Saturday, March 28, 2020

There Once Was a Fast Food Chain From Holt

My friends and my family can't quell me,
From this rhyming habit, unhealthy,
This limerick shtick, 
Is a moldy old trick,
That I stole from Wait Wait Don't Tell Me.


There once was a fast food chain from Holt,
That sprang up quick, like old Usain Bolt.
Hot 'n Now was their name,
And from Michigan they came.
But they went down in a fast food revolt. 


They didn't have tables or servers, 
And sold drive-thru olive-topped burgers.
Most closed up in the nineties,
Leaving buildings behind, these,
The result of too many bad mergers. 



This one sits abandoned in Grand Rapids.
No new tenant moved in, so it happens.
Unkempt and alone,
Yet next to Auto Zone
One can hope that it's not dead, just nappin'. 
Across town, another is empty.
Devoid of a new occupant's symp'thy.
A later building design,
This Hot 'n Now could be mine.
If a real estate agent could tempt me. 


Not every Hot 'n Now is deserted.
This one, by renovation perverted.
But there's no need to sigh,
Because they serve up pad Thai.
With the building's old branding subverted.  
This one in Saginaw is a vape shop.
For nicotine addicts, a great stop.
Their usual crowd's,
Always ripping fat clouds,
Smelling like Froot Loops, gummies, or grape pop. 

This old Hot 'n Now just sells java,
Presumably served cold or like lava.
Another business in town,
Also makes money off brown.
'Cause that septic truck's not full of guava. 


It's been a while since this one saw action,
Serving ice cream like Robbins and Baskin
Its roof once was red,
But now, it's yellow instead.
And it's named for a film with Bill Paxton.

This Hot 'n Now, of the newer variety,
Gives preservationists little anxiety.
They didn't change much,
Just new signs and such.
So the building maintains notoriety. 
This one in Toledo grew awnings.
At its name, "Netty's," I'm not fawning.
Not Lucy's, nor Linuses,
It will clear out your sinuses.
And the monochrome orange leaves me yawning

This old Hot 'n Now wears a costume.
With a custom facade, it is entombed.
Sir, this is now an Arby's,
Where you stay in your car, please.
There's no dining room just a drive-thru.
That Arby's is my cue for conclusions.
And some vague current event allusions.
This post was brought to you
By Google Street View
Because I'm still stuck in seclusion. 








Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Rax/Rix/Jax Pics

Things haven gotten weird, and I haven’t posted for a while.
I am stuck at home, and I can't travel. 
So I thought I’d write about fast food with style
In hopes that my sanity doesn’t completely unravel. 

Rax Roast Beef is a chain that’s been on my mind,
For the past couple years, since my Rax meat-cute. 
Their decline left hundreds of buildings behind, 
I thought I’d show you some from Google Street View. 

But before I do, I should probably produce, 
From my vast, fast food photo archives, 
Some pictures of Rax locations that are still in use, 
That lurk in dark corners of my hard drive. 

Harlan, Kentucky, birthplace of Raxgiving
Has a classic Rax with slot windows and a solarium.
As the last Rax in the state, it's quite good at outliving,
And functions like a 1980s vivarium.



Joliet, Illinois has the world's oldest Rax.
Despite the roof, it never sold pizza nor breadsticks.
This architecture was typical of Jax,
Jax changed to Rax after it was Rix 
Of these building types there is quite a glut.
If you keep an eye out for their features,
You'll see more Rax buildings than Seymour saw butts, 
When he hid out under the bleachers. 


This Rax in Anderson was the last in Indiana,
But it closed in 2011
It now does Hibachi just like, Benny and Hannah
Hey, at least it's not a Bob Evans. 

This National Coney is an old Rax, you can tell,
On the east side of Metro Detroit.
All things considered, I'd say its aged pretty well,
Which is more than I'd say for Jon Voight. 

Uncle Alligator left this empty Rax long ago,
Back when people still carried a beeper.
How much longer it will stand, nobody knows.
(Please ignore my old Ford Festiver.)

Grand Rapids, Michigan has its own Jax/Rix era relic,
Though it served its last BBC in antiquity.
It's roof resembles the mustache of Tom Selleck,
Now on with the next part of the soliloquy.


Taco Johns removed the solarium here,
At this old Rax in Billings, Montana.
But the slotted windows make its first occupant clear,
Despite the big yellow veranda. 




Frisch's Big Boy took over the Perrysburg Rax,
That's just down the street from Ground Round.
They still serve a buffet and salad bar snacks,
Like they did when Rax was in town. 

Skyline annexed this Rax in Columbus,
To serve a taste of old Cincinnati.
The new color scheme probably caused quite a ruckus.
Blue like Gonzo, yellow like Selma and Patty. 




Canadians brought about this Rax's defeat,
But their victory showed little promise...
...when a new Rax opened right down the street,
In a structure built by Dave Thomas.

