Tag Archives: cheesecake

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.

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: 

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!

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!

Inna Garden Olive-A, Baby

For our February Encounter, we eschewed lower-ranking restaurants for #12 on our list, one of the most quintessential casual dining options available: The Olive Garden.

Many of us remember the OG as the “nice” restaurant growing up, mostly because it has cloth napkins instead of paper. When you’re a kid, that just screams luxury. Also, unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks [Ed. note: Doesn’t scream luxury, but still very important].

We had not one but two special guest appearances at this encounter: Helen (Rachel’s mom) joining us for her second encounter, and Rick and Cathy (Jenna’s parents). And, like everyone else who is related to/friends with the members of our group, they viewed our choice of dining establishment with a mix of amusement and resignation. “Your little club is going to where? Well, ok. It’s up to you.”

The Olive Garden is one of the ur-casual dining restaurants. It’s often used as a stand-in for anything pedestrian/country bumpkin-y, right alongside Applebee’s. Does Olive Garden care? No. Olive Garden is ok with being your punchline, because it’s too busy serving unlimited breadsticks to your Aunt Carol to pay any mind. “Joke all you want,” Olive Garden says. “You know you secretly love us.”

Serious faces, serious dining.


Everyone is familiar with the OG’s brand of “Italian.” Even if you’ve never eaten there, you can take a guess at the general flavor profile and you’d be about 90% correct. Salt+sugar+fat+starch=Mangia! Olive Garden is basic in the best way. 

Rachel says: Just like my visit to Ruby Tuesday, I came in with a strategy: Fill up on the included salad and breadsticks, and save most of my entrée for lunch the next day. This worked swimmingly, and y’all were suckers if you didn’t do the same. The breadsticks could have used more buttery topping, but that didn’t stop me from eating like four, and bringing home another four to accompany said leftovers. I had the Tour of Italy, which is lasagna plus fettucine alfredo plus chicken parmesan. My leftovers reheated beautifully and were the envy of everyone within smelling distance of my cubicle. Helen also commented on how fresh the lettuce for the salad was.

A tour of Italy. a very fattening tour.

Aaron says: I had the Giro d’Italia, aka the Tour of Italy. The Giro d’Italia is also the name of a bike race in Italy, so now I sound fancy. It was good. I made two full meals out of the leftovers by borrowing Rachel’s strategy of filling up on the salad and breadsticks.

Aaron taking his tour of Italy (with his mouth)

John says: I had the Chianti braised beef with gnocchi. My steak was cooked perfectly. The grilled zucchini that came with it was super odd.

Jenna says: Spaghetti and meatball flavor explosion! I went basic and it tasted as good as Cathy’s. And Cathy is a damn good cook. Also their salad is like a familiar hug. In your mouth.

Food rating: 


Nothing too exceptional here. They do try to class up the joint with a wine list, but that wine list definitely includes a cheap white zinfandel, so it ends up being a zero-sum situation.

Rachel says: I treated myself to a club soda with a lime. #lifestylesoftherichandfamous

John says: The white zin was zintastic!

Jenna says: Can’t go wrong with red wine.

Beverages rating:


Our normal casual encounters occur on off nights, like Tuesdays. This trip, however, was during prime time aka 7:30pm on a Saturday, in St Louis Park aka one of the Twin Cities’ hottest suburbs. Also, our night started off being taken care of some kind of server-in-training, who was quickly elbowed to the side by a seasoned pro who handled our table seemingly effortlessly.

Rachel says: The trainee was named Helen, which is also my mom’s name! At least one full minute of our experience was spent with the two of them talking about how their names were both Helen. Olive Garden, where surprises abound. Carmen, our main waiter, was efficient and pleasant, but not super friendly. Given the circumstances (large group, busy night) I don’t blame her, though.

John says: Very good service! We got double-teamed by two servers: Helen (not Levitt) and Carmen. And it was spectacular.

Aaron says: Attentive water refills. Sort of long waits for other things. There were two servers, but they didn’t coordinate or communicate very well.

Jenna says: Double the pleasure, double the fun! Both of our servers were highly attentive and friendly (even more impressive since we were a rowdy, slightly annoying crew).

Service rating:


Since ours was a relatively large group, we were seated in our own private alcove. Very VIP.

Private dining!

Rachel: It’s both weird and comforting that the late 80s/early 90s color palate of cream, dusty rose and green lives on admirably inside each and every Olive Garden. When faux greenery hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s casual dining.

John says: I have always liked the atmosphere at the OG. Faux Italian bistro vibes are my jam.

Jenna says: Every OG looks the same. By the same, I mean like the dining room of a villa in Tuscany.

Ambiance rating:


For most of us dining that night, and for many people outside of the Casual Encounters team, the Olive Garden was the “classy” restaurant you went to for special occasions. Probably because of the cloth napkins and “frescoes” adorning the walls. As with any childhood association, it’s hard to shake, and the casualosity rating suffered as a consequence.

Rachel says: Still the vibe of a place that’s a little nicer than your average restaurant. I think their strategy is great; they’ve differentiated themselves from other casual dining establishments by making themselves seem just a tad more formal. I don’t know about a date night here, but a birthday dinner would feel right at home.

John says: The classiest joint we’ve been to so far. I need to dine here more often.

Aaron says: A little too fancy. Might need to visit again in warmer weather so I can wear my velvet flip flops and put the casualosity to the test.

Jenna says: I’ve spent many a family birthday celebration at the OG and we’ve “dressed up,” so, not so casual.

Casualosity rating:


Usually, by the end of an OG experience, you’re too full from the salad and breadsticks to venture into dessert territory. But we soldiered on, honoring the commitment we made at the outset of this adventure. Some of us even got things that weren’t tiramisu, because we’re adventurous like that.

