this restaurant wasn’t a total disappointment; that would’ve been quite an upset.

John says: Being able to celebrate actually completing this casual dining journey. Really impressed with the team’s dedication.

Jenna says: Completing our casual dining journey. And getting a decent margarita for once. 

Least favorite part:

Rachel: Having to find some other excuse for hanging out with these people on a regular basis.

John says: Sigh, this being the end. But we have plans for 2018! Just you wait.

Jenna says: The food was just ok. 

Overall rating: 

We still have one more post to go! The group will be sharing some final thoughts, and we will re-rank our picks according to our ratings.

PF Chang’s: Lettuce Wrapper’s Delight

For those of us used to Chinese food being a strip-mall staple, PF Changs comes as something of a revelation. Cloth napkins, craft cocktails, and menu items with descriptions all stand in contrast to whatever greasy takeout spot you frequented in college or on your lunch break from your sad cubicle job. These guys invented lettuce wraps, for crying out loud! That’s class. Even the back history is a cut above: According to their website, a restauranteur met the original restaurant’s owner and “with a handshake, they agreed to share the magic and P.F. Chang’s was born.” So that’s how restaurant babies are made, kids.

And so, with visions of build-your-own appetizers in our heads, we ventured to Southdale Mall yet again for our second-to-last Casual Encounter.

What time is it? Oh yeah, casual o’clock.


Besides the aforementioned lettuce wraps, PF Changs features what it calls “farm to wok” cooking. It goes to show you how even mall Asian restaurants are trying to change with the times and offer a more personal, (theoretically) transparent dining experience. We’d like to see Applebee’s try that. You can really make any kind of cuisine sound more personal and transparent by putting “farm to [cooking/serving vessel].” We had a hard time deciding on what to order, so we got a few different things to share.

Rachel says: Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was suffering from pneumonia. So, my appetite was not what it usually was. But I was still excited to be in the birthplace of lettuce wraps, so I did my best to keep up with the crew. I was disappointed to see that the lettuce of said wraps was iceberg. I would have expected Bibb since this place seemed a little nicer. I also had some egg drop soup, which I know is fake Chinese food but I don’t care. It was tasty.

Jenna says: I was really excited about PF Chang’s. I used to go there in college and thought it was sooooo hip (mostly because Fargo didn’t have one) so I was looking forward to catching up with those lettuce wraps. Very, very good. The lettuce wraps were just as delicious as I remembered them (even with the iceberg lettuce, Rachel, sometimes that’s just what you need). The ginger chicken dish was equally good, but the real standout of the evening was the Mongolian beef. The meat was perfectly seared, crispy but not dry, and the green onions were a perfect addition. Of all the casual dining establishments, PFC’s is the one I’d most likely visit again because of the food.

Stuff of legends and (appetizers).

John says: I think we have a winner for best food so far during our casual dining adventures. We started out with lettuce wraps which were awesome. The group then shared an order of vegetarian fried rice, ginger chicken with broccoli, and Mongolian beef. This may be recency bias but the Mongolian beef dish was the best dish I’ve had since we started. It was damn near perfect. 

Food rating:


PFC’s features a full bar, complete with signature cocktails with snazzy names. We were too late for happy hour, though.

Rachel says: I really enjoyed my tea. It came in my own personal teapot so I could be in control of my destiny. And it was served with a tiny little teacup so I could A) feel like a giant and B) stay busy during the entire meal pouring thimbles of tea for myself. Hours of fun!

Tea-ny cup. Get it???

Jenna says: Not surprisingly, I had best drink of all the casual encounters. (insert joke about how I had two drinks on a school night, the nerve!). [Ed. note: Drink as much as you want, kids are the worst.] A well made Moscow Mule, complete with fresh mint and candied ginger. I docked a point though for lack of copper mug, and fancy cocktail bar prices.

John says: I went ahead and ordered a full pour whiskey which was Woodford reserve. It was good but WAY overpriced.

Beverages rating: 


Rachel says: The server was nice, if a little aloof. We also had random cast of characters bringing us our food so I can’t remember much about him.

Jenna says: It was good but unremarkable. Every time our waiter came by I had an Ann/Egg Arrested Development reaction. “Wait, that’s our waiter? Never met him.” [Ed. note: Him? Is he funny or something?”]

John says: We went ahead and made a reservation just in case holiday shopping crowds (we were at the Southdale PF Changs). I was seated immediately [Ed. note: We were one of about six tables in the whole place, so…] and the rest of the group joined shortly thereafter. Our server was patient, friendly, and not overly attentive. Those are the 3 most important qualities in a server to me. 

Service rating: 


PF Chang’s skews much lower on the casualosity scale than many of the other restaurants on the list. It was, dare we say it, nice? Would a truly casual restaurant feature grandiose horses flanking the entrance, recalling some kind of Qin dynasty burial village? And also cloth napkins?

Behold the plaster grandeur.

Rachel says: Not terribly casual. No stuff on the walls, a menu with flowery descriptions, and dark leather booths. Would work well for a celebration dinner or a 17 year old’s first date. [Ed. note: We assume you mean two 17 year olds dating each other, not you pulling a Roy Moore.]

Jenna says: Although PFC scores high in food & drink for me, perhaps the best of our experience thus far, it scores extremely low in casualosity. I’m still unsure how it can be on the same list as OCB and Golden Corral. We really need to have casual dining brackets or tiers to better organize all the establishments. Get on that, John Ward.

John says: This was a big step up from our previous encounter at Golden Corral. I would say this is the second most “formal” casual dining restaurant we went to after Benihana.

Bringing the casualosity rating back up by checking on the Wild score.

Casualosity rating: 


Whether it was the mall proximity or wanting to give an overall feeling of grandeur, this restaurant had soaring ceilings and a wide open dining room. A distinct lack of crap on the walls added to the vibe. There was a TV in the bar area though, in case things were feeling too sophisticated.

Rachel says: It felt way too open air for me. Or maybe that was the secret pneumonia telling me I should have been under a blanket instead of out at a restaurant. But anyway, no warmth to speak of in the atmosphere.

John says: Nothing particularly memorable about it. Since we were at a mall, it takes away some of the luster. Also, the lighting was kind of odd. Way too dark, like my soul. 

Ambiance rating:


PF Chang’s offered something we’ve seen and adored before in our casual journey: miniature desserts. They offer the best of everything! We all get to try something new, and at least one of them is gross and we all try it and comment on how gross it is. It’s a true bonding experience within a bonding experience.

Minis part 1

Jenna says: Could have been a whole lot better, it seems that dessert is not high on the PFC priority list. 

Rachel says: Good lord I love mini desserts. They always seem so practical, as if I couldn’t easily eat an entire full dessert by myself. The chocolate one was kind of weird, the strawberry cheesecake one had one strawberry involved in the whole thing, but it was good. An uneven experience, to be sure. 

More minis. The spoons, while thematically appropriate, weren’t the best tool for the tiny job.

John says: Ah, yes PF Changs shines again. We got 4 mini-desserts to share which were tasty. The cheesecake mini dessert was a hit. Not as good as the OCB cheesecake but pretty close.

Dessert rating: 

Favorite part:

Rachel says: The nonstop action of pouring my tea in order to get enough to drink.

Jenna says: The food!

John says: The Mongolian beef. It was so good.

Least favorite part:

Rachel says: Being sick.

Jenna says: Expensive.

John says: This being almost our last casual dining encounter.

Overall rating: 

This Title Will Not Make a Pun About the OK Corral

This is the second time we’ve danced this dance: Heading to a giant buffet that harbors no hope for excellence, and only a 50/50 shot at solid mediocrity. Perhaps the most lucid assessment of Golden Corral comes from Benji Madden (of Good Charlotte fame, aka Mr. Cameron Diaz), who worked at one back in the day and reportedly said that it was “literally a golden corral for fat people.” To take it in a different direction, the list that inspired this journey ranked Golden Corral at the very bottom of their list, below “getting hit by a car.” So there’s that.

