Tag Archives: panic ordering

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.

Benihana and the Jets

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

And now, to the review…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soup and tea. Tea and soup.

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

Food rating: 

Beverages: 

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

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

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

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

Beverages rating: 

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

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

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

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

Service rating: 

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

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

John, enthralled.

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

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

Ambience rating: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casualosity rating: 

Dessert: 

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

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

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

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

Dessert rating: 

Favorite part:

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

Rachel says: The culinary theatrics. 

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

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

Lease favorite part:

John says: Lots of dude bros.

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

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

Overall rating:

Red Lobster at Night, Casual Diner’s Delight

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

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

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

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

Food:

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

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

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

Tilapia Monday

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

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

Food rating:  

Beverages:

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

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

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

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

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

Beverages rating:

Service:

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

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

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

Service rating:

Ambience:

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

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

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

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

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

Ambience rating:

Casualosity:

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

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

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

Crocs. Very casual, very gross.

Casualosity rating:

Dessert:

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

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

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

Dessert rating:

Favorite part:

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

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

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

Least favorite part:

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

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

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

Overall rating: 

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

 

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.

Food:

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

Beverages:

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

Casualosity:

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

Ambiance:

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

Service:

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

Dessert/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.”

Food:

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

Ambience:

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

Service:

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

Casualosity:

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

Cheesecake:

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

Beverages:

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.

Mistake.
Mistake.

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.

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!

Yes We Houlihan’s, or: A Tale of Free Tampons

Our second Casual Encounter, at Hoolihan’s (#25 on our list) was leaps and bounds better than the HRC debacle. Sure, sometimes those bad experiences bring groups together, like in trench warfare or the ladies bathroom at da club, but sometimes you just need the restorative pleasure of a decent casual dining experience. Our rankings:

Food: Compared to HRC, this was the deluxe tasting menu at the French Laundry. Compared to other restaurants, it was actually pretty good.

John says: Surprisingly decent. I had the Cheesy Yum Yum Good Times Burger. It was to my liking (medium rare) and loaded with gooey cheese and a lettuce mix of some sort. I got a side of asparagus which was fine but got cold fast.

Andrea says: I thought the food was pretty good. I liked the fact that they asked how I wanted my burger cooked, although, I asked for medium and they brought it to me medium well. It was an ok burger, but nothing to rave about.

Jenna says: I took a chance and tried an dish from their “#inspiralized” menu and had a noodle-less butternut squash and sausage lasagna – and was super impressed! The portion size was perfect, and it felt fresh with the right ratio of cheese-to-greens-to-noodles. The side of zucchini “noodles” was underwhelming, but overall good! The desserts were excellent. Expectations exceeded, well done.

Rachel says: I was all set to get something else, and then panic-ordered a salad with bbq salmon on it. I don’t exactly regret my decision, but I wish I’d had the guts to try the #inspiralized menu like Jenna did. That salad was not me living my best life. But it was fine.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Ambience: With so much room to spread out in the suburbs, we were surprised to find that Houlihan’s shares a building with an Allina clinic and a few other things. That auxilary-restaurant situation, coupled with the decor, had many in our group drawing apt comparisons to a hotel restaurant. Not bad, but zero charm. Not even fun crap on the walls like at a TGI Friday’s.

John says: Fairly sparse compared to the Hard Rock. Lots of TVs tuned into the Wild game. Around 7:30 the bar area became dude bro central. Lots of tats.

Andrea says: I really liked the ambiance. The colors were dark like a cozy library. The booths were nice and big so I didn’t have to touch my friends.

Jenna says: I didn’t love that the restaurant was inside an office building. The decor was not memorable, but the booths were comfortable and the bathrooms were clean. The bar had a nice relaxed vibe, but the main dining area felt like a standard hotel restaurant. I liked the young, suburban clientele that filled the bar to watch the Wild game.

*Editor’s note: 5 cheesecakes for Jenna’s fancy use of the word ‘clientele.’

Rachel says: I appreciated the faux-outdoor seating that was in the atrium of the building. I bet it would be a good place for al fresco dining during the winter, and to also people-watch the folks going to the clinic next door and guess what’s wrong with each of them. There was nothing special about the restaurant ambience itself.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Service: An average level of service was taken to a new level by the discovery of free tampons (Tampax, regular flow, cardboard applicator) in the ladies’ room. Not to mention Salon Selectives hairspray, which our group didn’t even know was still in production.

Andrea says: The host offered to seat me right away, even when I informed her that I was waiting for three friends. I chose to wait in the waiting area, and good thing I did, because she ended up showing Rachel and I the super secret stash of mints in the cupboard, and basically told us that if we wanted to take a handful, that she prefer we took them from there. The server was fine. Not very chipper, but that’s annoying anyway. Now the women’s bathroom is where this place really shines. FREE TAMPONS.  Also, Salon Selectives hair spray and some sort of vanilla scented body spray, I suppose in case you want to hook up with one of the bros watching hockey in the bar.

John says: Our server was actually good. Attentive and affable. Don’t remember his name though. From Andrea we learned that the women’s bathroom had free tampons and hair spray. So that’s baller I guess. The men’s room didn’t have any free s**t. Men are so oppressed.

Jenna says: Our server was not overly attentive, but he also wasn’t annoyingly chatty. Major bonus points for the FREE tampons, that’s an easy way to win me over, fo sho!

Rachel says: Our server went missing quite a few times, like when I was waiting on a refill of my iced tea, or when we wanted the check. But when he was physically at our table, he did a fine job. Andrea is right: If you want free mints, be sure to hit up the Richfield Houlihan’s. They’re pretty chill about you taking a handful. I’d like to point out that I was the first person to go to the restroom, so I was the bearer of the good news regarding the free tampons. So there.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Casualosity(tm): Spot on.

Jenna says: Super casual. Too casual for a first date or big celebration, but perfect for a Monday night with friends (BUT NOT AARON SMITH).

*(Ed. note: Aaron Smith was too cool to attend this encounter, despite previous verbal commitments to the contrary. You’re on notice, Aaron.)

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Return potential: The consensus was that we would all go back if we were in the area, though that doesn’t seem likely. Unless any of us ladies suddenly get our period and are in the south metro. In that case, you know where to find us. 

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecake

Cheesecake: There wasn’t actually any cheesecake on the menu. We knew this would be a potential hazard during these adventures, so this rating will be on the desserts we did have, meaning a creme brulee and carrot-cake-in-a-jar, which is exactly what it sounds like. These desserts came second only to the free tampons in terms of level of excitement. Plus, men can enjoy these desserts as well.

Jenna says: Real real good. I normally don’t go for creme brule, but I thought there’s was pretty damn good. Perfect size – not too big, not too small.

John says: Creme brulee and carrot cake in a jar. YES, IN A JAR! They were both quite good.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Beverages: Much was made of the fact that Mondays are “half priced bottle of wine night” at Houlihan’s. We took full advantage of it with a bottle of red and a bottle of white. They even brought out one of those holders to keep the white wine cold during our meal. Classy! But Pepsi products (as opposed to Coke) and a lame tap list kept it from being too high in our rankings.

Rating: cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Best part:

John says: Getting to say Cheesy Yum Yum Good Times Burger while trying to keep a straight face.

Andrea says: Obvs the tampons

Rachel says: The sisterhood of elation upon the discovery of the free tampons. FREE TAMPONS FOR PRESIDENT.

Worst part:

The location. Sorry, Richfield. You’re no SLP or Roseville.

Overall cheesecake ranking:

cheesecakecheesecakecheesecakehalf cheesecake

Our next encounter: Old Country Buffet in Burnsville!