It’s six o’clock and the traffic on Central Expressway is bumper-to-bumper all the way to Richardson. As you pass Mockingbird Lane the odor from Mrs. Baird’s sets you drooling like Pavlov’s dog. When you reach the top of the hill at Park Lane, you know you can’t possibly wait long enough to cook dinner. Why not zip over to the nearest fast food palace, quiet the inner man, and head home refreshed?
Remembering the countless times that has happened to us, and the waves of guilt (if not nausea) that washed over us later – qualms about nutrition, digestion, or debasing the standard of American cuisine by patronizing such places – we thought it might make a difference if you knew something about some of the ubiquitous restaurant chains on the Dallas scene. Are they all exactly the same in food, decor and service? Are there good restaurants and bad ones in the apparently standardized chains?
All the restaurants in a chain are in fact supposed to be the same. Purchasing is centralized so that no restaurant has ingredients appreciably different from any other. Decor is even regulated, so that it’s impossible to tell whether you are in Dallas or Des Moines, Charlotte or Seattle, once you have entered the door. Every Howard Johnson’s in the country seems to have the same menu, the same waitress, the same cashier, the same parking lot. Other chains try to convince you that you are someplace more exotic than where you are. The newer Goff’s restaurants transport you to East Africa; Steak and Ale tries for the coziness of an English pub; El Chico drops you somewhere near Laredo. It’s almost as if they’re trying to divert your attention from the food.
We decided to sample all of the restaurants in five chains – Steak and Ale, Kip’s Big Boy, El Chico, Goff’s Hamburgers, and Swensen’s Ice Cream to see if we could detect any differences amongst them. We chose these chains because they all have at least five locations in Dallas and represent a broad spectrum of food, price range, and clientele. We tried to order the same meal at each restaurant in a chain to maintain some semblance of scientific method. No one connected with the management of these chains ever knew when or where we were eating, although we did contact the chain managers later to check on details of food preparation and other items which might make one location better than another.
We weren’t looking for, let’s say, the best barbecue in town, but for the best restaurant in a particular chain.
We attempted, whenever possible, to visit our choices of the best in each chain several times to take into account the role of pure luck in service. We tested our judgments against the experience of knowledgeable friends. And we asked some of the chain’s management to evaluate restaurants in their chain. In every instance we disagreed with them on their choices of the best, but they were uncannily accurate in pinpointing the worst.
We began with enthusiasm, recording every little thing in a big notebook: whether the meat was done exactly right; whether the waiter/waitress remembered who ordered what; whether the check was accurate; and whether the mints at the cashier’s counter were fresh. But by the time we had visited 35 restaurants they were all alike. We began to make our judgments on whether we liked the waiter/waitress’s name; whether there was a parking space right at the front door; and whether our knives were sharp. Our initial plan of attack soon foundered: we simply couldn’t stomach all of the Kip’s restaurants.
In the chain business, change is constant in both small and big ways, and the characteristics which swayed our judgment may no longer hold true by the time you take our advice. On the other hand, inertia is one of the principles which rule the universe, so there is a good chance that things will probably not be all that different.
Testing the Tex-Mex Mystique:
Let’s face it. Despite all the chili cookoffs, all the “discoveries” of marvelous new hole-in-the-wall Mexican cafes, how much real variation is there in Mexican cuisine? Except for the three or four standout Mexican restaurants in Dallas which attempt entrees which require careful preparation and subtle seasoning, most Mexican restaurants serve the same food: nachos, tortillas, enchiladas, tacos, tamales, chili, refried beans, rice, and guacamole. We ate at fourteen El Chicos and came to the conclusion that their food is consistent and, despite the plastic decor of some of the newer locations, as good as some of the Maple Avenue “discoveries” with a dozen tables and bumper-to-bumper Mark IV’s in the parking lot.
El Chico probably serves more Mexican food than anyone else in the country. It was founded in 1940 by five Cuellar brothers with a single restaurant on Abrams Road in Lake-wood. Now there are almost eighty restaurants in nine states. Most of the basic food staples are prepared at a central commissary in North Dallas. Tortillas are cooked daily and delivered to the restaurants by truck along with concentrates for taco seasoning and hot sauce. The restaurants also receive direct shipments of produce (lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, etc.) and of Kraft cheese (American, Monterey Jack, and Velveeta).
Most food at El Chico is prepared almost entirely from scratch in each restaurant’s kitchen. We always had assumed that the food was assembled at some central facility, frozen, and shipped to each location where it was microwaved to order. Not so. Although there is a recipe for each dish, there is enough latitude for some chefs, all of whom are trained at the Fair Park El Chico, to be more proficient than others. There are lots of differences between the best and the worst restaurants, but although the best is about as good as the best Mexican food we have ever eaten, the worst is surprisingly quite tolerable.
We found four of the 14 El Chicos to be well above average: the original restaurant at 2031 Abrams in Lake-wood, the art deco creation on West Davis in Oak Cliff, the plastic wonderland on Northwest Highway just west of Webbs Chapel, and the stunner in Inwood Village. This last one has the best food and service, and its decor – light blue walls, high ceiling, and large, subtly obscene oil paintings – has been described as “an Esther Williams movie with Mexicans.”
