Tuesday, May 3, 2011

O’Charley’s

190 Gravois Bluff Circle
Fenton, MO

http://www.ocharleys.com/

The Party:

I can’t jump in on the main meal for this weekend without mention of the more significant event on Saturday.

Verna Sims, one of the liveliest and most talented writers in the Writers Society of Jefferson County (WSJC) had a birthday last week. To celebrate we threw her a party at Ann Wells’ large home.

Verna turned 90.

The turnout was large and included many members of her family as well as a good many of our writer’s group. It was strictly a cake, ice cream and finger snack event. Annette Ray, WSJC’s current president provided party hats. But not just any hats. Verna fancies visors, like the ones you see on tourists in sunny places. So Annette found/made colorful, some even glittery, visors for everyone. They were adorned with dangling curled ribbons, a touch guarantied to make a fool out of just about everyone that put them on. And we all did. Rather than traditional gifts, Verna had requested (insisted really, she’s feisty that way) that we each provide her with something we had written so she could include it in a 3-ring binder as a keepsake. I do know that more than one of us put in some extra hours of effort to come up with something suitable.

As for my gift, I printed out the rough working draft of the first two chapters of a project I’ve been working on quietly for a couple of years now, a novel based on the county poor farm, set in the late 1800’s. Verna has shown a continued interest in that effort and has provided a lot of inspiration and encouragement.

Verna’s own writing revolves around her early years, growing up in almost constant financial struggle, making do without luxuries, yet thriving in a strong family. Her stories paint broad, vivid pictures of things and times that I can only imagine. She does it so well that imagining them is not difficult at all.

Verna only started writing when she was in her 80’s, I think she was kind of busy before that. Her work has been published in the local papers many, many times, she’s one of our most prolifically published writers.

Anyway, as it is tritely said, a good time was had by all even though there was no conga line, strippers, karaoke, booze, gambling, 'adult' games or naughty gifts (that I am aware of). At the end of the party everyone wrote a small sentiment on their visors and gave them to Verna.

Plans are to hold a similar party for her in ten years.

What’s this have to do with food you ask?

Because of the cakes.

There was a traditional frosted birthday cake, chocolate with sugary white frosting, and then there was the ‘Texas Sheet Cake’ made by Elaine B. Elaine often bakes little cakes for our regular meetings and does quite well keeping them tame, but tasty. This monster she made for the party though was quite something else. As I understand it this sheet cake, is made with butter, two kinds of chocolate, butter and butter, sprinkled with sugar and maybe some more butter.

The taste was awesome, for the first few bites. After that I felt it wise, considering the average age of the attendees, to have at least one ambulance standing by. My ears buzzed, my face flushed and I suffered the desperate urge to run, skip, and turn somersaults.

And then there was Ann's bold move. She made tea.

Those of you familiar with my reviews may have picked up on the fact that I am somewhat picky about iced tea. Ann certainly knows this. I overheard a couple of people go up to her and say: “You knew Dennis was coming and you made tea anyhow?”

But Ann wasn’t afraid, she has been paying attention. It was fresh, and it was Luzianne. I had two glasses of it and congratulated her. She took the accolades in stride.

The cakes and the tea I had mid-afternoon set the stage for my choices at:

The Place:

O’Charley’s is a chain of 200+ restaurants in the midwest and south. It was started in 1969 in Nashville, Tennessee across from Vanderbilt University, one of the many places my saintly mother has a degree from. It’s a chain not unlike Ruby Tuesday’s, Chili’s or Outback in style, price and fare. We’ had been avoiding O’Charley’s up till now since the last time we ate there, right before we started the Eat and Critique quest, we were bitterly disappointed. I didn’t write anything down at the time, but I recall that the steak was very tough and rubbery. We returned this night to see if maybe that last encounter was a fluke.

The large restaurant was crowded and the din was that of a lively sports bar without the actual sports. There may have been a ballgame on a TV somewhere, but I didn’t notice it. What I did notice was the large table next to the booth at which we were seated. Seven or eight couples all decked out in formal attire, like that you would see at a prom. The young ladies were perm’d and tightly squeezed into ridiculously shiny, billowy and flowing gowns. Their dates wore starched shirts and ties and probably jackets. We suspected a prom but questioned that later as the boys/men were all sipping beers and it appeared that the ladies were holding fruity, colorful mixed drinks. I’m sure O’Charley’s does not ever overtly sell booze to minors, so it may not have been a prom, though I can’t imagine any other venue where those dresses would be appropriate.

The menus were typical of the bigger chains, steak, seafood, pasta and appetizer sections. Angel wanted a steak, I didn’t, still buzzing and queasy from the party cakes. Nor did I want tea, Ann had already set the bar too high for that.