Overall, the concept of Golden Corral is like that of any modern-day buffet chain in that there is the appearance of quality, but that’s about it. The presentation, variety, and layout of the restaurant and the food all promise an abundance of deliciousness and soul-warmth (a thing we just made up, but you get it). But, like Cher Horowitz once bravely opined, up close you just get a big ol’ mess.


Golden Corral relies on your memories of eating food at other restaurants to get you to eat its food. “Gee, as a general policy, I like prime rib/apple crisp/fried okra,” you think, so you pile on the prime rib/apple crisp/fried okra. Then that memory, the one that guided you towards the food in the first place, comes back to haunt you as you dig in. “Well, I guess I don’t like this prime rib/apple crisp/fried okra…” you say as you trail off and think of happier times.

Rachel says: I approached this with trepidation, because we’d all been burned at OCB, and because I was trying a diet thing with my husband where were avoiding meat and dairy. [Ed. note: *Rolls eyes*] That cuts down on a lot of choices at a place like this. I was able to pile my plate high with salad  and about a jamillion deviled eggs. John even heard me exclaim as I happened upon the deviled eggs, but only to myself, like a crazy person. I’m not proud, but I’m also not sorry. That was the highlight. The rest of the food, even the stuff that should have been hard to ruin (like sweet potato casserole) was lackluster.

Eat the rainbow.

John says: Ah, the lowest ranked restaurant on our list. We had to travel all the way to Maple Grove for this casual encounter. And that sucks. Fine, whatever. Food wasn’t shockingly bad, just mostly bad. There were a couple of highlights. The french fries were good as well as the sliced turkey. There were low lights as well. The salad bar was pretty weak and the hash brown casserole thing was pretty terrible.

[Ed. note: As an aside, John asked us to include this with his review:

Minnesota Maple cities, ranked:
1. Maplewood
2. Mapleton
3. Maple Lake
4. Maple Plain
5. Mapleview
6. Maple Grove ]

Aaron’s brisket review.

Jenna says: John and I were the first to arrive and we decided to have a fruit course to start our meal. John’s description of the pineapple was “it wasn’t the worst but it was pretty bad”. This basically sums up my experience getting hit by a car/eating at Golden Corral. I had little tastes of lots of things, and they ranged from truly terrible (hashbrowns, green bean casserole) to cold (bourbon street chicken) to dry and nearly inedible (brisket). The nachos were the best thing I ate – once you got over the electric orange color of the cheese, they were okay. But overall, nothing pleasantly surprised me.

Food rating: 


Like OCB, GC forces you to pay extra if you want a soft drink or coffee with your meal. No booze, much to Jenna’s chagrin.

Rachel says: I think it’s bogus that they charge extra for a soda. But I had the forethought to sign up for GC’s official mailing list, the incentive of which was a free soda with buffet purchase. It’s called beating them at their own game, kids. Anyway, I had a diet cola, I can’t even remember if it was Coke or Pepsi.

John says: Not as exciting as the options at Old Country Buffet [Ed. note: Hellooooo Icee machine!] but fine nonetheless. I had to pay extra to have a non-water drink. Meh. I had several glasses of chocolate milk and it was tasty!

Jenna says: There was no booze, so I didn’t drink anything, obviously.

Beverages rating:


We saw someone pile their plate high with just slices of tomato.  Any place that allows for that much control over your plate is going to tip the scales in favor of casual.

Rachel says: Less casual than expected. Still very casual though! No one in sweatpants that I could see, although it’s possible I just missed it.

John says: This was all over the map. People were dressed up and in shorts. Jeez Louise. However, it doesn’t beat OCB in terms of absolute casualosity.

Jenna says: HIGH levels of casualosity. Could definitely get by with wearing PJs there. Although it still cost $14, which seems a bit high. You can totally get dinner + soup/salad bar at the Fryn’ Pan for $11. Just sayin’. 

Casualosity rating:


Rachel says: There were two notable things about the ambience. 1) The folksy names for the different food stations. The salad bar was called “The Greenhouse” and a random assortment of hot foods (tacos, pizza, bread rolls) was dubbed “The Sizzlin’ Skillet.” I seem to recall the exact same concept rolled out at OCB. Maybe there’s one buffet decoration consulting firm and they just show everyone the same PowerPoint. I dunno. 2) GC had recipes on the walls for food they were serving at the restaurant. It was as if they were daring you to make it better (which you probably could). I neither liked or disliked either of these things; they were just weird.

Not so much Flavortown as Flavor Cul-de-Sac.

John says: Fairly standard and boring. There was nothing that stood out. At least have some cool shit on the walls, GC.

Jenna says: If you really loved the Bourbon Street chicken (Aaron Smith), you are in luck! The recipe, along with a few other GC favorites, is used to decorate the walls! Also, the bathroom was in super rough shape.

Ambience rating:


Not much in the way of service here, being that it’s a buffet, duh.

Rachel says: The cashier at the front was efficient and polite but not friendly. The people coming around to clear plates did so with just the right frequency.

John says: The cashier looked like she would rather be in a prison in North Korea [Ed. note: Yeesh!] than working at Golden Corral. But our busboy who cleared our dishes was very nice.

Jenna says: Quick to clear plates, and they absolutely made sure you paid, unlike our buffet experience at OCB. There was NO way I was getting in without paying this time.

Service rating:


The crew had our pick of dessert options, most notably the Chocolate Wonderfall, a chocolate fountain where you and dozens of fellow diners are invited to drench different smaller sweet things in a cascade of chocolate-esque liquid. If it sounds like a public health nightmare, that’s because it is. But it’s a fountain!

Rachel says: I tried a few of the desserts. They were all portioned pretty small, which is both clever and fortunate because most of them weren’t worth it. I had a little brownie, a cinnamon roll (because why not) and some cake I think? I also did have several strawberries and Rice Krispie treats dipped in the chocolate fountain. I know what’s in that chocolate, and I know why it’s a health hazard, and I did it anyway. YOLO, right? [Ed. note: No one says that anymore, FYI.] They were good. And I didn’t get sick.

John says: GC actually kind of shines here. They have many different options for the discerning palate. Included is a chocolate fountain that you can dip fruit into. I didn’t do that. I am not getting sick just to satisfy our rabid readers. [Ed. note: Unlike Rachel. Gross.] I went ahead and had a piece of New York style cheesecake and a piece of angel food cake. The cheesecake was fine but nowhere near the standards of an OCB cheesecake.

Jenna says: The carrot cake was decent. I was super excited about the chocolate fountain situation, until my friends ruined it for me by calling it an e. coli fountain. THANKS FOR RUINING EVERY CHOCOLATE FOUNTAIN FOR ME. [Ed. note: Sorry not sorry.] I waited forever for a fresh piece of cheesecake, but it never happened.

Dessert rating: 

Favorite part:

John says: The chocolate milk, I guess?

Rachel says: John catching me getting excited about deviled eggs.

Jenna says: ??????

Least favorite part:

John says: Paying nearly $19 to eat there. That’s insane…

Rachel says: Driving almost 40 minutes each way for blah food.

Jenna says: The brisket, looked so good, but I nearly broke a tooth. 

Overall rating: 

CE at D&B’s

As we enter into the home stretch of this crazy project, we found ourselves picking up a restaurant from the middle of the list (#17 to be precise), Dave and Buster’s.