So keep your eyes open when you can go out safely, 
There might be an old Rax 'round the corner. 
But for now, please stay inside, even if you're not gravely,
And await restoration of order. 

Thanks for reading this post that I wrote while sheltered in place. 
I hope that things soon start back toward normal. 
I'll try to write more, soon despite no trips outside of my space.
Though the rhyme schemes may become more informal. 


Special thanks to Columbus Restaurant History and Forgotten Michigan for providing information on the addresses of former Rax locations. 





Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Springtime for Ground Round and Bennigan's

I’m writing this post on the heels of the first warm day in March, which occurred, in my part of the world, this past Sunday, offering consolation for the missing hour of sleep the night before, courtesy of the start of daylight saving time. Though the vernal equinox is still a couple weeks out, I’m in a spring state of mind. I’m ready for grass to be green and the flowers to bloom. I’m counting the days until my local walk-up Dairy Queen opens for the season. All around me, both biological and retail life are being reborn, and the broken chains are no exception.

The state of Ohio has proven to be a deep well, which I’ve returned to more times than any other state in search of broken chain experiences. I attribute this mostly to the fact that Ohio’s population is spread evenly across several small to medium-sized cities, providing ideal conditions for broken chains to survive in every corner of the state, not to mention its close proximity since I live nearby in Southeast Michigan, a 45 minute drive from the Ohio state line. Even as I exhaust Ohio’s supply of broken chain sites, new ones have popped up, coming to life after their brands have long laid dormant like perennial flowers or hibernating woodland creatures do as winter gives way to spring. I spent my weekend visiting these newly-minted locations of chains that, by virtue of their recent, limited growth, are now a little less broken. Both the Perrysburg Ground Round (Opened February 2020) and the Steubenville Bennigan’s (Opened November 2018) are locations of two unrelated chains that opened long after a significant decline in their respective brands. In a tribute to the impending rebirth that comes with the spring season, I took a trip to visit both locations in one day.

Loyal readers may recall I’ve written about both Ground Round and Bennigan’s in the past, detailing their declines and assessing the current state of each brand in the present-day. I also made a few missteps in visiting each location that I hoped to correct when revisiting each brand, using the spring season as an excuse to approach each chain with a clean slate, but armed with the knowledge of past experiences. My mistake at Bennigan’s was dining by myself, so my life partner, Esmeralda Fitzmonster came with me on this trip. My blunder at Ground Round was arriving with an insufficient appetite, so Esmeralda and I skipped breakfast, and headed to Perrysburg for an early lunch.



Ground Round was originally a subsidiary of Howard Johnson, back when the name was as, if not more closely associated with restaurants as it was with hotels. As with the Howard Johnson restaurant brand, Ground Round passed between a series of corporate owners until it wound up in the ownership of a consortium of surviving franchisees. At the time of my visit to the Tomah, Wisconsin Ground Round last year, there were 17 locations in the chain, but the new location in Perrysburg is the eighteenth in a chain that once had 200 restaurants. The Perrysburg Ground Round is not only the sole location in Ohio, it’s also the only Ground Round between Milwaukee and Philadelphia, a lone outpost in the fragmented chain, housed in a location the Howard Johnson executives who developed the Ground Round concept would have never dreamed of. The Perrysburg Ground Round is located on the ground floor of a newly-constructed Holiday Inn, literally sharing space with a hotel belonging to its one-time corporate parent’s fiercest competitor. This arrangement is possible due to the dissolution of the official affiliation between the Ground Round and Howard Johnson brands decades ago, which occurred when Howard Johnson’s restaurant and hotel divisions were acquired by separate outside companies. 

The Perrysburg Ground Round shares space with its one-time rival.

Esmeralda and I arrived around 11 on a Saturday morning, parked in a lot still speckled with mud from construction equipment, and headed inside for an early lunch. A hostess was posted near the front door, and immediately seated us in a booth. We had the main dining area to ourselves, though a few patrons were present in the bar, which was housed in a separate room, as it was and is in most, if not all Ground Round locations. The brightly-lit dining room was the antithesis of its dim, windowless counterpart that I’d previously visited in Wisconsin. While that Ground Round location’s decor had nods to the history of Ground Round, none were present in Perrysburg. The vibe was not unlike that of a hotel room, clean and pleasant, if a bit generic. For better or worse, I was very aware I was adjacent to the lobby of a hotel for the duration of my meal.


