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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!