We ordered our drinks and for the first time that I can recall, no one got tea. Angel had pink lemonade, Adam got his Pepsi, I went for beer.

Yes, Beer. Budweiser Select, to be specific. Not because I worked at AB for three + years, or was a card carrying member of the ‘Royal and Ancient Order of Elbow Benders’ while working there. No, I ordered Select since they were running a special on it and Bud Select is not as disgusting as some other big-beer choices.

The Food.

I didn’t want steak, so I opted for fish and chips, batter-fried cod and fries. Angel jumped in and asked for the steak and shrimp scampi, with Caesar salad and a baked potato. Adam ordered the chicken tenders and fries. I was a bit concerned as the waiter, a big, happy guy confidently took our order without writing it down. I guess we are supposed to be impressed by this little trick, but it’s only really impressive if they get it right. That sort of talent is quite rare though. Frankly I’d rather have the order delivered correctly rather then by memory. I’m not really distracted by the whole writing-it-down process.

We watched the party table as we waited. A fairly sedate group, most of the ladies fussed and fidgeted with their cumbersome and scratchy gowns, the gentlemen were each on their second or third beer and seemed rather calm.

We were served bread, wide, flat rolls (advertised as 'unsliceably soft') that were about 99% air. Just picking one up crushed them. They were fresh and warm and when buttered, though cutting them open to butter them almost destroyed them completely, they were however, quite tasty. The waiter asked if we wanted more, we said no, but he brought some anyhow and they are now sitting in a dumpster or landfill somewhere. (strike one?)

Adam was giddy that the drinks had been served with bendy-straws, in his view one of the 20th Century’s greatest inventions. I didn’t have a straw, I had beer.

I’m not a big beer drinker. Since I left AB two years ago I’ve only had maybe three or four beers. It’s not my favorite drink, nor my poison of choice. I have nothing against beer, but it can be quite filling and if I’m going to lay out serious change for a big meal I don’t want to fill up on anything fizzy and heavy that would prevent me from eating as much as possible.

I’d had a Sam Adams the week before at a restaurant we didn’t write up, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The Bud Select was not nearly as good.

Angel’s salad arrived, sort of. The waiter delivered it with a question mark. “You wanted ranch dressing right?” Angel had to think, I didn’t, I’d written it down because I always write down what we have so I won’t forget those details. “She ordered the Caesar." I chided. “I did ?” Angel asked. “Oh, we’ll bring that right out…" He looked at me, "Sir would you like a Ranch salad, on the house?” He asked, trying to patch up the error. “No, thank you.” Adam also passed it up. If I’m not mistaken he offered the salad to two or three other tables. (Strike two)

The proper salad finally came, topped with croutons, exactly four of them. This disappointed Angel and Adam. At self-serve salad bars, those two have been known to completely bury the greens in croutons, Adam always steals half from of them from his patient and loving mother. A mere four croutons was a real let-down.

The meals arrived shortly afterward. We dug in immediately, ignoring each other as is our style. My fish was flaky and moist under the light breading. My only complaint was that one of the nuggets was too thick, almost an inch. In my own expert opinion, fish served this style should be small and thin. The tartar sauce was rather bland and unremarkable. The fries were a bit limp, but not disgusting. Long John Silver does a better job with fish and chips.

Angel Really liked the steak, which means our experience of a couple years back may have been just a fluke.

Adam really, really liked the breading on his chicken and did not even make a fuss when not served the dipping sauce he’d ordered. (strike three?)

Summary:

All in all, not a bad meal. The food was better than I had anticipated and my complaints about it are mostly petty. The bill came to about forty bucks, not too bad. The service was not excellent, based mostly on the pointless party trick of memorizing orders rather than writing them down. Details, details, details. Food service is all about the details. Has anyone ever complained anywhere because the wait staff wrote down the orders? If you’re going to try this you darned well better be able to pull it off flawlessly every time. Sure it’s not a huge deal, but our orders were not complicated at all, pretty much straight off the menu. The result of flawed memory games will be reflected in the tip as well as the motivation to return. If I want a simple order botched up I’ll just go to the drive-through at Hardees, it’s a lot cheaper and closer to home.

Other than those, rather minor issues the food was quite good, the atmosphere pretty good (there were screaming children) and the wait staff at least tried to correct their errors. I’ll give the place a B minus though, they could do better.

Disclaimer:

I’d had beer. I’m a relative lightweight when it comes to alcohol, therefore some comments and recollections reflected herein may be clouded or completely erroneous due to the fact that I was a bit tipsy near the end of the meal. Most of my handwriting in my notes after about the halfway point in the meal is even more indecipherable than it usually is. i.e.: “Fsh Bredng: Not to thich”

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