Why are there booths in this hotel room?
Unlike my previous Ground Round, I ordered something that actually contained ground beef, a Clubhouse Burger, essentially a club sandwich with a ⅓ lb hamburger patty in place of turkey. I was hoping for a better outcome than when I had ordered a club sandwich at Bakers Square a few weeks prior. Esmeralda ordered a burger of her own, and our server arrived with them a few minutes later. While the quadrants of my burger/sandwich hybrid had been hacked into drastically different sizes, the cuts had at least been made at a proper 90 degree angle to the cutting surface, so my Clubhouse Burger was better in terms of construction than the Bakers Square club sandwich. The burger patty was a little on the dry side for a burger, but not unpleasantly so, and had a steaky flavor that made me suspect it had indeed been made with actual ground round rather than the fattier ground chuck that is more commonly used for burgers. Sadly, the top layer was missing the ham that the menu promised would be there, but I hardly missed it thanks to a generous portion of bacon. All was going swimmingly until our server asked how our meal was, and I replied, “So far, so good.” She used my reply as an opportunity to provide us with an unwanted, impromptu dissertation on the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven. My reply to her seemingly provided a flimsy segue, as the film’s dialog apparently contained the very commonly spoken phase, “So far, so good.” She seemed to be a great fan of the movie, but I’d hesitate to go so far as to say it was her favorite, as she could only name two members of the cast, which, I’d wager contains at least five more actors.

I wish I could order all my food cut into quarters and impaled on fancy toothpicks.

Lager and bread, they say could raise the dead. It reminds me of the menu at the Holiday Inn.

A couple slices of ham and a server who is slightly less passionate about mediocre remakes of classic westerns would have made our meal at Ground Round perfect, but aside from these minor nits I’m picking, I have little to complain about. Indeed, there have been times when I’ve been holed up in hotels after a long day on the road wishing for a decent restaurant within walking distance so I wouldn’t have to get back in my car to find something to eat. On non-blog related trips, I’d gladly pay a few dollars more to stay at a hotel with an onsite restaurant so I could have the luxury of not having to leave the building for dinner. While the Ground Round dining room was empty shortly after opening time during our Saturday morning visit, I bet both the dining and bar areas will soon be packed with weary travelers and perhaps even a few locals during the dinner and cocktail hours, if they’re not already.



That afternoon, the story seemed similar on the opposite side of Ohio when we rolled up to the Bennigan’s in Steubenville, which is situated just a few steps from the front door of a Best Western that’s no more than a couple years old. Like the Perrysburg Ground Round, it appears this site was picked with the hotel crowd in mind. Unlike the Ground Round, however, the Steubenville Bennigan’s is a freestanding structure, and is one of three prototype locations in the chain. (The other two are in North Dakota and Texas.) This location opened while I was researching my post about visits to three separate Bennigan’s locations in Michigan, and since then, the Bennigan’s chain has actually gotten a little bit smaller, as two of those Michigan Bennigan’s have closed, leaving only the Mt. Pleasant location open. All told, Bennigan’s is down to 11 locations in the US, and 15 more scattered around Latin America and the Middle East. There were close to 300 of them prior to widespread closures during the Great Recession. The Steubenville Bennigan’s is the only Ohio location, and it’s barely in Ohio, as you can see across the river into West Virginia from the parking lot.

An unusual sign at the Steubenville Bennigan's makes a 90 degree bend. 
Despite the brand’s recent struggles, Bennigan’s parent company, Legendary Restaurant Brands LLC seems to be actively marketing the chain. Menus receive seasonal changes and limited time offers. Their website promises several new locations are soon to open, and judging by the appearance of the inside of the Steubenville Bennigan’s a significant amount of money was spent designing and constructing the new Bennigan’s building. The decor felt vaguely familiar with nods to the brand’s heritage, including a logo printed on a patch of the chain’s trademark hexagonal tile near the front door, yet completely different from any of the ‘80s and ‘90s built Bennigan’s locations I’d visited previously. Laminate flooring and subway tile made the dining room feel modern, but with more than a few nods to the past in the form of collages of Bennigan’s imagery printed on wallpaper and framed photos of beloved menu items adorning the walls.

My beloved hexagonal tile lives on. 
The hostess sat us near the door of a dining room that was nearly half full despite it being well before 5 PM. In addition to Bennigan’s, Legendary Restaurant Brands LLC also owns the rights to the Steak and Ale restaurant brand. While there are no Steak and Ale locations operating, you’ll find a few of their menu items on a special section of the menu at Bennigan’s, and the Bennigan’s website is actively marketing Steak and Ale franchises to anyone who might have the interest and means to open a Steak and Ale of their own. I decided Hawaiian chicken from the Steak and Ale menu sounded decent for dinner, and Esmeralda opted for Bennigan’s famous chicken tenders. Thankfully our server in Steubenville was less chatty than her counterpart back at Ground Round, but as we sat waiting for our meals to arrive, we noticed two things. First our drinking glasses were noticeably dirty, with mysterious spots and streaks on their outsides, and that the restaurant’s manager was making an apology tour of multiple tables near us, attempting to make amends for shortcomings in the food and service while comping various menu items from each table’s tab. When our waitress returned with our order, we asked for new drinks in clean glasses and examined our meals with newly tempered expectations.