The cook at the Inwood El Chico notices all the little things that make a difference: lots of tomato in the salad with the tacos, thick chili with the enchiladas, and cheese tacos which are not too heavy on the Velveeta. The service is excellent, with just enough attention to refills of water, tea and coffee. Overall, it’s one of the best Tex-Mex restaurants in Dallas, if you stick to the basics rather than experimenting with their inconsistent and disappointing “specials” like que-sadillas or flautas.
Building a Better Burger: Goff’s
If you grew up in Dallas, there’s a good chance you think the best hamburgers in the world are made by Goff’s. On the other hand, if you moved to Dallas some time after puberty, you may wonder what all the fuss is about. We belong to the camp that will always feel that Goff’s sets standards of excellence for hamburgers everywhere. They developed their own chili, hickory sauce, and relish sauce years ago, and no one has improved on them since. Goffs was the first restaurant in Dallas to charcoal-broil its burgers and to serve them on sesame seed buns. The combination of all of these ingredients has been unbeatable since 1950, when the late Mr. Goff brought his family to Dallas from California. Goffs is now run by Harvey Goff, the son of the founder; he can usually be found kicking long-hairs out of the Lovers Lane restaurant.
The prices are higher now, but the menu at Goff’s has stayed the same for twenty years. The meat is still ground fresh daily at the commissary. It’s all top quality beef. During the shortage a year and a half ago, Harvey had to slaughter his own cattle to maintain adequate supplies of high-grade beef. He sold off the cuts he didn’t want to other restaurants, and says you’d be surprised to know who bought his rejects. Goff’s also makes all its own fried pies from scratch, and there are none better. The only attempt to tamper with the successful Goff’s formula occurred last fall when Harvey tried out some new French fries at the Lovers Lane location. A month of complaints convinced him to keep things the way they were. No other changes are being planned.
There are currently six Goff’s in Dallas, and the best is probably the newest one in Turtle Creek Village. The decor at Goff’s ranges from zilch at Lovers Lane (which, by the way, has the filthiest restrooms) to safari chic at Greenville Avenue and at Coit Road in Richardson. These last two, and the new one at Turtle Creek, sport trophies from Harvey’s many trips to Africa. The worst Goff’s is the one on Forest Lane. All the rest are about the same, although if you want to avoid being insulted by Harvey while you eat, we recommend steering clear of Lovers Lane.
Crossing the Salad Bar: Steak and Ale
The first Steak and Ale opened in February, 1966, on Lemmon at Oak Lawn. Today there are over 80 restaurants in at least 20 states. Their six Dallas restaurants – despite the proliferation of similar beef-and-salad-bar restaurants, particularly on Greenville Avenue – continue to do quite well. On weekends and at lunch you will probably have to wait for a table. Whether the wait is worth it depends on what you expect. If you want a charcoal-broiled steak at a reasonable price, you will probably leave happy.
The Steak and Ale management continues to search for the perfect food formula. They know, for example, that the third time’s the charm: if you still like their restaurant after the third visit, you’ll probably keep coming back forever. Of course, we haven’t figured out how they know when it’s your third time so they can give you that little bit extra which will tip the scales in their favor. Other things they know are that people like lots of small shrimp rather than a few big ones in their shrimp cocktail, that Texans like thick steaks while Easterners prefer prime rib, and that more people are inclined to make an evening out of their visit to Steak and Ale, which is why they’ve added live entertainment in their bars. They even think that people feel more at home if the walls are covered with plaid fabric rather than phony plaster.
Nothing unexpected ever happens to you at a Steak and Ale. The hostess writes your name on a check and seats you, the waiter – who always has an all-American-boy name – introduces himself and takes your order, which is usually a “Kensington Club” or a “Beef-eater.” Then you head for the salad bar, and your steak appears precisely when you put your fork down after finishing your salad. Finally your check appears the instant your steak has disappeared, and you are on your way home.
The salad bar was introduced to Dallas by Steak and Ale. It was can-nily designed to serve two functions: the patron sets the time when he wants to start eating, and he prepares his salad just the way he wants it. We were completely unable to convince Steak and Ale’s managers that not everyone wants a salad built around hunks of iceberg lettuce with a few ice cubes watering it down. Also, there are times when the salad plates are so cold it is painful to hold them. Since you signal the preparation of your steak by going to the salad bar, your steak may arrive sooner than you like, and you may be completely finished with dinner in half an hour. But you are paying around $7 per person for dinner, so you may not want to feel so rushed. The only solution to this problem of pacing is to discuss it with the waiter – even if it means throwing a kink into the finely-tuned machinery of Steak and Ale service.
We found the food at all the Steak and Ales to be remarkably consistent. Since we’re supposed to pick the best, we will single out the one at Shady Brook and Northwest Highway. We had an excellent slice of prime rib there, and the waiter didn’t rush us – or even introduce himself. The small restaurant on Inwood at Lovers Lane is probably to be avoided, since it’s always crowded – but it does accept reservations. So does the one on Lemmon, but it has a reputation for very poor service – something we experienced there one night when only a fourth of the restaurant was full.