Rachel: I went for the black tie mousse cake, aka the only cheesecake on the menu, because I take this s**t seriously. Also, it’s like three desserts in one: Cake, cheesecake, and mousse. Delicious! I was even in a good enough mood to share, which is saying something.

John says: I had three mini-desserts, obviously the best way to do dessert.

Aaron says: Truly saving the best for last. Not only did the tiramisu not have cinnamon, but it was also delicious.

Jenna says: I’m such an a**hole, I can’t even remember.


Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

Aaron says: Sarah flipping out over her love for hollow pasta. And getting to dine with the Weisser clan and Helen!

Rachel says: That the food was exactly how I remember it. And getting lunch out of it for the next day.

John says: So many guests! Cathy, Rick, and Helen. Fargo was crazy repped.

Jenna says: We got to dine in our own private room! And our parents were there!

Least favorite part:

Rachel says: The temp in our alcove got a little high, and I was uncomfortably warm for most of our meal. Not the best environment for eating a bunch of carbs.

John says: Ziosk. F the Ziosk hard, right in the A.

Aaron says: Another Ziosk, that little bastard. Quit it with the gimmicks!

Jenna says: Honestly, I can’t think of anything. This was a super fantastic casual dining experience. Two very enthusiastic thumbs up; fine holiday fun!

Overall rating: 

Buca di Birthday at Buca di Beppo

Since October was Rachel’s birthday month, the group allowed her to select the next casual dining encounter, no matter where it fell on the list. She selected Buca di Beppo (#3 on our list), the Minneapolis-founded chain of Italian restaurants (it is now owned by Planet Hollywood, a Casual Encounter restaurant that is thankfully nowhere near the Twin Cities).

What we expected: A bacchanalian feast that would feed our souls and our tummies until both were uncomfortably full.

What we got: That, pretty much.


Buca’s claim to fame is that its food is all served family style, to encourage sharing and to also potentially serve as a real-life example of the Tragedy of the Commons when it comes to that one entree that everyone in the table likes best. It also makes ordering the proper quantities trickier, which I’m sure goes directly into Buca’s bottom line. No one wants to be the douche who prevents the table from an ample bounty. With a keen eye for strategy, we ended up ordering a caprese salad, a few entrees, and garlic bread.

Jenna says: Better than I remembered! Carbonara was my personal favorite. Definitely the best pasta on the casual dining list.

John says: Buca has always had fairly good food. I was impressed with the eggplant parmesan the most. I also want to give kudos to the team. Since orders at Buca are family style, having 6 people trying to order is difficult. We took care of it in only a couple of minutes. 3 small entrees, some caprese, and garlic bread. Perfect.

Jenny says: I’ve never been a huge fan of greasy Eye-talian food so this was my first foray into Buca territory. Family style? As if I’m supposed to know what that is. I guess we all have to share food. The eggplant parm was way better tasting than it looked. It heated up well too the next day. My fave was the Chicken Carbonara; it felt a little lighter tasting and had peas in it. It had me at the peas.

Andrea says: I thought the food was motherflippin’ delicious. The portions are obviously abundant – that’s their thing. The flavor was excellent. Great comfort food. Spent less than I thought I was going to, so great value too!

Rachel says: Olive Garden may say that you’re family, but Buca walks the walk with their family-style dishes. A nice way to try out a few different things. The carbonara was more like an alfredo with peas in it, but it was still delicious. The eggplant parm was my idea, so I’m glad it went over well with the crowd. The rigatoni thing was uninspired but filling, like most of the pasta I make at home. Plus, leftovers!

Carbonara, eggplant parm, and John's stylish 'do.
Carbonara, eggplant parm, and John’s stylish ‘do.
The spoils.
The spoils.

Food rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake


Jenna says: My margarita streak has come to an unfortunate end. There version was $11 and featured….wait for it….orange juice. What. The. Fudge. Who does that? Someone with no respect for a margarita, that’s for damn sure. We panic ordered a bottle of sangria, and only after receiving did we find out it was the Lisa Vanderpump brand. I don’t even know who she is [Ed. note: Neither do we, but we refuse to Google it because we have a bad feeling about her], but one of her skills IS NOT making sangria.

John says: We ended up ordering a bottle of wine (which was already on the table when we sat down) and a carafe of sangria. The sangria was pretty underwhelming. But I got drunk more quickly because I had given blood only an hour before starting drinking. So that’s monster plus.

Jenny: I was disappointed that the sangria wasn’t served in the traditional casual-dining style of carafe-filled-with-fruit. The water was good ole St. Paul crisp.

Andrea says: I had wine. The wine was cheap and a bit acidic, but hey, wine.

Rachel says: I just had water. But it seems I dodged a bullet by not getting the sangria (which is Spanish, not Italian, so I’m not sure what the group expected) [Ed. note: Snob]. I liked the suspense of seeing how drunk John would get while he was still missing a bunch of blood.

Beverage rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half


This was an interesting scenario. The crap on the walls said “hella casual,” but the slightly elevated prices and the number of celebrations happening there said “take your velvet flip flops elsewhere, Aaron.” Hard to tell if it would feel more or less formal at the Pope’s Table, where Dope Pope Francis’ plastic head spins around on a lazy susan.

Jenna says: Birthday casual.

Jenny says: Less casual than I thought it would be. That might be due to the Italian-date-night vibe I was picking up. The humongous dripping candle that appeared with the birthday cake upped the fancy points.

Andrea says: Buca is casual, and welcoming.  It really does feel like you’re at a big family dinner. I *may* have even unbuttoned my pants afterward. Just kidding – I totally did.