My Hawaiian chicken made the cover of the menu. I'm somebody now!

Steak and Ale was known for its steak, ale, and to a lesser extent, Hawaiian chicken.
My meal was decent enough. The pineapple rings and sweet marinade made the grilled chicken breast perfectly pleasant. The rice mixed with vegetable chunks was full of bright and unique flavors, and while my broccoli seemed to have been microwaved, it was at least seasoned nicely. It renewed my desire for someone to open a new Steak and Ale somewhere, preferably in springtime. Esmeralda said her chicken tenders tasted like they had been sitting under a heat lamp for a little too long, but nothing we were served was bad enough that we felt the need to summon the manager so he could atone for the sins of his staff. The Steubenville Bennigan’s served its intended purpose for us, providing a halfway decent meal to folks who had completed a long day on the road. The only difference between us and the typical customer was that Bennigan’s was our destination, not simply an impromptu stop on the way to somewhere else.

Authentic faux-Irish pub decor. 


Like a hotel-adjacent chain restaurant, spring is thought of by many to be merely a stop on the way to summer, but because of the temperate weather and the optimism of new life after a bleak and dreary winter, spring is my destination season every year. You might gather from my ramblings here that I’m a fan of unconventional destinations, and you’d be correct in that assumption, but there is something magical about early efforts at a comeback, whether or not that comeback proves successful. A down, but not out restaurant chain attempting to recapture their former glory adorns a familiar concept with bright and fresh new trappings and a healthy dose of optimism is as magical as springtime to me. Regardless of if these attempted second acts lead to an endless summer of newfound prosperity or a ruthless winter of defeat, I’m happy to experience them in spring when familiar surroundings feel fresh, bright, born anew, and ready to revive a restaurant brand that has languished after far too long of a winter. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Empress of Alexandria


This post is all about Susan's Salon and Spa.

I pride myself on the repertoire of silly songs that I break out at parties and family gatherings, much to the overt annoyance and theoretical amusement of the various friends and loved ones who inexplicably tolerate my continued presence in their lives. Most of them come from old Alan Sherman and Tom Lehrer records or the stack of “Weird Al” Yankovic CDs that filled my teenage CD binder 20 years ago, but while listening to a rerun of Car Talk a few weeks ago, I was reminded of a song that I always wanted to learn. “I’m My Own Grandpa” details an incestuous, but legal marriage that causes the singer to technically become his own grandfather. Naturally, I did the only reasonable thing and played the song on repeat, alternating versions sung by Willie Nelson, Ray Stevens, and even Tom Arnold until I had committed the lyrics to memory so I could loudly sing it at a semi-opportune moment after enjoying a couple of drinks at the next birthday party, wedding, or funeral I attend.

Simultaneous to my study of “I’m My Own Grandpa,” I had been reading up on the history of Cincinnati chili at the suggestion of my friend and fellow restaurant and retail historian Carl Poncherello. The thin stew of ground beef, tomato paste, and Mediterranean spices that was marketed as chili since its earliest days originated at the Empress Chili Parlor, named for its neighbor, the Empress Burlesk (sic) Theater. Macedonian-Greek Immigrant brothers Anthanas “Tom” and Ivan “John” Kiradjieff developed the unique concoction seasoned with the spices of their homeland, and marketed it to Cincinnati's largely Germanic population as chili. The “chili” served over spaghetti and hot dogs became a sensation, and Empress Chili grew to become a local chain. Eventually, their employees and their employees’ employees (grand-employees?) opened chili parlors of their own. Two of those knockoff chili parlors, Skyline and Gold Star, grew into regional chains in the 1970s, but Empress would not enjoy the same growth. The thriving local chain that pioneered a regional delicacy is today a broken chain with one surviving location. Looking at a family tree of all 28 of the chain and independent Cincinnati chili brands that could trace their lineage back to Empress inspired me to write a Weird Al style parody of “I’m My Own Grandpa” with lyrics about the history of Cincinnati chili, because that’s precisely the kind of nerd that I am.

Many many years ago in 1922,
Tom and John Kiradjieff started selling their Greek stew.
They said their stew was chili, but they served it on spaghetti.
The city fell in love with it, and that city was Cincinnati.

They opened the Empress chili parlor near the local burlesque show,
And though initially successful, it was clear they didn’t know,
That their employees would eventu-ally clone their recipe,
And open their own places, leaving Empress in obscurity.

Nicholas Lambrinidies, he was an Empress chef,
But then he founded Skyline. Tom and John were like, “WTF‽”
A bunch of guys started Gold Star in 1965,
Gold Star could trace its history back to Empress. No jive!

Skyline and the Gold Star grew while Empress shrank.
Leaving Empress to do business on the opposite river bank.
They’ve completely left Ohio, and they probably are lucky,
To have just one location left in Alexandria, Kentucky.