One thing you’ll notice as you make your way through a dining experience at Dave and Buster’s is that it’s essentially a theme restaurant, and the theme is “fun.” Their stock ticker is PLAY, for god’s sake! And it is fun, if this is the kind of thing you think is fun. (How’s that for logical reasoning?) Mssrs. Dave and Buster want you to forget your cares by coming up to the third level of Southdale Mall and entering into a perpetual twilight of blinking lights, finger food, and the chance of winning a fistful of (digital) tickets you can exchange for random crap you’ll give to your niece the next time you see her. It’s like a Chuck E. Cheese but for adults, and with slightly less chance of getting pink eye.

The adventure begins.

Regular fun is for losers. Epic fun is where its at.

Somewhat related note: Out of the four remaining Casual Encounters, three of them are located at Southdale, a location that has seen the rise (Cheesecake Factory) and fall (California Pizza Kitchen) of many a casual dining restaurant. It was also the first enclosed shopping mall in America. Don’t say we never taught you anything.


In keeping with D&B’s focus on indulgence and fun, the menu featured a wide variety of fried, cheesy, meaty, carby options. There’s a sandwich filled with short ribs and mac and cheese. There’s something called the Caveman Combo, which is ribs and cheeseburger sliders served in a bucket. Seriously, a lot of this food sounds like a dare.

Jenna says: A common theme that’s come up as we’ve made our way through Casual Encounters is a strange desire that I often have to order salmon. Strange because  fish doesn’t seem to be the bread and butter of these chain, casual dining establishments, except for Red Lobster, of course. It’s like I want to torture myself emotionally (which sounds like something I’d do, yes editor?). [Ed. note: Don’t bait us into commenting.] Will the salmon make me regret all my life choices?  [Ed. note: We don’t think the salmon was the only thing standing in the way of that…(See, we got this)] Fortunately, D&B’s salmon was very, very good. Had a nice char, well-season, buttery and fresh. The sautéed spinach was a bit oily and the rice was rice, but overall very good.

Jenna’s surprisingly tasty healthy entree

John says: Well, this was an adventure for me. My wife and I are doing the Whole30 diet. [Ed. Note: What a chump.] What does that entail? No grains, no gluten, no dairy, no booze, and no added sugars. So it’s difficult when ordering out. After a good amount of searching, I ended up getting a plain steak. It came with loaded potatoes which I had to substitute with the seasonal veggies. The potatoes still came out and I was tempted. But I asked for the veggies nonetheless. But the veggies ended up being 6 pieces of broccoli. Lame.

Rachel says: Valiantly trying to break my streak of panic-ordering every damn place we go, I had it narrowed down to two choices. I was trying to decide between the steak salad and something called the Bang Bang Chicken with Spicy Thai Peanut Noodles. I told our server about my conundrum and he enthusiastically recommended the chicken thing. Was it chicken nuggets on top of pasta? Yes. Delicious? Also yes.

Rachel’s unsurprisingly tasty unhealthy entree.

Food rating: 


We kept things really tame this time around. Aaron might have had a beer, but he didn’t submit his review, so that fact is lost to the sands of time.

John says: Again because of the diet, options were limited. I had water. It was cold.

Rachel says: I had water because they carry Pepsi. Boo.

Beverages rating: 


In keeping with the general trend of our encounters, we had great service. You’d expect any staff to be at least a bit cranky when their work environment is filled with neon and arcade sounds, not to mention suffering from the carpel tunnel that results from carrying buckets of appetizers around. But nope: it was fast, friendly service yet again. And plenty of it; We counted no fewer than three people behind the bar (on a random Wednesday), plus two people at the host stand, plus plenty of other servers. Impressive.

Jenna says: Kellis was fantastic. Good banter from the start. Made smart food recommendations (hello, salmon). Quite the salesman, too. He convinced Rachel and I to spend $10 extra on game cards, even though I knew full well that I’d spend not even half of it. Also encouraged my friends to order booze so I wouldn’t drink alone. [Ed. Note: Doing God’s, or maybe the Devil’s, work.]

John says: Our server was great overall. Only mixup was the veggie thing which wasn’t a big deal. He was attentive, friendly, and had suggestions about the games/food. He even shook all of our hands at the end. I’d say this was the second best server experience behind Earth at Rainforest Cafe.

Rachel says: Our server started out seeming kind of quiet and aloof. But after we got going on our orders, his personality blossomed and he was great. He helped me through my quasi-panic order, cracked some jokes, and was efficient in getting food and drink to us.

Service rating: 


The ambience at Dave & Buster’s has something for all five senses. And that something is “overload.” Thankfully, the eating area is separate from the gaming area, so you don’t have to worry about making yourself heard over the World’s Biggest Pac-Man game. There isn’t really crap on the walls, because there really isn’t any open wall space. Not that you’d notice.

Jenna says: It smelled like a dusty closet that was trying to be covered up with a vanilla air freshener. There were lights bright enough to need warnings for those with epilepsy. I’ve never been big on video games or arcades. Not my jam.

For it not being her jam, lots of jamming going on here.

John says: Lots of TVs playing tons of different sports. It had game 7 of the World Series, car racing, volleyball, basketball, college football, and Russian Roulette. One of those is fake. [Ed. note: Everyone knows that Russian Roulette is only on ESPN 8] The games were all over the map as well. There were skill games, racing games, shooting games, and so much more. I really enjoyed shooting hoops and skee-ball!

Rachel says: I love Skee-ball. I will throw down any place, any time. Based on that factor alone, this place is great. I will say that it was kind of loud and a bit too bright over by the dining area. Then, in the gaming area, the lights are turned down just low enough where it makes it hard for you to find your friends. All of that gives the place an overall feeling of disorientation. Maybe based on the same principles as casinos? No visible exit, no clocks, etc. But…skee-ball! And four-person air hockey was really fun.

Ambience rating: 


It’s a restaurant inside an arcade. You’d think it would be simple to gauge its casualosity level, but our team had some issues in that respect.

Jenna says: Very casual. I was honestly expecting it to be a little classier. I had no basis for that expectation, but still.

John says: I’d say that of all the places we’ve been this is the most difficult one to judge. All the games make it seem casual but it’s also incredibly distracting and hard to hear. But it seemed pretty laid back overall which I liked.

Rachel says: It’s an arcade, in a mall, and they have more than one menu item served in a bucket. The presence of cloth napkins brings it down a tad, but not much.

Casualosity rating: 


Jenna says: No cheesecake, which I found surprising considering they had a bananas foster on the menu. Chocolate cake was good in the moment, but in retrospect I’m second guessing it.

John says: I couldn’t have dessert because of the diet. So N/A.

Putting a brave face on a bummer of a situation.

Rachel says: For some reason, the crew put the onus of ordering dessert (whether to order, what to order) on me. [Ed. note: You rose to the challenge of ordering dessert? What a surprise…] Even though there was no cheesecake available, I took one for the team and bought the table a piece of chocolate layer cake. It was pretty good, as chocolate layer cakes tend to be, but nothing special. I kind of wanted to order their brookie (that is, brownie+cookie) sundae tower, but that would have somehow been trying too hard and not trying hard enough.

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

Jenna says: One casual encounter closer to Cheesecake Factory.

John says: Playing four way air hockey. It had three discs! It was really hard. I was the first to go out.

Rachel says: The games! Air hockey was super fun, and I didn’t go out first! Also, skee-ball. I’ll play skee-ball until my wrist falls off.

Four-person air hockey ftw

Least favorite part:

Jenna says: One casual encounter closer to being hit by a car.

John says: Not being able to order what I wanted. But that’s more my problem, I guess. [Ed. Note: Yeah, don’t drag D&B’s into this.]

Rachel says: Getting conned into buying the Eat and Play combo, which gave me more game credits than I ever could have used in the time I had. Maybe I’ll come back and use the rest up while we’re waiting for a table at Cheesecake Factory.


