Tag Archives: free bread

Cheesecake Factory: The Final Causal Frontier

Guys. 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.

Before.
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.

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.

Food:

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: 

Beverages:

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:

Service:

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:

Ambiance:

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:

Casualosity:

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:

Dessert/cheesecake:

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.

So….full…

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: 

Milwaukee Throwdown

As some of you might know, Casual Encounters of the Food Kind hit the road a couple of weeks ago in pursuit of some casual dining experiences that can no longer be had in the Twin Cities, or indeed in the entire state of Minnesota. Our two contestants were #20-ranked California Pizza Kitchen (no, there are no longer any CPK’s in MN, despite what you remember. Yes, even the one at Southdale is gone.) and #22-ranked Carraba’s Italian Grill. Rather than do a classic ratings rundown, we decided to do a little head-to-head competition between the two to see who was the best. Or, as the case turned out, who was the least mediocre. Let’s get ready to rumble!

Food:

We went in with fairly low expectations. This was encouraged by the horrified reaction of whomever we told where we were dining while in Milwaukee. “But…there are so many good restaurants!” they’d say. “We know,” we’d say. “But that’s not why we’re doing this. Our cause is noble and our dining casual.”

Carraba’s rundown:

Carraba’s had ample free bread and included a free side salad with many of their entrees. These are niceties you just don’t generally get at those farm-to-table spots.

John says: They cooked the steak to my liking. I got my choice of flavored butter to top it, too. 
Rachel says: Well cooked, moist chicken. Good ratio of protein to greens. Included side salad…..NICE.
Aaron says: I really enjoyed it. The pork-on-pork [Ed. note: Prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin. Semed like overkill, but I’m Jewish, so what do I know.] was okay, however the chicken marsala was very good, the mushrooms were a definite stand out.
Jenna says: I ordered incorrectly. My pasta dish was unremarkable. Unless you are John Ward and eat in your sleep [Ed. note: He really does this. Ask him about it.]. Then it’s DELICIOUS.
California Pizza Kitchen rundown:
The starter, some ginger-soy dumplings, was the standout of the evening. Delicious with lots of flavor, and enough to share. We split two pizzas: The signature BBQ chicken pizza, and the thin crust spinach-artichoke pizza.
Spinach-artichoke pizza: Thin, crispy crust was perfectly thin and crispy. Good cheese blend.
BBQ chicken pizza: John and Rachel say fine. Aaron says mediocre. Jenna says: Terrible – basically cardboard with the blandest BBQ sauce imaginable and rubbery chicken. All agree that it was probably just a CPK brand frozen pizza. 
Verdict: It should be called California Ginger Dumpling Kitchen. The category goes to Carraba’s.
Carraba’s food rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake
Ambience:
To try and keep the playing field level, we ate at both places around 8pm, post-dining-rush, and sat on the patio. Though the time and setting were largely the same, the two scenarios were quite different.
Carraba’s rundown:
Rachel says: I wasn’t really pleased, but I wasn’t really displeased either. It could have been the patio for any casual dining establishment. I got neither “Italian” nor “grill” vibes from it. 
CPK rundown:
Jenna says: When we arrived, there were four tables on the patio that had yet be cleared, and they stayed that way for at least 30 minutes. While this falls more under the service category, it definitely affected the overall ambience. That shit wouldn’t fly at the Fryn’ Pan. Also, the bathroom situation was not up to par – water (pee?) on floor, and paper towels everywhere.
Aaron says: The chairs were somehow too small for my bony body. Don’t know how they managed that. 
Rachel says: The track lighting over our table was broken, and the server didn’t mention it. It’s not hard to eat pizza in the dark, but that’s not what I’m here for.
Verdict: Carraba’s ekes out a victory again by being pretty clean, unoffensive, and more comfortable for Aaron’s skeletal frame. The category goes to Carraba’s.
Carraba’s ambience rating: cheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake
Beverages:
Like any typical casual dining experience, the beverage list at each place was of considerable size yet managed to not really entice anyone at our table.
Carraba’s rundown:
Aaron says: I got an  Arnie Palmer, which came with free refills. Score!
Jenna says: I got a nice glass of rose, which Rachel reminded me goes well with everything, and also goes well with just my mouth. 
Rachel says: My water was nice and watery. 
CPK rundown:
Jenna’s Moscow Mule was delightfully refreshing and helped her “choke down [her] cardboard pizza.” The rest of crew left the drinking to Jenna and enjoyed water.
Verdict: A tie!
Overall beverages ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake
Service:
It became apparent that both servers were basically just phoning it in, ready to be done for the evening and hit up the Milwaukee suburbs. It should be noted that our previous Causal Encounter at Rainforest Cafe introduced us to Earth, the best server this side of the Mississippi. So we still coming off that high, and ain’t no one gonna live up to EARTH.
Carraba’s rundown: Although our server, Destiny, warmed up later in the evening, she initially was ICE COLD. However bonus points for the manager checking in with us on our dining experience. That’s a level of hospitality you don’t see at every Casual Encounter establishment.
CPK rundown: The aforementioned messy tables and bathrooms were a major points boner killer. Our server was fine, but could have been more attentive with refilling glasses and asking if we (ahem, Jenna) wanted more Moscow Mules.
Verdict: Tie!
Overall service ratingcheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake
Casualosity:
Both were fairly casual, although CPK had a preponderance of strollers and children, which always brings up the casualosity level.
Verdict: California Pizza Kitchen takes the category.
CPK casualosity ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake
Dessert:
Carraba’s rundown: We broke one of our rules and ordered tiramsu, instead of cheesecake because it was a ricotta-based cheesecake, and Rachel was previously traumatized by a ricotta cheesecake incident. Consensus was that it was “quite good.” No regrets.
CPK rundown: No cheesecake available, at least not from what we could piece together from the menu and the server’s apathetic description of the seasonal dessert, and to be honest, after that disappointing pizza experience, everyone wanted to leave. We did enjoy delicious frozen custard from Milwaukee’s world famous KOPP’S. Except for Aaaron because he ordered some lemon bulls***. WTF Aaron, who orders lemon ice cream?!? [Ed. note: It tasted like Lemon Pledge. Unpleasant.]
Verdict: Kopp’s obviously won, but in keeping with the (loosely enforced) rules of the game, we’d have to say Carraba’s.
Carraba’s dessert ratingcheesecakecheesecakecheesecake
Return potential: 
John says: I won’t set foot in a CPK again. Carabbas was fine. If someone had a bday party, I would go after suggesting a different venue.
 
Overall winner: Carraba’s
Overall rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake
Overall REAL winner: Our group, and the city of Milwaukee. It’s not often that the idea of a road trip actually turns into a road trip, but we did it, folks. And Milwaukee is a lovely town.
Join us for our next casual dining adventure at Chevy’s!

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.

Meh.
Meh.

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!