The next time that you’re traveling through the Southwest of Ohio,
Take a trip across the river, and give Empress a try-o.
And as you eat your five way join me in this refrain,
Because the original Cincy chili parlor is a broken chain!

It’s a broken chain!
It’s a broken chain!
Yes, a bunch of them closed,
But they’re still not quite hosed!
It’s a broken chain!

These are the cups I received from Carl at Empress. Yes, there really was a time when Captain D's sold hamburgers. 

Now that I’ve gotten my sillies out, I should probably tell you a little about my experience at the last operating Empress Chili. I had planned to meet Carl and his wife Lorelai there at their 11 AM open time on a Sunday morning. Because Carl and I are a very similar type of nerd, we both arrived 15 minutes early, and killed time by taking part in what is akin to a ceremonial gift exchange between diplomats of two friendly nations. I give him branded disposable cups I’ve accumulated in my travels, and he gives me duplicate vintage branded disposable cups from his latest eBay and flea market acquisitions. This time around, I also brought him a bottle of Michigan Big Boy special sauce in response to him bringing me a jar of tartar sauce from the Cincinnati-based Frisch’s Big Boy a few months prior. The flashing LED open sign in the building’s entryway came on just as we were concluding our diplomatic exercise, and the three of us found our way inside. 


The flatscreen modern menu boards are the only nod to modernity. 

I should mash the proverbial pause button here, because we’ve reached the point in our tale where Carl, Lorealai, and I walked up to the counter and ordered our meals, and there is some jargon involved in ordering Cincinnati chili that may sound strange the uninitiated. Most Cincinnati chili joints have a 3 way, 4 way, and 5 way on the menu. Empress invented this system of quickly describing what ingredients you want on your pile of chili and spaghetti. No one eats Cincinnati chili without spaghetti, and you’re sure to give yourself away as a muggle if you order a bowl of plain chili. Instead, locals order chili-topped spaghetti, using a numbered “Way” system to quickly specify their desired toppings. This jargon is generally accepted across all Cincinnati chili joints, not to mention some non-Cincinnati based chains like Steak ‘n Shake and G.D. Ritzy’s who serve Tex-Mex Chili over spaghetti. The generally accepted “Ways” to order Cincinnati chili are as follows:

3 Way - spaghetti, chili, shredded cheddar cheese

4 Way - spaghetti, chili, diced onions, cheddar cheese

5 Way - spaghetti, chili, diced onions, kidney beans, cheddar cheese.

There are also chili dogs, known as coneys, with the same chili and cheese, plus optional mustard and onions at most Cincinnati chili places, yet another menu offering that originated at Empress and was widely copied. 

The blue diamonds on the room divider are reminiscent of the jewel in the crown of the Empress logo. 

While the tables and chairs give a nice '90s Taco Bell vibe. 

Everything had been thoroughly cleaned, but the artwork had been on the walls for a solid quarter century. 
I ordered myself a 3 way and a coney dog, but Carl and Lorelai ordered a 4 and 3 way respectively, skipping the coney dogs altogether. The cashier told us the day’s first batch of spaghetti wasn’t quite cooked, and that she’d bring our order out to us, so we took a seat in a booth near the front of the sparkling clean dining room with a pink and green color palette from 1992. I amused myself by using my phone to attempt to join the Empress VIP group advertised on the napkin holder at the table, only to be prompted for a serial number on a membership card the napkin holder had neglected to mention and that I lacked the will to ask for back at the order counter. 

Sounds easy, right? 

The napkin holder told me nothing about a rewards card! There are many things to love about Empress, but the cumbersome process needed to join the rewards program is not one of them. 

Not long after that, our order arrived. I’m probably a little too proud that I’m able to note subtle distinctions in flavor between Gold Star and Skyline chili. I’ve long suspected that Gold Star goes a little heavier on the cinnamon, but I soon noticed that Empress chili tastes almost exactly like Skyline chili, which really means that Skyline chili tastes almost exactly like Empress chili since Empress was the originator. Either way, Empress chili had the distinctively delicious, yet familiar flavor of Cincinnati. Likewise, Skyline uses a soft, skinless hot dog that’s remarkably similar to the one I had in my Empress coney. While enjoying my meal, I had a second look at the menu board and discovered Empress also sells single and double decker deli sandwiches for patrons who make the insane decision to not order chili. Suspiciously, Gold Star also features a menu of cold cut sandwiches of varying heights for non-chili eaters. Even with some extra cinnamon in their chili to set them apart, Gold Star’s similar sandwich stacking strategy smacks of palpable, petty plagiarism of the non-chili based offerings at Empress. 

A Cincinnati-flavored feast. 
In the year 2000, Empress came out on top in a taste showdown with both the big chains, Dixie, a minor chain, and Camp Washington, an independent chili joint.