Steak and Ale has other items besides steak and salad. Their charcoal broiled chicken breasts are outstanding, and their prime rib is often better than the steaks. But pass up the shrimp cocktail, the corn on the cob (almost always overcooked and soggy), and the cheesecake. The mushrooms and the baked potato are popular, but the potato is often a bit cold and the mushrooms seem over-priced to us. One item not on the menu is a Tumbleweed, a thick ice cream-based drink spiked with several liqueurs – it’s delicious for dessert. It’s not available at the Lemmon and Inwood locations, which is another good reason to avoid them.
Choosing the Cream of the Cream: Swensen’s
Swensen’s has the best ice cream we can ever remember tasting. The chain is based in San Francisco where Earle Swensen first opened his ice cream shop in 1948. There are now five stores in Dallas with three different owners. We have been told that there will be no new stores in the Dallas area for a few years because the current owners have a first refusal right on future sites and they are all too busy to think about expanding now.
All of the stores (they are called “factories”) in Dallas are good. Our choice of the best is the new one on Greenville at Old Town. It was opened last August by two SMU professors, Don Jackson and Larry Ter-Molen, who have recently sold their factory. According to Jackson and TerMolen, Swensen’s uses a custard base manufactured locally by Schepps’ Dairy to secret parent company specifications. The basic recipe was devised by Earle swensen himself. The custard is approximately 14% butterfat, in comparison to 10% to 12% in Baskin-Robbins’ ice cream, 6% in most supermarket ice cream, and virtually no butterfat in the ice cream of the fast food chains like McDonald’s or Burger King.
To the custard base, each store adds its own flavorings, to make the 170 different flavors on the current active list. There are usually at least 40 flavors available at any one time at the Greenville store, and the average container is between 48 and 72 hours old. The service at Greenville Avenue is cheery and efficient (unlike the spacy stares and blaring rock music which greet you at the Turtle Creek store), and their fountain products are generously prepared.
Swensen’s prices aren’t cheap, but they’re not as expensive as they seem. A single dip cone, currently going for around 38 cents, weighs a full 1/4 pound, which is the equivalent of two dips anywhere else. Swensen’s was hard-pressed by the recent sugar shortage to keep prices in line, but with the price of sugar going down now, they can turn their attention to the goodies once more.
Spanking the Big Boy: Kip’s
Kip’s used to be a chain of coffee shops with a large following and about ten locations in the Dallas area. The Big Boy hamburger was tasty and a good value, and service was pleasant and efficient. But today, because of a change of ownership, the only thing that remains true about Kip’s is that it has ten locations. As we said earlier, we couldn’t suffer through all ten restaurants, and our conclusion is that you should avoid Kip’s until you hear from the grapevine that things have changed for the better. In an attempt to keep prices down, Kip’s has increased the bread and reduced the meat in its sandwiches. Prices haven’t risen much, but regular customers have started to disappear. As the clientele dwindles, Kip’s has cut back on personnel and closed large sections of its table areas. This means that you may have to wait to be seated, even though the restaurant may be less than half full. Service has become sloppy and inept: we were asked at one place what size Coke we wanted, “big or large?”
There is hope for Kip’s: locationsare good and the facilities are decent.Good local management could turnthe situation around with diligent attention to details and upgrading offood quality. But right now the onlything that doesn’t need improvementis the Hot Fudge Cake, a mixture ofdevil’s food cake, vanilla ice creamand hot fudge sauce. But how couldyou louse that up?
WE RESERVE THE RIGHT
TO REFUSE SEAVICE TO
ANYONE BECAUSE OF
NO SHOES-GENERAL PRINCIPLES
SHIRT TAILS OUT-EARRINGS
Yet for some reason, Harvey has recently started to mellow. He says he thinks “it’s just old age.” He is still willing to be provoked, but now his eviction rate is running only a couple of long-hairs a week, with maybe a few extra thrown out at vacation time. And in spite of his reputation as a hothead, Harvey is a good manager. He personally supervises all of Goff s operations; he makes all the restaurant location decisions; he spends several hours every day at the commissary supervising food preparation; and he has realized that he can’t save the world from the long hair menace and has refrained from discriminatory activities at all his restaurants except Lovers Lane. You may still be scared to death of him, but Harvey prides himself on knowing the difference between “real business and monkey business.”
And don’t think it can’t be any fun to go to Goff’s on Lovers Lane. Harvey loves practical jokes, and has been known to glue the salt shakers to the tables just to watch his patrons (mostly little old ladies) struggle to lift them. Another favorite is the cement-a-quarter-to-the-floor trick. When he is really cooking he plays the fried pie game. When someone asks what kind of fried pies he serves, he answers “Apple, apricot and avocado.” If the unwitting fried-pie lover orders avocado, Harvey yells out either “Rocket” (apple) or “O. T.” (for “other than,” meaning apricot), depending on which he has more of. Harvey figures that anybody who would order an avocado fried pie will eat just about anything.