Rachel says: I’ve always associated Buca with celebrations, which knocks it down on the casualosity scale for me. Birthdays, graduations, my mom’s 60th birthday…these are where Buca comes in. There were certainly more people there on an idle Tuesday than I’d expected, although we were far from the only birthday table there. 

Hey everyone, it's this a-hole's birthday.
Hey everyone, it’s this a-hole’s birthday.

Casualosity rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half


Jenna says: So much to look at! And all of the shit on the walls looked like it had 10 years of dust caked on, so that’s fun.

John says: This place had oodles of things on the walls. I liked that a cardboard cutout of Sofia Vegara greeted us as we walked in. Of particular note is the pope table. In the middle of a round table sits a bust of the current pope. I tried to convince that this table was permanently reserved for the pope. The team wasn’t buying it.

Jenny says: John convinced me that the pope table was always reserved for the pope. I learned later that it is not and I’m completely gullible. I enjoyed the wall-to-wall pictures of old Italian photos and movie shots. Gave me something to look at while the table argued over whatever they were arguing about. I can never keep up [Ed note: It was probably something really important, like what variety of garlic bread to get].

Andrea says: I like the fun kitschy photos on the walls. We could have been slightly farther from other people, if I had my way, but I also feel like that when I’m eating at home. Alone. So that’s just me.

Rachel says: It’s like dining inside a delightful Italian stereotype. Plus pictures of nuns playing soccer?! Count me in forever.

John with his new special lady.
Something something jokes about balls something something


Ambience rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half


Our server, Ryan, was a key part of our dining experience. He was friendly without being creepy and attentive without hovering. It must be hard to be a server at a place like Buca, but he was a pro.

Jenna says: Ryan was super chill, in a good way. He dealt well with our spastic behavior. He really didn’t want to sing to Rachel for her birthday, but he did anyway, which made me happy.

John says: Ryan was a baller. Attentive but not pushy. Patient but with flair. He also said “hell yeah” a few times when I asked for something. More specifically, he brought me marinara sauce for the garlic bread. Nicely done sir.

Jenny says: He was fine. I think he needed a bit of help since there were 6 –yes 6!–other bday tables. I like that he was honest about the size of the birthday cake Rachel got for free.

Andrea says: Our server was great! Absolutely no complaints. He sang to Rachel for her birthday, but I guess that’s kind of a requirement there, so no extra points for that. He didn’t go over the top as far as service, but he was definitely more than average.

Rachel says: Our server got major points for overhearing our mumbling about marinara sauce and running to get some right away. Our passive Minnesota non-complaining wasn’t going to get in his way of excellent service! I can’t even fault him for getting the birthday singing going. The man has a job. No, I blame my dining companions for that travesty. 

Seen here: Embarrassment. Not pictured: Clapping along to an Italian-themed birthday song.
Seen here: Embarrassment. Not pictured: Clapping along to an Italian-themed birthday song.

Service rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake


The fact that Buca sells any dessert at all is a testament to the sheer force of will that’s part of American eating habits. After a pile of apps and entrees, no reasonable person at a Buca is hungry enough to truly want dessert. But people must figure “Hey, I already feel full, might as well take it all the way and feel awful. One slab of cake, please.”

Jenna says: I was so full by the time it came, I don’t even remember what it tasted like.

John says: We were celebrating Rachel’s bday. Due to good planning, she was able to secure a small cake to celebrate. And yes we made the staff sing despite protestations from Rachel and Jenny. The cheesecake was good. Probably not as good as Old Country Buffet, but I doubt nothing is [Ed note: Your mom is.].

Jenny says: The cheesecake was just what you expected and needed after tubs of Italian food. Rachel’s adorable birthday cake was tasty. I’m honestly glad it was so little because we were stuffed.

Andrea says: Yeah they had cheesecake, no i didn’t eat it. I’ve seen the movie Seven, and didn’t feel like reliving the “Gluttony” scene.

Rachel: I was perceptive enough to spot that their website offers a free cake when you bring a group in for your birthday. The picture on the website was of a cake with frosting in the style of spaghetti. They must have run out of those at the central commissary (which I’m ok with, actually), so the cake I got was your average white cake with pastel sugary frosting. It was fine, if a little dry. The cheesecake, towering and topped with a tasty fruit sauce (I want to say raspberry), was also fine.

Foreground: Free cake. Background: Cheesecake.
Foreground: Free cake. Background: Cheesecake.

Dessert rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Favorite part:

John says: The Cubs game being on the tv in the bar. 108 year curse gone!

Jenna says: Celebrating Rachel!

Jenny says: Celebrating Rachel’s birthday with a tiny cake a large, dripping candle

Rachel says: Everyone else’s glee at my embarrassing birthday song. Being savvy enough to have a coupon for free cake. More places should give me a coupon for free cake.

Least favorite part:

John says: No pope has ever visited this Buca di Beppo.

Jenna says: Writing this review while waiting in line for an hour to vote at the SLP city hall, and then having to leave even though I didn’t vote because I committed to volunteering and am going to be late. [Ed. note: Democracy in action!]

Jenny says: There was a lot going on; a little overwhelming. Don’t judge.

Rachel says: My stupid husband eating all of our leftovers, which meant that I couldn’t have them. 

Overall rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half


John and Aaron, truly delighted.
John and Aaron, truly delighted.

Coming soon: Our Casual Encounter at Red Robin!

TGI Friday’s: A Flair for the Casual

Sunday, October 2 marks the date of two occasions: The beginning of the Jewish New Year (Happy 5777 everyone! Best year ever!), and also the casual dining encounter that brings us to halfway done with our list. Granted, five of those restaurants are nowhere near the Twin Cities and we will never review them (and one of them is “getting hit by a car,” which is impossible to schedule as a group), but we still feel it’s quite an accomplishment. What better way to celebrate than to visit one of the top-ranked suburbs in the area, St. Louis Park?