Overall rating: 



Cracker Barrel: Love’s Leftover’s Lost

Some things just scream America. Bald eagles. Baseball. Exceptionalism, even in the face of a global economic shift we’re only beginning to understand. And “home cookin’.” Cracker Barrel is doing its patriotic duty by providing diners with the best home cookin’ that we, in fact, rarely eat in our actual homes. Combine that with the all-American concept of buying unnecessary tchotchkes and you’ve got yourself a Casual Encounter that would make Uncle Sam Proud.

We ventured to the southern tip of the Twin Cities, Lakeville, to visit the only Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in the state.

Don’t mind if we do.


The Cracker Barrel menu is full of trademarked breakfast items with folksy names. Most of them are just classic combinations of breakfast foods (potato+eggs+meat) but there were a few Southern-fried curveballs thrown in.

John says: In a delightful twist, the gang decided to head to the Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Because duh, that’s what CB is known for. I ordered Grandpa’s Country Fried Breakfast. It came with eggs, hashbrown casserole, and a choice of country fried steak or chicken fried chicken. I went with the chicken. It was all tasty. Plus it came with “all the fixins”! That included biscuits and gravy. All very good. It was so much food that I had them box it up. Then I forgot it in Rachel’s car after we went apple picking (yeah, cliches!). Then her husband Sean ate them. Conspiracy.

Aaron says: I also got the Grandpa’s Country Fried Breakfast, but went with the country fried steak instead of chicken,  John and I swapped a bit of each other’s meat [Ed. Note: LOL YEAH YOU DID], and upon comparison, I preferred the chicken.  There was A LOT of food.  I think the hash brown casserole was the clear winner in the fixin’ category. I ate enough to avoid the leftover-gate conspiracy, but might have had more room for apples at the orchard had I not eaten so much beforehand.

At Cracker Barrel, you get your own personal syrups, just like Mom used to make.

Jenna says: My previous experience at Cracker Barrel had been unmemorable outside of the fact that it was the first time I’d ate black eye peas (trying to come up with a good Fergie joke, but I got nothing). I went basic bitch brunch – eggs, biscuits, grits, bacon. Nothing fancy, but very decent and the perfect amount of food. I didn’t have anything leftover to leave in Rachel’s car for Sean to forget to bring to trivia [Ed. Note: Great strategy.].

Rachel says: I’m a total sucker for anything pumpkin spice, and one of their specials was pumpkin spice pancakes so I was all over it. And Cracker Barrel does it right; all too often at restaurants, there are no accoutrements with pancakes or French toast. Everywhere I go for breakfast, I basically want a Tremendous 12. This place knocked it out of the park by giving me my pancakes, plus hash browns and eggs and I got to mooch one of the gang’s biscuits. I want to apologize on behalf of my husband for forgetting to bring John’s leftovers. I’m sure he deeply regretted getting to eat them later that night.


Food rating: 


No booze. Sorry Jenna.

Aaron says: Bonus point for decent coffee, one demerit for little creamer cups.

John says: I had water. It was liquid.

Jenna says: As the resident booze lover, I was disappointed (obviously) to not be able to enjoy a Bloody Mary with my brunch.

Rachel says: I ordered decaf coffee because I’d already had two cups of regular at home. The decaf was watery, as decaf tends to be. Maybe my own fault, but I was a bit disappointed.

Beverages rating: 


The words “country store” are right in the title of the establishment, so you know we walked in expected some real classic crap-on-the-walls decor. Not only did Cracker Barrel deliver on that front; you could bring much of the crap home to decorate your own walls.

Poor John, he has no idea the fate that awaits those leftovers.

Aaron says: Off the charts.  I’ve been waiting for this place because I love shit on the walls.  Figuratively, not literally.

John says: Cracker Barrel tries to go for the laid country store/home vibe. And they succeed. Lots of knick knacks on the wall that remind you of farming in the 1800s. The entrance brings you into a “country store” where you can buy all sorts of random gifts/souvenirs/plastic crap. We looked around for a while but no one bought anything. 4 cheesecakes

Rachel says: Between the chairs, the food, the crap on the walls, and the gift shop, this place is like a low-grade Disneyworld where we’re all in the Missouri Pavilion.

Jenna says: Lots of random metal shit on the walls for that country store vibe. Side note, in looking at the CB website I learned the company is apparently in the music business and has partnered with country singer Chris Young to create a several part docu-series that ” touches on how Cracker Barrel has continued to be his home-away-from-home along the journey.”  Chris Young, that’s bull shit. You don’t eat at CBs while touring. And YES I DID watch one episode. It was Chris playing in Nashville on the fourth of July. How American. Seems like a stretch marketing-wise, but I still devoted 10 minutes of my life that I will never get back to it, so well done CB, well done. [Ed. Note: Wow, that really took a turn, there.]

Ambiance rating: 


Rachel says: Our server was all business. On the negative side, that meant very little small talk. On the plus side, she was efficient and attentive. I would’ve liked a little more calling us “hon,” to be honest.

Aaron says: Service was serviceable.  The server was friendly and got things mostly right.  Warmed up the coffee few times as we were chatting.  The checks came earlier than expected, probably in an effort to get us to vacate our table.

Jenna says: Unremarkable, but got the job done. No banter.

John says: It was pretty crowded but not after church crowded. We (meaning I because I am early to everything), were seated almost immediately. Our server was pleasant and attentive. She even cracked a couple of jokes [Ed. Note: Only for John, apparently, because no one else remembers that.].

Service rating:


Aaron says: Chintzy NFL-print ties for everybody! Well, just the manager, but still.

John says: I think we’ve reached peak causalosity. People were laid back (probably because it was 10 in the morning) and wearing whatever. Lots of Vikings gear.

Jenna says: Definitely a post-church crowd. Aaron Smith even dressed up a little.

Rachel: The rocking chairs in the waiting area were the first indicator that this place is really, really casual. Country folk like to keep it relaxed. 

Casualosity rating:


Since we were there for breakfast, we didn’t have dessert. But we did go to an apple orchard afterwards, because why not? And the sweet apples of a Minnesota autumn are nature’s dessert.

John says: Since we did breakfast and were insanely full after eating, we skipped ordering a dessert. But I ate an apple at the apple orchard! It was sweet and juicy. 

Aaron says: Fresh picked apples from the apple orchard.

Jenna: We failed at dessert on this casual encounter. I’d like to go back to try their pies. (Kidding, I’m not going back to a Cracker Barrel.)

Rachel: My entrée was also kind of a dessert, which is how I like it.

Dessert rating: N/A

Favorite part:

John: The sheer amount of food one gets.

Aaron: Hash brown casserole (can we call it hot dish here?)

Jenna: This was our one and only breakfast spot! Also, it was surprisingly easy to convince everyone to go apple picking with me/take pictures of Sadie in barrels post-breakfast. 

Ah, memories.

Rachel: How pleasantly surprised I was at the deliciousness of the food, and how we all got to make a memory by going to the orchard afterwards.

Least favorite part:

John: The sheer amount of food one gets.

Aaron: Christmas in October in the country store.  I’m not ready for that. 

Jenna: That goddamn store was obnoxious. 

Rachel: Some sales associate waving a light-up wand thing in my baby’s face while I was paying at the register. Leave her out of this.

Overall rating: 

Next up: Games and casual dining collide at Dave & Buster’s!

Arrivederci Roma’s

This casual encounter was a landmark for us, because it meant the very last time we’d have to go to the Mall of America during this adventure. Our long national nightmare was finally over!

It’s also notable because nary a week had passed since this Encounter when this Tony Roma’s location announced its closing. We got in just under the wire to experience its true mediocrity. Looking back during our review process, were the signs of its imminent demise there? It’s hard to say. But they weren’t not there. If that makes any sense.

You’ll see some of this hindsight in our commentary, though we probably would have said equally disparaging things even if this place were to stay open until the End Times.