There’s a trick to eating a plate of Cincinnati chili. One has to fight the urge to twirl the spaghetti around a fork, and instead cut individual bites from the pile to ensure even distribution of the distinct layers. I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky where Gold Star Chili has had locations for decades, and had long thought I had mastered the art of consuming Cincinnati chili, but my method was put to shame when, at the conclusion of the meal, my plate was covered in a layer of chili runoff and bits of errant noodles, while Carl and Lorelai’s plates were nearly clean, an amazing feat considering Cincinnati chili is much thinner than the Tex-Mex stuff. When I asked the Cincinnati-area natives how they managed to pick up nearly every bit of the thin chili with only a fork, they only muttered something about the absorbent properties of the oyster crackers that had come with our meals. I was distracted from questioning them further by an employee who offered us each free chocolate chip cookies, which tasted as if they had been baked both recently and perfectly, with a crispy exterior ring surrounding a moist and chewy center. If I were a more paranoid person, I’d suspect the cookies were a misdirect designed to keep me, a relative outsider, from learning some secret chili-eating method known only to residents of the OH-KY-IN tri-state area. Fine Cincinnati. Keep your secrets. You can’t stop me from messily eating your delicious chili. 

I would have loved this cookie almost as much if it weren't free. 

I studied the menu board yet again while I enjoyed my complimentary cookie, and noticed a couple of curiosities I hadn’t seen at other Cincinnati chili places, the first being a “Spagoney,” which is a coney with spaghetti in place of a hot dog, and a chili pizza, a pizza crust topped with chili and cheese. I was put off by the idea of a spagoney, as I was never one for carbs on carbs, but I couldn’t get the chili pizza out of my head as I walked out to the parking lot and exchanged goodbyes with Carl and Lorelai. Once they had left, I headed back inside the now-crowded dining room and ordered a chili pizza to go so that I could shame-eat it in my car, as I had once done with an Emburger in Minnesota. When I ordered, the cashier asked if I wanted my chili pizza microwaved, and I responded in the affirmative without thinking much about it. Presumably, the default state of a chili pizza is hot chili and cold cheese thrown on top of a pre-baked crust, while a microwaved chili pizza has had its cheese melted by science. My microwaved chili pizza looked and tasted about as you’d expect, with stretchy, viscous melted cheddar on a soft, pallid crust overflowing with chili. The doughy crust tore easily with a plastic fork, which was handy, considering it was far too messy for me to attempt to pick up. The chili pizza was unattractive and underwhelming compared to the spaghetti dishes and coneys. It was pretty clear why Skyline, Gold Star, or the myriad other Cincinnati chili places hadn’t copied the chili pizza, but I couldn’t help but think that I could create a better one. 

Not to get all Gordon Ramsay, but this might have looked better had it not been microwaved. 
Crust detail

I’d been holding on to a hard to find can of Empress chili that Carl had procured at the only grocery store he knew to carry it and given to me in a previous diplomatic gift exchange. A few days after eating at the last Empress Chili, I set out to build a better chili pizza, mainly just for fun and so I could write about it here, although I also briefly entertained the thought that I could open my own chili pizza place, ripping off one of the last bits of Empress that had not yet been re-purposed for a profit. Since they’re seemingly the only menu items that don’t have analogs at Skyline and Gold Star, the chili pizza and Spagoney comprise the stump of the Empress Chili Giving Tree, and I couldn't help but think that at least one of these innovations of the original Cincinnati chili chain had some untapped potential.

This...
...plus this...


...equals an almost pizza-like result.

I decided to keep it simple, as the Empress chili pizza had set the bar low, so I simply spread some Empress Chili directly from the can on a Boboli pizza crust, then threw the whole thing in the oven, following the instructions on the pizza crust package. When the savory, saucy dough circle emerged from the oven, I piled some freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese on top. I opted not to bake the cheese because nearly all Cincinnati chili dishes are topped with cold grated cheese, and unmelted cheese on top of hot pizza is not unprecedented. DiCarlo’s, a chain of no frills carryout pizza joints in the Steubenville, Ohio area tops their crispy rectangular pizza slices with cold shredded mozzarella. I’ve even heard it called Steubenville-style pizza. 

Some cold shredded cheese improves the appearance. 

My take on the Cincinnati chili pizza was more sliceable and easier to eat with my hands than the Empress interpretation, and I suspect it would benefit from the addition of diced onions, kidney beans, and/or cut up hot dogs to transform a basic 3 way pizza into a 4 way, 5 way, or coney pie. Sadly, however, the residual heat from the crust and chili eventually melts the cheese into a bit of a gluey mess, and the pungent sharp cheddar overpowers the flavor of the chili a little bit. It might benefit from a milder cheddar, and the addition of some low moisture mozzarella in the cheese mixture to improve the overall flavor and texture. I’ll keep tweaking the recipe in my spare time. That way, if my fast food blogging career doesn’t take off, I can open my own restaurant which I’ll call Famous Original Zap Actionsdower’s Authentic Cincinnati/Steubenville Style Chili Pizza Shanty. With a name like that, how could I not be as successful as my fellow Empress imitators? 