TGI Friday’s (#18 on our list) falls alongside Chili’s in terms of nostalgia. Our group was eager to swap stories of visits earlier in life, as well as lament the change in slogan from “In here, it’s always Friday!” to some focus-grouped benign phrase that is unmemorable to the extreme. Plus, did you know that TGI Friday’s servers NO LONGER WEAR FLAIR?! It seems unconscionable. But, as Nobel Laureate* Bob Dylan once said, “times change, get over it.”


Friday’s menu is packed full of casual dining goodness. Most notably, they’ve realized that people love pouring smoky corn syrup on their food, so Jack Daniels sauce makes an appearance on nearly every page.

Jenna says: I decided to live dangerously and order the Bourbon Barrel Mahi Mahi. Fish, at TGI Friday’s. Seems crazy guys, but I went for it. And you know what? It was GOOD. Well seasoned, not overly “fishy” tasting, appropriate portion size. Served with perfectly salty mashed potatoes and broccoli, I might say the meal was better than Outback. Bonus points for the beer cheese dip that came with the pretzel, I think we all wanted to pitch a tent and live in that dip.

Jenna's surprisingly tasty fish dish, served on a plate designed by the Jetsons.
Jenna’s surprisingly tasty fish dish, served on a plate designed by the Jetsons.

Aaron says: I had the jack daniel’s burger, which was great and had good flavor with the Jack Daniels BBQ sauce. [Ed. note: Aaron sent in his comments while on vacation, hiking with his dog or something. Hence the brevity.]

Sarah says: We ordered pretzel sticks and cheese for an appetizer. I was expecting something just slightly above what you’d get at the Fargo South High concession stand, so I was really surprised by how great it was! The pretzel seemed fresh out the oven and the cheese sauce was so good that I saved some for my steak. Don’t judge. My steak was good but I ordered it medium rare and it came medium well which was really disappointing. The mashed potatoes were rich and delicious. My other side was a tomato mozzarella salad. It was good except for the part where Friday’s thinks I’m too stupid to know what a Caprese salad is. [Ed. note: We’re here to eat, not to learn Italian, hippie.]

John says: I was very happy with my meal. We ordered pretzels for the table that were awfully salty. I had the Jack Daniels chicken and Battered Shrimp meal with cheddar mac & cheese, plus broccoli. The portions were a little small for the price but I left content.

Rachel says: I am a Jack Daniels sauce evangelist. I love that stuff. But for some reason, I panicked and ordered a goddamn Cobb salad. I have brought shame onto my head and the heads of my family. The pretzel was delicious. Served piping hot (no other version of hot is acceptable) with creamy cheese sauce, it was a hit with the table. I would happily move into Jenna’s cheese sauce tent. 

Food rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half


As opposed to the anticipated wall-to-wall quirky crap on the walls, this Friday’s seemed somewhat understated, although the signature red and stripes could still be found, connecting this modern Friday’s to its ancestors.

Jenna says: I don’t remember much about the ambience because I was too excited about the FLAIR John C Ward brought us to wear. [Ed. note: An entire bag full of buttons. This group is the freaking best.]

Aaron says: Not enough sh*t on the walls.  We were in a fancier part of town, so the lights were kind of dim (except for the spot light on Jenna) and overall kind of an more upscale vibe.

John says: This was kind of a fancy TGI Friday’s in my mind. There was an ultra exclusive upstairs (at least that’s what I was lead to believe). My favorite part was the American Ryder Cup fans coming in to celebrate America’s victory (USA! USA! USA!). Suck it Europe (except Ireland which is the home of the gods).

Ambience ratingfresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half


Jenna says: John and I were on time (AHEM). Everyone else was late, and our server was super accommodating with our not-so-punctual friends. Seemed to take a bit of time to get our food, but he checked on us multiple times. I appreciated the mellow vibes he was putting out.

Sarah says: I have no complaints, but our server still wasn’t Earth. Oh Earth, nothing compares 2 u.

John says: Again, top notch service. Our server was patient with our frantic ordering. He checked on us numerous times. Not Earth level good but great nonetheless.

Rachel says: I agree that our server showed infinite patience with our panicked, piecemeal ordering. HOWEVER, I don’t think we would have been so panicked if he hadn’t insisted on checking in on us every two minutes. We’re a group of friends clearly chatting and having a good time. Give us more than 30 seconds between check-ins to decide on our beverages and such. DOUBLE HOWEVER, if he hadn’t been a little overattentive, we would have been late to our next engagement (trivia). So it all worked out in the end. 

Service rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake


Jenna says: Definitely the least casual place we’ve visited. Way too expensive for a casual dining experience, both food and drinks. My fish dish (rhyme time!) [Ed. note: Neat treat!]  was nearly $20, and while it was good, that’s money I would prefer to spend on non-casual dining experiences. Also there was a fancy pants family celebrating Rosh Hashanah next to us (it wasn’t a wedding, JCW). You don’t see that at OCB or Chevy’s.

Aaron says: Despite being fancier, I think you could get away with wearing pretty casual clothes, like velvet flip flops.

Sarah: This wasn’t the Friday’s of my youth and I’m not sure how I feel about the sleeker, more sophisticated vibe they’re trying to go with.

John says: This is the first time I didn’t feel the true casual experience. There were people legitimately dressed up pretty nicely. We believe the group just to the left of us had come from a wedding (A SUNDAY WEDDING? WHO WOULD DO THAT?).

Rachel says: John, I would do that. And if memory serves, you had a f***ing delightful time at my Sunday wedding. Put that in your chuppah and smoke it. But I agree, this wasn’t as casual as anticipated. I think it still falls squarely in the “casual dining” category, because it still has things like build-your-own appetizer platters, but it’s definitely a notch above most of the places we’ve visited.