Tony Roma’s is known for ribs and other grilled meats. On the menu we found plenty of standard fare (including a chicken sandwich for Aaron, hallelujah). Their signature appetizer is something called an onion loaf, which is like a Bloomin’ Onion but with a f***ing terrible name.

2 sides? I’ll have the rice and the gravy, please.

Rachel says: Tony Roma’s has the distinction of being the first place where I ever ate ribs. A big moment for a Jew from a kosher home. It was only fitting that I have ribs again, although I tried to cut costs by sharing a combo platter with Jenna. The ribs were good. Not saucy enough. The steak was pretty good. One of them was cooked medium rare, the other was medium well. I’m mystified as to how that happened, since I bet they were cooked right next to each other. Anyways. My side salad was extremely subpar; not even a cherry tomato to justify the 5ish bucks I spent on it.

Not pictured: Value. What a goddamn travesty.

Jenna says: I rarely order ribs out, but I figured if they were “legendary”, I should probably give them a try.  Rachel and I split the filet/ribs combo. If I were to rate solely on the ribs, I’d say 4 cheesecakes. Pretty solid, could have ate more. However the filet was super mediocre and the sides were a snooze fest.

Aaron says: Chicken sandwich, obviously (Chicken Caprese Panini to be exact). Although their panini press was broken, they still made it presentable on the griddle. Good flavor with chicken that wasn’t too dried out and fresh-ish basil/pesto/mozzarella. Best casual chicken sandwich I’ve had at one of these deals.

Behold, a decent (albeit un-pressed) chicken sandwich.

John says: After much consternation and Aaron swiping my idea of ordering the chicken caprese panini, I went with the vegetable linguine. It was good! Perfect amount of vegetables to coincide with the pasta.

John’s pasta is at least one thumb up.

Food rating: 


Apparently their signature drink is a Romarita. Just think: This was one place where it would have been actually appropriate for Jenna to get a margarita, and she didn’t. AND NOW THAT OPPORTUNITY IS GONE FOREVER.

Rachel says: I had a Diet Coke. At least I think I did.

Aaron says: My first water seemed to be tainted with Jenna germs, but then I realized it was Jenna’s water.  Didn’t seem to catch anything from her, whew! [Ed. note: Watch out for that incubation period, dude.]

Jenna says: Pretty standard fare.

John says: I ordered my usual whiskey ginger ale. It was perfectly fine. The water tasted like motor oil though. [Ed. note: At least it didn’t taste like Jenna germs.]

Beverages rating:   


This place gave off the vibe that it used to be a “nice” restaurant, and it relied on peoples’ memory of that rather than actually trying to keep up with that charade. There was some fake greenery, some fake leather booths, along with fake leather menus. Was there crap on the walls? Not nearly enough.

Rachel says: I’m sure everyone who walks in, even people who’ve never been there before, says “Hm, I thought this place used to be fancier.” The brick walls were made out of plastic and there was fake greenery as the only pop of color. To top it off, there was no smell of ribs cooking, even though the place is known for ribs. That was kind of weird. I like to dine with all five senses.

Jenna says: Yeesh. Like faux brick with weird plants. No updates, no remodeling done in probably 20 years. WEAK! Plus it’s the MOA. Or maybe they just didn’t give a sh*! about appearance because they were a week away from closing. (Although bonus 0.5 points for convenient parking at the damn MOA!)

John says: Perfectly bland. Nothing memorable at all. We learned that the brick on the pillar was plastic. And we were at the Mall of America. Again. Sigh.

Aaron: I like to see more junk stuck to the walls (here we come Cracker Barrel!).  Tired carpet, wood paneling on the walls, sort of quaint street light lamps.

Ambience rating:  


Again, with a “nicer” restaurant, we were expecting some above-average service. No such luck. What was most impressive about our server is that no one seems to truly remember him. Maybe this guy knew what was about to befall his employer and decided to be as average as possible.

Aaron says: The server was attentive, but didn’t seem to care much about anything, or that he just wanted to get out of there.  No complaints on the service.  On the way out the door, they were already closing the gate across the entrance, and the two people that were standing at the gate seemed to be bothered that we’d have the audacity to try to leave the restaurant. [Ed. note: Maybe they were hoping you’d stay and spend enough money to save the restaurant.]

Rachel says: Our server was nice and adequately attentive. I don’t remember much about him except for that he had some tattoos.

Jenna says: Apparently the service was not that memorable, because I can’t recall the dude’s name!

John says: We had a male server. I don’t remember his name. He was attentive but no overly so. All I could think about is that the best server ever, Earth, was probably working at the Rainforest Cafe at the same time. She was great. [Ed. Note: Apples and oranges, John. Apples and oranges.]

Service rating  


Despite being a place that at some point was fancy, this ranked pretty high in casualosity for our group. It seemed like a higher-priced Applebee’s but with fewer TVs. Being at the mall? Casual. High prices? Not casual. Steak and ribs? Not casual. Aaron’s flip flops? Very casual. Contradictions on all sides.

Aaron: I have a feeling that since it was as the MOA, pretty much anything goes, including velvet flip flops and inappropriate t-shirts….[Ed. Note: Yeah, eating at a mall is like eating at an airport, no one’s going to look twice at your sloppiness.]

John says: Casual AF. I felt like it was a robe-wearing place.

Rachel says: On the surface it looked pretty low on the casualosity scale. The menus were even that fake dark leather, for god’s sake. But it quickly became apparent that things were pretty darn casual. Aaron felt comfortable wearing his velvet flip flops, and I felt comfortable being seen with him in those flip flops. Not to mention the fact that our server had lots of tattoos. More tattoos=less casual. Also, I’m 90 years old according to that last comment.

Jenna says: Super casual. I’m pretty sure everyone was wearing velour flip flops and inappropriate t-shirts like Aaron Smith.

Casualosity rating   


At first it looked like our cheesecake dreams were dashed because the menu only listed a handful of desserts, none of which fit the bill and all of which contained cinnamon (sorry Aaron). But then God shined down on us in the form of a table tent advertising their special dessert, a chocolate and caramel cheesecakes with chunks of ganache both in and on it. And it was pretty good too! Hallelujah!

Rachel says: I had high hopes for this one, mostly because it featured the word “ganache.” I love me some ganache. This one fell a bit short for me, though. I thought there could have been better distribution of the chocolate chunks throughout the slice. But it was still good.

Pictured: Textural delights

Jenna says: Unexpectedly bold and texturally delightful! Wasn’t that someone’s nickname in college??

Aaron says: Looked super tasty! It had “Luscious Layers” and “Textural Delights” (which was one of John’s many nicknames in college).

John says: Cheesecake with chocolate bits in it It was a pleasant surprise. The little sign on the table that advertised it said it was full of textural delights. Textural Delights (believe it or not) was my nickname in college.

Dessert rating  

Let’s all raise a toast to the Mall of America. Home of some of the highs (Rainforest Cafe service) and lows (Hard Rock Cafe everything) of this adventure.

Overall rating  

Next up: Cracker Barrel!

Benihana and the Jets

Before we start this post, some happy news: We tracked down the author of the original “casual dining restaurants, ranked” post and let him know that we had embarked on our adventure to re-rank them ourselves. To our surprise and delight, he actually responded! In fact, he said he was “truly honored” by our endeavor. This guy is now a David Carr Fellow at the New York Times, yet his enduring legacy, to us, is casual dining. Whether he thinks we’re funny or total weirdos, we’ll never know.

And now, to the review…

This encounter was a big ‘un. Benihana was ranked #1 by the originators of this list, and expectations were high. Benihana is for special occasions: Birthdays, bachelor parties, good grades, successful parole hearings…you name it. What were we celebrating? The ongoing nature of this blog, of course (and also Rachel’s baby and Aaron’s temp job becoming permanent full-time, but mostly the blog). The celebration-centric ethos of the restaurant didn’t make for high casualosity, but more on that later.