A nice slice of Cincinnati. Yes, my kitchen is even more dated than the dining room at Empress. 

It gets pretty melty if you let it sit for a few minutes. 

Ridiculous restaurant concepts aside, as a lifelong fan of Cincinnati chili, I’m glad to have experienced the sole remaining location of the brand that started it all. For anyone interested in the history of Cincinnati chili, the Alexandria Empress should be a mandatory stop when exploring the area. Apart from its historical significance, it’s a pretty great place to have a meal, and the locals who were packed in the dining room on a Sunday afternoon, despite the restaurant being half a mile north of a Gold Star and a mile south of a Skyline would probably agree with me. They even seemed to like the chili pizzas, as two others came out of the microwave while I was waiting for my own. I’ll therefore think twice before opening a Famous Original Zap Actionsdower’s Authentic Cincinnati-Steubenville Style Chili Pizza Shanty anywhere near Empress Chili. 





Thursday, February 27, 2020

I Hate Sundays





Sunday is my least favorite day of the week. Even though the vast majority of Sundays I’ve experienced have been free of school and work obligations, my brain won’t let me enjoy a Sunday for what it is. The prospect of the workweek, soon to begin anew looms over a Sunday, casting a shadow of unavoidable dread that constantly nags at me and eats away at my enjoyment of whatever Sunday activity in which I’m attempting to partake.

Since I spend my entire Sunday dreading it, one might contend that the day I really hate the most is Monday, not unlike a certain lazy cartoon cat, or an eponymous U.S. president who was assassinated on a Monday. However, once Monday rolls around, I’ve accepted my fate. I quickly settle into the routine of my workweek and make peace with the fact that the only way to the next weekend is through the coming week. With a week’s worth of menial tasks to distract me, it will be Friday evening again before I know it, and I’ll have a whole Saturday of carefree fun ahead of me.
Garfield's! You know, the place by the massage chairs!

After a weekend full of broken chain visits, I had one final stop to make before I headed home on a melancholy Sunday afternoon. St. Clairsville, Ohio is home to the Ohio Valley Mall, which itself is the refuge of a few notable businesses, not the least of which is a Garfield’s Restaurant and Pub, one of six surviving locations spread from northeast Pennsylvania to southwest Missouri. It’s a restaurant chain that was seemingly founded partially out of spite.

After a lifetime of making it a point to accomplish things he was told he couldn’t do, Vincent Orza opened Garfield's, his first restaurant. in Oklahoma City in 1984. In an interview, Orza claimed he opened the first Garfield’s to ensure those who said his restaurant wouldn’t be a success would be proven wrong, and seemingly, they were, at least for a couple of decades. During the casual dining craze of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the restaurant with its early 20th century spin on the “nail a bunch of random crap to the walls” style of decor and eclectic menu was a modest success, peaking with around 50 company-owned and franchised locations in 26 states, mostly attached to or near indoor shopping malls. The restaurant took its name not from a Monday-loathing head of state or comic strip feline, but from a fictional character devised by the fledgling restaurant’s marketing team. Casey Garfield, a restaurant mascot whose picture I cannot find anywhere on the internet, seemingly traveled the world to experience different cuisines to add them to the menu of his restaurant, which, in its heyday, boasted Tex-Mex, Italian, and Chinese-influenced offerings in addition to traditional American fare. 

I have yet to cease being surprised at what still exists. 

Downfall came for Garfield’s with the decline of the American mall, as it did for other mall-reliant chains like York Steak House and Morrison’s Cafeteria, and as malls lost stores and foot traffic declined, a growing list of Garfield’s locations became empty mall storefronts in ailing malls. But, like its surviving Garfield’s location, Ohio Valley Mall is an anomaly. I arrived there a few minutes before their Garfield’s opened and went for a mall walk to kill time ease my Sunday blues. I was both surprised and pleased to find a nicely maintained vibrant, reasonably healthy mall. Five of its six anchor store slots were occupied, which was impressive considering that the mall had lost three anchor stores, Sears, Kmart, and Elder-Beerman, in the past five years. All but the vacant Sears, which closed last summer, are now occupied by new tenants. There was even a Sam Goody still open for business in the mall, one of only two remaining US stores, and a broken chain location in its own right. I would have sworn that the now-closed Sam Goody in the now nearly vacant Horton Plaza Mall in San Diego was the last one, but true to the title of my very first Broken Chains post, which featured a picture of the Horton Plaza Sam Goody, you’d be surprised at what still exists. I know I was. 