Casualosity rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half


Since we had very limited time to wrap up our meal before heading to trivia, we were forced to order our dessert to go. Yet another rushed decision, but in this case, it worked out quite well. We got the cheesecake to go, and at it at our leisure.

Jenna says: Best yet, by far! I’m thinking about making to go TGI Friday’s cheesecake a new Sunday trivia tradition.

Sarah says: Close to the best we have had so far! I wish I would have had more than one bite, but the other casual diners had to get going to trivia so they took the rest to go. Lame. They better not do that when we go to the actual Cheesecake Factory!!

John says: We took the cheesecake (save Sarah who didn’t attend trivia) to go. It was actually really tasty. It didn’t have the same perfection of an OCB piece of cheesecake but pretty close.

Cheesecake rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half


Jenna says: Ok Margarita – a bit too sweet. Way too expensive. Also: I seem to order margaritas at every casual dining, so I’m making an executive decision and judging drinks on margaritas. Specifically on how many margs I’d drink at that specific establishment. this time around: 2 margaritas, though I regret the second one due to price.

Sarah says: I had a booze-free paradise punch. It was tasty without being too sweet.

John says: I got something a Peach Honey Smash. It was some sort of Jack Daniels concoction. I was happy.

Rachel. I had water. The water was fine.

Beverages rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Favorite part:

Jenna says: Going to a casual dining in my current hometown, the lovely St Louis Park, first best suburb! 

Aaron says: Sharing the cheesecake at trivia.

Sarah says: When John made sure we were all wearing flair.

John says: We kind of threw this trip together on the fly. So my favorite part is that our group made time to get together to hang out. AWWWWWWWWWWWWW!

Rachel says: John going the extra mile and bringing flair for us. They may not wear flair anymore at Friday’s, but we’ll always wear flair in our hearts. Our hearts are the flair. 

Least favorite part:

Jenna says: I spent too much money.

Sarah says: When the servers were not sporting any flair.

John says: Being in Saint Louis Park and not Roseville.

Rachel says: Straying from my heart’s true desire and not getting something doused in Jack Daniels. It was ok, I won’t make that mistake again.


Overall TGI Friday’s rating: fresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecakefresh-strawberry-cheesecake-half

Next encounter: We jump WAY up the list to Buca di Beppo (#3) in honor of Rachel’s birthday!


*Much to his annoyance, apparently.

Outback: Australian for Steak

This particular Casual Encounter (ranked #29 on our list) was hotly anticipated for one reason: Bloomin’ Onions. These deep-fried monstrosities might be served at an “Australian” restaurant, but make no mistake: This is something that could only exist in America. The ratio of fried part to onion is about 3:1, its greasiness both cut and complemented by the peppery sauce (ahem, mayo) served alongside. This was the high point in an overall delightful evening. Plus, we had distinguished guests from out of town, in the Twin Cities for the next day’s Beyonce show.* Put some more shrimps on the barbie and let’s get to rating!

Outback bloomin onion

A picture of  a picture of our Bloomin’ Onion. Very meta.

*A more obvious choice for our meal in light of that event might have been Red Lobster, but we didn’t think of it until too late.

Food: Expectations were all over the board here. Some were thrilled to be heading Down Under, others not so much. But we left pretty pleased with our experience.

outback bread
The free (and plentiful) brown bread served by the entire loaf at our table. You don’t come to Australia for dainty baskets, my friend.

John says: I had rated Outback pretty low because of a bad experience the last time I was at one. However, I was happy with the food this time. I got the filet mignon and lobster tail. The steak was cooked to my liking and had good flavor. The lobster tail was ok but on the bland side. Hooray for redemption, Outback!

Aaron: My expectations were pretty high from previous experiences (family birthdays and the like), and ordering the cheapest steak was somewhat of a let down. It wasn’t bad, but just not great. I took a baked potato on the side, and it was delicious.

Jenna says: I was a bloomin’ onion virgin! It was fine – a little on the salty side. I had the filet and thought it was very good. However, I’m not a big steak eater so I don’t have much to compare it to. The only other restaurant I’ve had steak at recently is Burch. I’m curious as to what a steak lover (aka my parents) would think of it. Mashed potatoes were good – complete opposite of OCB’s box crap. 

Sarah says: My steak was superb for the price. Ordered it medium rare and it came out exactly that. I would actually go there again for that steak.

Rachel says: As a longtime fan of Outback Steakhouse, I was looking forward to this trip for a while. I had the prime rib, a favorite since childhood. It’s kind of hard to screw up a prime rib since it’s full of fat and crusted in salt and pepper, two things that allow for flexibility in preparation. Thus, my prime rib was delicious and I ate it with reckless abandon.

Food rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Ambience: A very average-looking casual dining restaurant, from the beige walls to the TVs in the bar area.

John says: Nothing spectacular. Lots of TVs tuned to basketball. Some random Australian related decorations littered the walls.

Aaron says: I thought the ambiance was great. Mostly because of the people there. I guess I didn’t really notice anything in particular as far as decor, good or bad.

Jenna: I don’t even remember what the decor was, so that tells you something (like, maybe a drank too much wine).

Sarah: For a casual dining restaurant, the ambience was pretty good actually!

Rachel: Pretty un-Australian. Maybe they used to be Aussie-tastic and then scaled back to appeal to a wider group of people who don’t appreciate kitsch. Seems foolish though, as they miss out on lots of potential for conversation pieces. For example, pictures of the actual outback. maybe a kangaroo or two, a fun fact about how far it is from Roseville, MN to Alice Springs. Maybe coasters shaped like wallabees? They did have their Women’s restroom labeled “Sheilas,” though, so that’s a start.