The team ventured out to the location in Golden Valley, a suburb notable for being close to the highly-regarded St Louis Park. It was either that or the Mall of America location, and you can guess how well the latter suggestion went over.

Food: There’s a sushi bar and an alcohol bar at Benihana, but everyone truly comes for the teppanyaki aka a chef cooking your food in front of you at a communal table. Benihana is unique among casual dining establishments because the food is also the entertainment. There’s an onion ring volcano. There’s fried rice shaped like a heart, there are shrimp being throw around…It’s a treat for the eyes and the mouth.

Go ahead, try this at home. We dare you.*
*We are not liable for any damage if you take us up on this dare.

Each menu choice at the teppanyaki area comes with multiple courses: Soup, salad, grilled vegetables, your protein served with two dipping sauces, green tea, and ice cream. There are lots of protein tiers ranging from basic chicken to lobster and steak, depending on how flush you feel or how much you want to impress your prom date.

John says: Oh man, the food was great. We each did the Hibachi grill. I ordered the hibachi steak and it was terrific. Cooked exactly to my liking. The meal came with a soup, small salad, veggies, and rice. The rice and veggies were made on the hibachi as well. Seriously, can’t rave about this enough.

Rachel says: There were so many choices that I panic-ordered (of course) their classic “Teriyaki Chicken,” something the opening paragraph of the menu mentioned. I realize now that if the menu had mentioned an egg salad sandwich in its intro, it’s highly likely I would have ordered that. Anyway, the food I had was pretty good. The soup was basically French onion soup without the bread or cheese. My chicken was tasty and I liked the dipping sauces.

Soup and tea. Tea and soup.

Jenna says: Excellent. Seriously good. I went into the experience knowing Benihana was going to be the most expensive of all our casual experiences, and hopeful that the food would match. Thankfully it did! Before our entrees had even arrived, I’d already googled the recipe for the onion soup. Salad was refreshing. Guys, I don’t like shrimp [Ed. note: Sources confirmed this to be true.]. But I really liked the shrimp. Vegetables and steak perfectly cooked.

Food rating: 


John says: The meal came with a green tea which was delicious. I also ordered a Sapporo which was perfectly fine. Jenna and Aaron ordered some random sake that I had a bit of. All in all good beverages.

Rachel says: I got the green tea that was included in the meal because I don’t drink much and I am also cheap [Ed note: Boy howdy, is she ever.]. It was very nice. I also had a sip of Jenna’s sake. It reminded me that I don’t really like sake.

Jenna says: Kirin on tap, delicious. Picked a random sake, also delicious.

Jenna toasting Aaron, who was too lame to submit any ratings or comments for this review.

Beverages rating: 

Service: You’d expect a place that’s low on casualosity to be high on excellent service. This place was hit or miss in that regard.

John says: Great service. Our server was attentive but not overly so. She made good suggestions and was overall pleasant. Again, our chef was fantastic.

Rachel says: Service was split into two parts, one person doing seating and beverages, the chef doing the cooking. Carlos seemed shy but capable and very sweet. I wondered what kind of training program the chefs have to go through and how many times he’s gotten hit in the face with a flying shrimp tail someone was trying to throw into his breast pocket. The beverage server seemed a little rushed. I wasn’t offered a refill on my tea, but that’s not too big of a deal.

Jenna says: Carlos, our hibachi master, was a pro. Did all the tricks and flips and fancy shit. Our servers were fine but unremarkable. 

Service rating: 

Ambience: The décor is stereotypical Japanese, with lots of red and black lacquered surfaces. The bar and sushi areas looked bright and inviting for those .0001% of people who come there for things other than teppanyaki. Your party is seated at table with others, wherever space is available. Sitting with strangers could lead to valuable human connections in this increasingly isolated world. Or it could lead to you shyly glancing at them and then turning back to conversation with your friends. No judgement here.

John says: Oh man, this place had some ambiance alright. Our hibachi chef was flipping things around, making onion volcanoes, and just generally being [Ed. note: John didn’t end this sentence, but we can assume the adjective in question was “awesome” or something similar]. I was surprised by the number of dude bros that were at the tables around us. That brought it down a notch. 

John, enthralled.

Rachel says: I liked the color scheme and the way the restaurant was broken up into little alcoves for a few tables. It made things feel more intimate. On the flip side, we were pretty close to other tables, which made it feel like we were in the way of traffic flow.

Jenna says: What you’d expect from a hibachi chain. What I remember most though was the couple sitting at our table. I assumed they were a high school couple out on a “fancy date” celebrating their 6 month anniversary. They were not. They were married and over 21. So apparently I’m now that old person who thinks everyone is a teenager.

Ambience rating: 

Casualosity: Benihana is an interesting choice for the top spot on a Casual Dining list, because this place is not very casual. There’s even a sign that enumerates all the casual things you’re not allowed to wear while dining. We were wearing basically all of those things (Exception: Our private parts were assuredly covered), and we also had a young baby with us.

To be fair, they don’t specify what kind of footwear (velvet flip flops anyone?)

John says: Hmm, this is a tough one. There are literal signs on the outside and inside of the restaurant that tell you this isn’t meant to be all that casual. No ripped clothing, no hats, etc. We pretty much broke all of their rules. But the staff was pretty laid back overall.

Rachel says: I was wearing torn jeans, t-shirt, and Birkenstocks. It was my last day of maternity leave and I was really leaning into it. I felt pretty comfortable, but I do realize that I was kind of underdressed. As for Sadie, I feel like babies inherently rank high on the casualosity scale due to their on-person waste management system and the infrequency with which they wear pants. My baby showed no signs of self-consciousness regarding her outfit.

Jenna says: So. Not. Casual. However, it seemed there were many people breaking the dress code, with no repercussions (like Aaron Smith). But on price alone, not casual.  

The shirt Aaron wore to this encounter. What a gentleman.

Casualosity rating: 


With our low-tier menu choices, our dessert options were limited to green tea ice cream, rainbow sherbet, or chocolate ice cream. There probably was cheesecake available for an upcharge, but who are we, Nelson Rockefeller????

John says: Not much of a selection in this realm. It was only ice cream which I won’t really complain about. I ordered the rainbow ice cream which was very tasty. But having a small selection knocks it down a bit. 

Rachel says: I went with the green tea ice cream, which is one of my favorite things on earth. It was unpretentious and delicious.

Jenna says: Is this the first casual dining establishment (CDE) that didn’t have cheesecake as a dessert option? I think so! [Ed. note: It is not, Applebee’s was sans cheesecake as well. #lawyered] But the chocolate ice cream was delicious. 

Dessert rating: 

Favorite part:

John says: Of course, watching the hibachi chef. He was fun and had some good jokes. 

Rachel says: The culinary theatrics. 

Jenna says: The food, for sure. Best thus far I do believe. Also adding another punch to Sadie’s CDE punch card is always fun.

A special bonus with our tasting menu: THE WORLD’S SWEETEST BABY

Lease favorite part:

John says: Lots of dude bros.

Rachel says: I would have liked a little more tea. Good god, I’m old.

Jenna says: Nothing, really. I was prepared to spend a little more money. Very enjoyable casual encounter!

Overall rating:

Buffalo Boring Wings

[Ed. note: Throwback to a year ago this month, when we took our famous Casual Encounter Roadtrip to Milwaukee!]

Buffalo Wild Wings is about wings (duh). But we learned during this particular encounter that specialization doesn’t necessarily bring excellence (in your FACE, Adam Smith). BWW shouts its mediocrity from the rooftops. Well, maybe not “shouts.” More like, “mumbles it whenever it decides to makes its appearance on the rooftops, because you haven’t seen it in a while and would like it to bring you your check as long as it’s coming by.”