Essentially the entire physical media selection at Sam Goody

I of course took a lap of Sam Goody, whose floor space was 80% T shirts, Funko Pops, and other inoffensive novelties, with the other 20% occupied by physical media, mostly movies on DVD and Blu-ray, with a few new LP records tucked in the back. Who would have guessed that vinyl would outlive all other physical audio formats? I pondered the holdout Sam Goody’s status as a PG-rated Spencer’s Gifts as I navigated the mall’s corridors to Garfield’s, now open for the day. I was among the first customers in the door late on that Sunday morning, and the hostess seated me in a booth that overlooked some gumball machines and the hibachi restaurant across the corridor.

The view out the window by my booth

The place felt modern, if a little bland

And there's a bar if that's the kind of thing you're into. 


This Garfield’s appeared to have shed its random junk on the walls decor, if it ever had it at all. The dining room was dimly lit, with mostly bare walls, few windows, and black drop ceiling that made the room feel darker than it actually was. A few framed posters of generic-looking food hung on the walls. Only one had a Garfield’s logo on it to remind me of where I was. The bar area was adorned only with the obligatory smattering of wall-mounted televisions, playing infomercials and sporting events, all without sound. My drab surroundings did little to ease my Sunday malaise. If Purgatory had a casual dining restaurant, it would look a lot like the St. Clairsville Garfield’s. Suddenly, someone fired up some ambient music to cut through the monotony. “Bastille Day,” a Rush deep cut from the oft-overlooked B side of their album, 2112, began to play, reminding me of the lunch I’d had at Spageddie’s on another gloomy Sunday at the tail end of a weekend road trip. I had just started to wonder if Sam Goody had any Rush LPs in stock when a server appeared to take my drink order. When she returned a few moments later with my Diet Pepsi, I ordered a Fire Strings Burger from a menu I suspected had been truncated, perhaps as the result of the fictional Casey Garfield suspending his fictional voyages around the world to learn more recipes. Maybe he mailed himself to Abu Dhabi, and never came back. Before returning to the kitchen, my server asked my preferred doneness by inquiring if I preferred my burger to have “Some pink or no pink.” I opted for some pink. There’s nothing worse than an overcooked burger. 

The entirety of the menu. No, lasagna wasn't an option. At least it was nicely printed.
 
A burger worth waiting for? 

It looked good, and tasted slightly worse. 

It took close to half an hour for my burger and fries to show up, despite a mostly empty dining room. Maybe a line cook or two had called in with cases of the Sunday blues. When it did arrie, the burger topped with what Garfield’s calls “Fire Strings,” breaded and deep fried bits of onion and jalapeƱos was hot off the grill, and the Fire Strings were straight out of the fryer. It was a great looking burger, but despite the presentation, it was disappointing. Even though the third pound-ish patty was cooked to a near-perfect medium, it tasted dry. I suspect the meat used to form the patty was extremely lean, which is unfortunate, because a little more fat in the meat would have transformed what was, at best, a so-so burger into a pretty good one. 

If you’re stuck at the mall on a Sunday, Garfield’s is probably a decent enough place to have a burger and a beer or two while the shopaholic in your life goes on a bender through their favorite mall stores, but it falls short of being a destination. There’s little, if anything to set Garfield’s apart from a Chili’s or Applebee’s. As malls began to fall out of favor, it would have been easy enough to ditch the part of the Garfield’s brand strategy that dictates locations be attached to malls, and attempt to open some freestanding restaurants, but I doubt the endeavor would have been successful without serious reinvention of the Garfield’s experience to set it apart in what is already a crowded, and increasingly unpopular field of casual dining restaurants. Whoever owns the Garfield’s brand these days apparently saw things the same way, as all six surviving Garfield’s are mall locations whose days are likely numbered. 

I don't think I've ever bought anything from a Macy's, and I was able to maintain that streak after walking through this one, despite the liquidation discounts. 

Malls that are healthy enough to support a medium-priced restaurant are a dying breed. Remember that mall-based Max and Erma’s I visited last Summer? It’s since closed, and I suspect the six remaining Garfield’s will do the same sooner rather than later as the malls that house them become less viable. In the case of the Ohio Valley Mall, its Macy’s is set to close in a few weeks, leaving a second empty anchor store, and if the two empty anchors aren’t rented out soon, reduced foot traffic could cause a domino effect that will bring about an ever-growing list of store closures that would threaten both Garfield’s and Sam Goody along with every other Ohio Valley Mall tenant. It’s a tale that’s as old as the internet, played out in dead and dying malls across the country to the point that a relatively healthy mall feels like a rarity. Any mall that is still remotely viable in the year 2020 is experiencing a metaphorical Sunday afternoon; while in a relatively comfortable position, things are sure to get worse for most malls in the short term before they get better. Anyone who owns or manages a mall in this position is sure to live in a state of dread five to seven days a week, which makes my one day per week of dread seem almost attractive by comparison.