Ambience rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Service: We’re not sure if Australian hospitality is a thing, but if it is, our server at Outback had it in spades. She split the check 10 ways without complaint. Ten ways, people. That’s amazing.

John: The best part of our trip to Outback. Our server was attentive, helpful, and personable. But not annoyingly so.

Aaron: No complaints. Sat next to a fellow patron who tried ordering the special, which they ended up being sold out. No fault of the server, per se, but reflects poorly on the establishment in general.

Jenna: She didn’t bat a single eyelash when we asked for 10 separate checks, ’nuff said.

Sarah: Outstanding. We had a huge table for this particular outing, with lots of guests. Our server was attentive and friendly.

Rachel: Server seemed nice and did split up our checks without hesitation. She happily (although not quickly) changed the TVs over to the NBA game for the fans at the table. As Aaron mentioned, my companion ordered a few things off the “limited time offer” menu, only to find out that each one he tried to order was not available. Not cool, mate.

Service: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Casualosity(tm): Not much to say here. It’s going to take something really out of the ordinary to catch our eye, casualosity-wise.

John: Damn casual. Not like OCB casual but I felt very at ease. Totally felt good wearing sandals and shorts. My score was downgraded, however, because Nicole Kidman wasn’t there.

Aaron: I got the feeling you wouldn’t get kicked out for wearing flip flops, jean shorts, and an old t-shirt, but you might feel a little under dressed. I propose we make a new metric that falls under the casualosity rating: the flip-flop jorts (ffJorts, for short) scale of casualosity ™. We can work on the quantifiable bits later. [Ed Note: We hereby nominate Aaron to wear jorts to every single remaining Casual Encounter. All in favor? Opposed? Motion carries.]

Jenna: Casual to the point that if someone was doing a big celebratory dinner or birthday party, I’d suggest another location. 

Rachel: A little less casual than other places we’ve visited. Not formal by any means, but I can’t see me coming here in sweatpants like I could at OCB.

Casualosity rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Cheesecake: A pretty decent selection of cheesecake options here, as well as other sweets like cake and milkshakes.

We cannot emphasize enough how much we appreciate thematic food names during our casual dining experiences.


John:  While Outback’s cheesecake can’t compare to OCB’s, it was still quite tasty. I had a piece of strawberry topped cheesecake. [Ed Note: Go to hell, John.]

Aaron: I had the strawberry shortcake, which was in a cute little cup and tasted good. From a sampling of other non-cinnamon selections, I thought the deserts were good, not great.

Jenna: Average – fresh berries would have enhanced it.

Sarah: Pretty great compared to what we’ve had so far!

Rachel: Disappointing. The cheesecake came with either raspberry or chocolate sauce. Both the cheesecake and the sauce were nothing special, defrosted straight from the Sysco truck. The carrot cake looked promising, but something about it made it taste like banana, which…ew. Banana has no place in or around carrot cake. I did appreciate the presence of “mini” desserts that others got, like milkshakes and a strawberry shortcake. Goddamit I love mini-desserts.


Cheesecake rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Beverages: A decent happy hour, a variety of choices of wine size, and some clever alcoholic and N/A options made this a highlight.

John: Very good selection of beers, wines, and cocktails. I got 2 of their specialty cocktails which Aussie refreshing

Aaron: I ordered a Fosters, cuz when in Melbourne I guess. High marks for the selection of Australian beers that I’ve heard of.

Jenna: Enjoyed the multiple sized wines you could order!

Sarah: Beverages: I ordered what was essentially an Arnold Palmer – iced tea and lemonade. It was tasty. Our server brought me frequent (and free!) refills! Five cheesecakes from this teetotaler.

Rachel: A good selection of refreshing-looking drinks, including the “Wallaby Darned.” I appreciated the different sizes of wine, which screams value. Plus, Coke products!

Beverages rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Return potential: By the end of our meal, minds had changed. Hearts had opened. Outback is the first restaurant we’ve reviewed that receives high marks for “birthday party” potential. Not a friends-based birthday party, but a family one where you don’t want to pick something too expensive in case your cousin Chad decides to join, because Chad is cheap and doesn’t like any salad where the lettuce isn’t iceberg.

John: I wouldn’t make it a regular thing but I would definitely return to Outback. If someone had a bday or whatever.

Aaron: Pretty high return potential. I had a good time, again, maybe because of the company I shared, but the food was decent enough to put it back on the family birthday rotation.

Jenna: I only see myself going again if someone makes me, or I am traveling and there happens to be an Outback in the hotel and I don’t feel like leaving.

Sarah: Absolutely. Now that the A line is open, I can be there in even less time!! [Ed. Note: This statement was not paid for by the Metropolitan Council or MetroTransit.]

Rachel: Heck yes, I had a great meal. I’d go back anytime. Seriously. I love the high-end steakhouses in town, but sometimes I want the simplicity and value of a place located in a suburban strip mall next to a Batteries Plus and  FedEx.

Return potential rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Favorite part:

John: Special guests! We had 4 special guests join us. My wife Jenny(despite her worries about the food) joined us. Sean, Rachel’s husband had the night off from hosting 331 trivia so he tagged along. Lastly, Britt and Alicia(Rachel’s friends from Fargo) joined us because they were going to the Beyonce concert the next day. But that’s whole other story.

Jenna:  I agree with John – the specials guests were a nice enhancement! Also, it was fun change of scenery from our usual Sunday night at the 331.

Rachel: Seeing others enjoy the glory of a Bloomin Onion for the first time. Seeing John rethink his low rating of Outback from his original rankings. And having a large, fun-loving group there!

Enjoying each others' company immensely.
Enjoying each others’ company immensely.