Food: BWW is primarily known as a wing place, but there were ample other non-wing-related options for our dining enjoyment. But always chicken, everything chicken.

Jenna says: Things started promising – a flatbread appetizer that did the trick – but it was all downhill from there. I’m not a Big Wings Guy so I went with the chicken tacos. The tacos tasted like a bad Taco Bell experience. Most Taco Bell visits I have are actually quite enjoyable, but every so often I’ll have a south of the Border experience that causes me to question everything in life (I’m looking at you, Taco Bell in Anoka). [Ed. note: Don’t drag Anoka into this, Jenna. It’s been through enough.] I did sample the wings, but I don’t consider myself wing-savvy enough to rate them. 

Tacos. As unremarkable in flavor as they are in appearance.

John says: Buffalo Wild Wings is known for…wings! We went on a Wednesday and come to find out that it’s BOGO on boneless wings. I hit that up hard, bought 12 and received 12 free. I went with 4 different sauces: Parmesan garlic, mild, Caribbean Jerk, and Chipotle dry rub (also my nickname in college). Cool. Also, I ordered a flatbread appetizer thing for the table. It was fine.

Pile o’ boneless wings

Rachel says: I went in with every intention of forcing myself to get the grilled version of the buffalo chicken sandwich, but I didn’t specify that when I ordered, so I got fried. Self-sabotage at its most delicious. Even with that, the sandwich was disappointing. It was merely topped with buffalo sauce, not coated in it. C’mon guys, I know you have the coating technology back there. The flatbread app was good. I stole one of Aaron’s boneless wings and it was fine. 

Fried instead of grilled. “Oops”

Aaron says: The appetizer was good. And made even better by the fact that John paid for it.

Food rating:


Jenna says: Beer. Fine. I’m over ordering anything other than beer at a Casual Encounter, unless it’s a well made margarita [Ed. note: That’s probably wise.].

John says: I got there before everyone. Just early enough to catch happy hour. Yay me!! I had a beer. It was mediocre.

Rachel says: I think I got water? Even that was unmemorable.

Aaron says: I got a Coors Light. It was nice and watery.

Beverages rating:

Service: As we’ve proven time and again, the Casual Dining experience is made or broke by the service. We’ve had some truly stellar service during our journey… but this was not it. You’d think that those jersey uniforms would indicate a little more hustle, but you’d be wrong.

Jenna says: Sam was not great, not great at all. Rarely checked on us, no clever banter, and he definitely DID NOT share intimate details about his dating life. The restaurant was not super busy, and yet it took them hours to clear off the tables around us. Just gross.

John says: Phew, not good. I think our server was named Sam. He was about the blandest server we’ve had since we started this endeavor. He wasn’t bad, just boring.

Rachel says: I learned something new about myself at BWW. I learned that I have a limit to how many dirty dishes I can tolerate on our table at any given time. Not to mention that the waxed paper that lines everything gives height where other restaurants’ dirty dishes only have depth. It was like I was in an interactive sculpture full of dirty serving vessels. Our server was boring and slow. As a cap to the night, he also got my to-go order wrong.

Aaron says: Started off strong, but went downhill. He brought our waters two at a time, like a rank amateur. 

Service rating:

Ambience: BWW is a sports bar and boy howdy do they want you to know that every second that you’re there. The staff wear specialty jerseys in an unflattering gold color, perhaps in a bid to stay neutral in a world full of team rivalries. There are also TVs crammed onto every conceivable square inch of the walls so you could sports-watch to your heart’s content. It’s like Hooters but with fewer boobs.

Jenna says: BWW out sports bar-ed Hooters, which I didn’t know was possible. 40+ TVs, jersey clad servers, dudes hanging with other dudes eating wings.

John says: There weren’t enough TVs playing sporting events. JK there were like 5938 of them. It’s honestly hard to talk to people because of all the distractions. It wasn’t even sports I cared about. I am pretty sure they had ESPN 8, [Ed. note: The Ocho] showing dodgeball. But I might be wrong.

Aaron, seen here with just a tiny fraction of the TVs available.

Rachel says: The sports-themed atmosphere was what I expected. I can usually ignore TVs at restaurants pretty well because I don’t care about sportsballs. It was tough here, though. There was probably some kind of memorabilia on the walls, but I can’t remember for sure. Any sort of ambience was overshadowed by the aforementioned landscape of uncleared tables. 

Aaron says: I learned from Jenna that there were 40+ TVs present. Some of those TVs were playing hockey, so I was all about it.

Ambience rating:

Casualosity: It seems we’ve stumbled upon a new scientific theory: The more a restaurant appeals to dudes, the higher the casualosity. BWW practically sprays testosterone into the HVAC system, so the casualosity was hard to beat.

Jenna says: Again, dudes hanging with dudes eating wings.

John says: It was pretty damn casual. It was casual enough for a baby to join us or whatever.

Rachel says: I felt comfortable having my baby in there, that’s for sure. 

Aaron says: Flip flops in full effect! The clientele was wearing  a mix of business casual and sweatpants. Pretty casual, kind of confusing.

Casualosity rating:

Dessert: Our choices were limited, and mostly deep fried. We stuck to our guns and ordered the deep-fried cheesecake bites. We weren’t expecting much, and we got it.

Jenna says: TERRIBLE. Deep fried cheesecake bites that tasted like cough syrup. A real disgrace to the art of making cheesecake.

John says: This was the absolute low point. The closest thing they had to cheesecake were these fried cheesecake bites. There were 8 of them for like 5 bucks. Nope. Unhappy, BWW.

Rachel says: I was willing to give the deep fried cheesecake balls a chance. I was thinking it would be kind of a State Fair thing. Turns out, warm cheesecake is weird.

Aaron says: [Ed. note: Aaron inexplicably gave no comments about the dessert, yet rated it a 4. Phone it in, much?]

John thinks these cheesecake bites are #1…at sucking.

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

Jenna says: Nothing was stolen from my car, unlike at Red Lobster! And Sadie graced us with her charming personality and witty one liners!

John says: Honestly…nothing. Absolutely nothing stood out. Every other casual dining establishment we’ve been to had some memorable, be it bad or good. There was nothing cool.

Rachel says: My adorable baby. Like John said, nothing really stood out.

Aaron says: That flatbread app.

Least favorite part:

Jenna says: The food, by far. I expected it to be better because I remember having positive experiences years ago at the Fargo location. But then I remembered that we used to just play trivia and order soda at the BWW in Fargo, so maybe the food has always sucked.

John says: The cheesecake bites. DUMB!

Rachel says: I was so disappointed by the food. It’s hard to make fried chicken unremarkable, but they did it. Also, the hellscape of uncleared tables.

Aaron says: Service was slower than slow.

Overall rating: 

Next up: We class up the joint with a trip to the original list’s #1 pick, Benihana!

Red Lobster at Night, Casual Diner’s Delight

Is there any casual dining establishment that’s enjoyed a catapult back into the public consciousness like Red Lobster has in the past year? RL has been with us since the 60s, with its life-giving Cheddar Bay Biscuits and its seemingly endless -fests (see: Lobster, Shrimp, etc), but Beyonce’s reference to it as a post-coital reward for satisfactory lovemaking has reminded us all that it’s time to revisit the place that brings slightly classy seafood to the masses.

The chain’s longevity and its distinction as being the only true seafood restaurant around in the upper Midwest gave this encounter a special feeling. Also contributing to that special feeling? The fact that this was two members’ first time at any Red Lobster. We kept expectations high for those tasty biscuits, and low for everything else.

This casual encounter was also notable for welcoming Sadie, Rachel’s newly-born daughter, as a participant. She slept almost the whole time, but her outfit showed that she was committed to the cause.