Least favorite part:

John: Not one person asked me if I wanted another shrimp on the barbie. Bulls***.

Overall Outback Steakhouse rating:

cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Look out for our next Casual Encounter, coming soon: The Rainforest Cafe!


We Go to Old Country Buffet…Not Because It Is Easy….

…But because it is hahd*.

*JFK voice

Easily the least-anticipated of all the potential casual dining experiences (save for “getting hit by a car”), our excursion to OCB (ranked #26 on our list) was taken on with the grim determination that only middle-class hipsters can muster when faced with this vestige of suburbia.

A few years ago, OCB went through something of a rebranding process. They added some fancier dishes in hopes of capturing the public’s disdain for sh***y food. A few years after that, they’ve closed many of their locations. As it turns out, when you’re known for sh***y food, it doesn’t matter how many times you say “we’ve added non-sh***ty stuff to the lineup!” Every 22-year-old social media twerp will tell you, and they’re right: Branding is everything.

With only one OCB remaining in the Twin Cities metro, our choice of location was somewhat limited. This was our last shot before this casual dining experience is gone.

Our rankings:

Food: Overall, the food surpassed our expectations. Which is to say it was pretty bad, but not shockingly bad. Each of us found a couple of things that were downright edible. The orange chicken (aka chicken nuggets with sweet and sour sauce) was the clear winner.


If brown or white foods are your thing, you’re in the right place. 

John says: My highlights were the orange chicken and the surprisingly good potato salad. My lowlight was a slice of roast beef so chewy they could have sold it as roast beef flavored gum and I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

Aaron says: A few standouts: baked ham (I managed to line up for the hand-carved ham right when they brought a fresh one out, so it was fresh and tasty), dinner rolls (buttery and fluffy!), chicken pot pie. A few poor choices: rib tips (I couldn’t discern if there was any meat on the bone, or if it was all just bone), the Montreal veggies (might have been good if they were fresh, but by the time I got them they were pretty soggy).

Jenna says: Standouts: fried chicken (better than KFC, on par with Hornbachers which I totally enjoy). Orange chicken was very good. However many items looked less appetizing than school cafeteria food, notably the refried beans (looked like they’d been sitting their for days. The same cheese sauce was used for the nachos and the macaroni and cheese, and I use the term cheese sauce loosely.

Sarah says: the fact that it was a buffet meant you could dig through all the crap to find the few things that were palatable. I am pretty sure the macaroni & cheese included cheese whiz as the #1 ingredient. The meatloaf was surprisingly delicious – it had just the right texture, and came with a yummy sauce. Sadly, I only had one piece before they switched that section of the buffet to some type of disgusting looking mystery meat. The dinner rolls tasted fresh out of the oven and were buttery and tasty. I liked the jello whip, but combining cool whip and cubes of jello in a bowl is not really a culinary accomplishment to brag about.

Rachel says: I skipped so many things based on looks alone, so I can’t say too much. You eat with your eyes first, and my eyes were all “blech.” That being said, the chicken-based things were all decent. The mini chicken pot pie was a standout and made me feel dainty (no easy feat).

Rating: cheesecakecheesecake

Ambience: OCB gives each of its buffet sections totes adorbs nicknames, like Maple Street Bakery and Fire Mountain Roasters Coffee. Other than that, it was a run-of-the-mill buffet setting with dusty pastel colors and fluorescent lighting.

Sarah says: I expected noise, long lines, rowdy kids, spontaneous “Make America Great Again” chants, etc. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter none of these. It was pretty quiet and orderly. But it was still an OCB.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecake

Casualosity: Casual, and how! Our group saw a wide range of Casualosity levels, from flip-flops and sweats to peoples’ Sunday church outfits. Everyone can feel comfortable here.


OCB’s casualosity packs ’em in on a Sunday. 

John says: This is probably the most casual place to eat. No server bothering you. Eat as much as you want. They even had a mini arcade. It was kind of a lame arcade but noteworthy nonetheless.

Jenna says: Suppppppeeerrrr casual. So casual I was able to walk in without paying. Although let the record show I went back and after I realized you were supposed to do that first. (Editor’s note: This incident was hilarious, and Jenna is a more honest person than any of us by going back and paying. Frankly, with the way things are going for OCB, it felt more like a donation than payment.)

Sarah says:  It doesn’t get much more casual than this without being fast food.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Service: Not much to say initially, since it’s a buffet. But the staff we did interact with were friendly and efficient. Our dirty plates never sat on the table for more than a couple of minutes before being scooped up by someone. OCB could really do with stocking their bathrooms with free tampons. Just a suggestion.

Jenna says: They were speedy in collecting dirty plates, which I appreciated. Other than that we didn’t see a whole lot of people. However the woman in charge of filling the soda fountain of the future was constantly doing that.

Rachel says: The guy who carved the ham was so nice, I bet he would have hand-fed me if I’d asked. 

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake


Cheesecake: The cheesecake, which came in both plain and strawberry-topped varieties, was clearly an industrial-scale version of that no-bake Jello cheesecake mix you made in your dorm room that one time. Better than the abomination at the Hard Rock Cafe, but still. Other desserts fared better, including a fairly decent single-serve peach cobbler. Not to mention la grande dame of buffet experiences, the make-your-own-sundae station.


Peach cobbler, bread pudding, chocolate cake, cheesecake. Not pictured: A sundae that is 3:1 hot fudge to ice cream. 

Aaron says: Better than HRC, but that’s not saying much. Other desert options fared better, rice crispy bars were decent and whipped Jello was a flashback to childhood.

Jenna says: Better than Hard Rock, that’s for damn sure! Bonus for a decent ice cream bar.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Beverages: Now, here is where OCB decided to throw off the mantel of mediocrity and really shine. If the OCB were the movie “Rudy,” the beverage selection would be that scene where they all lift Rudy on their shoulders in jubilation for kicking a goal or whatever. (Ed. note: The editor has never seen the movie “Rudy.”) Not only did OCB feature two Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, they also had Icee machines! Our crew took full advantage of the situation, mixing the blue flavor and the red flavor for maximum fun. However, points were docked for the lack of alcohol, because SOME people in the group can’t handle the realness of a depressing buffet in the suburbs without a drink. Go figure.


Part red, part blue, all joy.

Aaron says: Icee machine! This made the trip for me. I mixed the red and blue flavors, but the coke flavor was out of order. At some point, someone had the idea to put coke in with the icee to make a flavor vaguely reminiscent of cherry coke.

Rachel says: Even though I only ever get regular-ass Diet Coke, I still love the potential represented by a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine. I like to be bathed in the glow of possibilities, right before I select the same thing I’d get anywhere else. 

John says: Icee machine. Chocolate Milk. No booze though.

Sarah says: Couldn’t have been better from the standpoint of a non drinker.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Return potential: No surprise here, no one in our group was the least bit enthusiastic about coming back.

Aaron says: It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but it was 30 min away and I’m not huge on buffets. Now if there was still a OCB in Highland Park or Roseville (arguably one of the top few suburbs), I could see going back if I really HAD to.

Rating: cheesecake

The best part:

John says: Getting to eat as much as I want.

Aaron says: Icee!

Rachel says: Putting peas on my salad like I was 6 years old again. And that pot pie. And Jenna not realizing she had to pay in advance.

Sarah says: Halfway through the meal when Jenna asked how much the buffet cost, and we all realized she hadn’t paid.

Jenna says: Going to the Home Depot afterwards.

The worst part:

John says: Having to drive to Burnsville.

Aaron says: Having a stomachache all afternoon.

Jenna says: That “cheese” sauce.

Sarah says: The guilt I felt from only eating one bite of my
chicken breast. (At least, I think it was a chicken breast).

Our pro-tips for buffet success:

John says: Always eat salad second. Expand your stomach with some meat, potatoes, etc. first. Then dial it back down with salad. Then ramp back up with whatever you want.

Rachel says: To paraphrase Cher Horowitz, do a lap before you commit to a location. Always scope things out and have a strategy in mind before you start plating.

Jenna says: Skip the salad bar, it will never live up to the Fryn Pan.

Sarah says: OH from the man sitting behind me. “I have diabetes, so my doctor says I shouldn’t come to places like this. But I figure oh, what the hell. We all have to die from something.” OCB should use that for marketing purposes. “Old Country Buffet: Because we all have to die from something.”

Weird combos we saw on other peoples’ plates:

I saw a little girl with broccoli cheese soup and and a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream on top.

A half a plate of raisins.

I saw a six year old with an entire plate heaping with the disgusting macaroni and “cheese.” Where are the parents? When I was little and wanted to fill my entire buffet plate with bacon, my Mom put the kibosh on that and limited me to a still-satisfying four pieces. Thank you, Mom.

Overall rating: 2.5

Next encounter: Outback Steakhouse!


John’s digestif: A giant gumball. 

An Introduction

Casual Encounters of the Food Kind: Introduction

Our friend John Ward loves to rank things (Twin Cities suburbs, Air Bud sequels). When one of us spotted this article online,  it seemed only natural that we would ask him to re-rank this list according to his own, near-impeccable taste. From that re-ranking came a new and glorious idea: Why not try all the restaurants on that list that are in the Twin Cities area? And with that, this random supper club was born.

The official list, determined by Ranker-in-Chief John Ward:

  1. Cheesecake Factory
  2. Red Robin
  3. Buca di Beppo
  4. Cracker Barrel
  5. Benihana
  6. Fuddruckers
  7. Hooters
  8. PF Changs
  9. Macaroni Grill
  10. Applebees
  11. Red Lobster
  12. Olive Garden
  13. Buffalo Wild Wings
  14. Ruby Tuesdays
  15. Tony Romas
  16. Uno Chicago Grill
  17. Dave and Busters
  18. TGI Fridays
  19. Chevys
  20. California Pizza Kitchen
  21. Chilis
  22. Carabbas
  23. Bennigans
  24. Texas Roadhouse
  25. Houlihans
  26. Old Country Buffet
  27. Rainforest Cafe
  28. Ponderosa
  29. Outback Steakhouse
  30. Hard Rock Cafe
  31. Longhorn Steakhouse
  32. Planet Hollywood
  33. Getting hit by a car
  34. Golden Corral


  • Each official dining occasion requires a quorum of at least three (3) members.
  • Visits to restaurants need not be in any particular order. In fact, skipping around will allow us to more accurately rate restaurants and to not drive ourselves insane by going to the Mall of America too many times in a row.
  • Because The Cheesecake Factory is the gold standard against which everything else is compared, our rating system will be a scale of 1-5 cheesecakes for all categories.


  • Each member who attended that particular dining experience will be asked for their thoughts and rankings. Those scores will then be added up and averaged to determine final number of cheesecakes.
  • When applicable, a chain that is not found in the Twin Cities area will be replaced by a similar local chain (a casual dining restaurant with three or more metro locations).


Food – Quality/taste, menu selection, value for money

Ambience – Décor, lighting, volume, and general vibe

Service – Speed, friendliness, attention to detail

Casualosity ™ – Does it deserve to be called casual dining? Is it DTF?

Return potential – Would you go back? Or, what would you rather to than go back?

Cheesecake – Do they have cheesecake? If so, we are required to try it and rate it

Beverages – Selection (both N/A and A), preparation

Our first stop: Hard Rock Café at the Mall of America…