A thematically-appropriate onesie? Come on, that’s adorable.


Seafood, duh. But a wide variety of preparations for said seafood kept it interesting. Would you like your seafood fried? Skewered? Atop pasta? What about a sauce or seasoning? The menu was not quite Cheesecake Factory-level of length and complexity, but it was somewhat daunting.

John says: Johnny on the spot, aka Rachel Levitt, let us know if we sign up for the Red Lobster Club we get a free dessert or app with the purchase of 2 entrees. So we hit that up. Aaron ordered some calamari. It was fine. I ordered the Ultimate Feast for my dinner! It didn’t disappoint. Lobster tail, crab legs, two types of shrimp, rice, mashed potatoes, and a salad. Everything was good. 

Jenna says: I found the lengthy menu to be overwhelming, almost to the level of Cheesecake Factory’s menu. I sort of assumed that my first visit to RL should include lobster, but holy hell, that s**t’s expensive. I went instead for a lightly breaded tilapia in honor of Tilapia Monday [Ed. note: Follow @twinkiejiggles on Snapchat to learn more], and it was very good. Not too fishy or oily, perfect ratio of breading to parm to fish. It even was better the next day. Dinner included a basic bitch house salad, steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes, all fine. The cheddar bay biscuits were…..overrated? Sorry not sorry, I said it. Perhaps I found them just “meh” because my pants are still tight from eating my weight in delicious biscuits in Nashville [Ed. note: What a f***ing hipster].

Tilapia Monday

Rachel says: In true Rachel fashion, I spent too much time kibitzing with my fellow diners and not enough time looking at the menu, which led to panic ordering. But it turned out just fine. My garlic shrimp skewers were tasty and light. The menu also features calorie counts for all food, with which I have a love-hate relationship. Don’t tell me my business, menu! But also, thanks for helping me make healthier choices. Confession: I also think the Cheddar Bay Biscuits are overrated. Good, but overrated.

Shrimp skewers. Note also the plate that once held biscuits.

Food rating:  


The drink menu tended to skew more towards “beach” than “asea,” but you didn’t hear our crew complaining. [Ed. note: What would an “asea” themed drink be? Seawater served out of a buoy?] Lots of blended drinks and synthetic fruit flavors.

John says: I had a Malibu hurricane. It was refreshing unlike other hurricanes. I’m looking at Katrina and Andrew. 

Jenna says: I really wanted a well made margarita on this particular Monday evening. As in no super sweet margarita mix, just tequila, triple sec, lime juice. I tried to explain my desire to Susan and her suggestion was to add soda water to cut the sweetness of the mix. That’s a stupid idea, Susan. My marg was full of soda water, and not enough tequila. Despite the snickering from my dining mates, I stand by my request. [Ed. note: Stop trying to make margaritas happen at non-Mexican establishments, Jenna. Bad marg once, shame on them. Bad marg twice, shame on you…]

Rachel says: This was only my second drink postpartum, after not drinking for about a year, so I really regressed and went for a pina colada topped with strawberry puree. OMG IT WAS DELICIOUS. 

Behold, a table full of delicious yet obnoxious beverages. Not pictured: A decent margarita.

Beverages rating:


John says: We had great service! Another home run. She was very friendly and helpful. She even made sure our order got in before the table of 16 in the corner did. That was huge. She spoke very highly of Red Lobster and that was really cool. She wasn’t Earth but she was damn close. 

Jenna says: Susan, oh Susan. Our evening together had its high points (she made sure our orders got put in prior to a large party), low points (her defending RL’s decision to not make a bigger deal about Beyonce name dropping the chain) and just weird points (more info than needed on her love life). One thing’s for sure though, Susan LOVES working for RL, specifically this location, and she will defend the s**t out of them. Our relationship with Susan was a rollercoaster, but in the end she earns 5+ cheesecakes because she checked on me multiple times while I was dealing with the aftermath of my car being broken into [Ed. note: What kind of a**hole breaks into a car in a Red Lobster parking lot???], and she brought me supplies to help cover my broken window.

Rachel says: I agree with everyone else in our party, Susan was top-notch. Such a pro move getting our order in before the big group. Nothing makes me harrumph harder than having food be delayed. Susan was maybe a little too talkative at times, and spoke a lot about her dating status when it was just time for the damn check or whatever. But I don’t hold it against her. The newly-created mom in me also appreciated that she made us agree to actually drink our water before she brought out waters for all of us. Susan is not putting up with any BS.

Service rating:


Ahoy! Red Lobster definitely leaned into its maritime heritage [Ed. note: Red Lobster is based in Orlando, so no actual maritime heritage to speak of], but not too much. They could have gone with a crap-on-the-walls aesthetic, like a nautical Chili’s, but they didn’t. Way to take the high road, RL. Except when it comes to the depressing tank full of lobsters in the entry way. Give ’em a little wiggle room, why don’t you?

John says: Nautical theme of course. The obligatory lobsters in aquarium was gawked at. Nothing too exciting. 

Jenna says: This was my very first visit to the RL, and I went in with the lowest expectations. I expected it to smell like the aquarium at the Minnesota Zoo. Or like the flaky food you feed goldfish. Much to my surprise, not only was there barely a smell, but I totally dug the decor. I am such a sucker for anything nautical, turn an anchor into a light fixture and throw an East Coast seaside on the wall and I’m yours.

Jenna attempts to discern whether a squall is a-brewing.

Rachel says: Classier than I’d expected. I figured there’d be way more whimsical decoration than their was. This kind of restraint is admirable, but made the dining room somewhat bland. Kudos for not having a fish smell, but demerits for having a bathroom that smelled like one at the State Fair.

Ambience rating:


John says: VERY casual. It was so casual even a baby was allowed in. Specifically, Sean and Rachel’s newborn Sadie! She was fun.

Jenna says: I’m reaching a point in this ranking process where I’m getting downright pissy that the cost of food and drinks at these “casual” restaurants is on par with the not so casual restaurants in this city.

Rachel says: On the one hand, not very casual. Prices were pretty high, and the dark wood and cloth napkins gave it a somewhat classy feel. Susan talked about how often this place is used as a date spot, which tells me it’s not very casual. On the other hand, Aaron wore Crocs as footwear, and no one really noticed. [Ed. note: We’d love to know more about how Aaron felt with this footwear chocie, but he refuses to take this project seriously and submit his ratings.]

Crocs. Very casual, very gross.

Casualosity rating:


John says: Putting our freebies to work (described in detail earlier so I won’t explain again, you can’t make me) we ordered two desserts: vanilla bean cheesecake and a chocolate cake with ice cream. Both were quite tasty. I wish the cheesecake had been better than Old Country Buffet’s though. 

Jenna says: All the cheesecakes/gooey brownies/ice cream things are starting to blend together. I’m sure the dessert was fine.

Rachel says: The vanilla cheesecake was tastier than anticipated. The chocolate cake was good, nothing groundbreaking. I’d hoped for something more…molten. But no complaints. 

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

John says: Special guests! Always my favorite part when it happens. Rachel’s husband Sean was with as well as baby Sadie! My sister Jessica also was there! All great additions.

Jenna says: Sadie’s first casual encounter! Spending Tilapia Monday with Sean McPherson, creator of Tilapia Monday! John’s sister!

Rachel says: Special guests, like my husband and baby!

Least favorite part:

John says: For how seemingly empty the place was, we waited quite a long time to be seated.

Jenna says: My car getting broken into while I was eating mediocre biscuits. I’m still finding glass shards in my lunch bag.

Rachel says: Jenna’s car getting broken into. Having to tolerate too much small talk from Susan, at times. 

Overall rating: 

Next  up: Fueling ourselves with chicken and testosterone at Buffalo Wild Wings!


Casually encountering casual dining experiences