On a recent visit to a local chain restaurant, this idiom came to mind:
"Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."
We all know that chain restaurants have marketing departments. People that get paid to make their restaurant appear to be someplace you want to spend your time, and more important, your dollars. This is no secret. We're all jaded by TV commercials, online ads, billboards, etc. But have you realized that a restaurant's menu is also a marketing tool? Some of it is obvious. Most casual chain restaurants today have very large laminated menus with beautiful mouth watering photos of the food in the background. There's also the marketing terms scattered throughout the pages that are obviously attempting to "sell" you.
The descriptions of the food on the menu itself is also marketing. Here's a couple of examples:
BLUE WATER MAHI SANDWICH
grilled fillet of wild caught mahi, browned butter mayo, citrus marinated cucumbers, arugula & red onion on a toasted brioche bun
Oh, this sounds tasty. But what has the color of the water the fish supposedly was caught in got to do with the dish? Allow me to answer my own question... nothing. Mahi mahi are a tropical and subtropical ocean fish. ALL mahi are "blue water" fish. And though it's wild caught, we don't know anything about how it was caught, or how the fish was processed afterward and whether it's fresh or frozen or whatever. But the thought of fresh fish caught in beautiful blue water is appealing, and it's marketing.
shaved house roasted turkey breast, bacon, lettuce,
tomatoes & mayo on sourdough, topped with two deviled eggs
See what they did there? The turkey breast is "house roasted", which implies that they're roasting whole turkeys in the restaurant. But we don't know that do we? What if the turkey is processed in a factory, pressed and formed from breast parts and/or scraps, with artificial ingredients added for flavor and tenderness, shrink wrapped raw, then cooked—sorry—roasted at the restaurant? Like I said we don't know. But I'm sure that if they were roasting whole turkeys, they wouldn't hide that fact from us. We do know it's 'shaved'—like deli meat. It likely is deli meat.
These two menu descriptions come from the new chain that opened up on Route 7 in Latham Farms, at the spot previously occupied by Joe's Crab Shack—Brick House Tavern + Tap. Joe's and Brick House are both run by the same company, Ignite Restaurant Group, which incidentally, also owns and runs Macaroni Grill.
Two years ago I spent a week in New Jersey for training. At the time, Brick House was planning on opening a store on Wolf Rd. There was one in NJ near where I was staying and based on the menu descriptions, I was excited to try it in anticipation of them opening up in Albany a few months later. (The Wolf Rd location later was abandoned).
I left disappointed. The menu looked quite good, but the food was typical chain food. I'm not the only one that was fooled by the marketing laden menu. Even Albany's own venerable foodie Steve Barnes fell victim. In a blog post in which he alerted his readers to the opening of the Latham location he said, and I quote:
“The menu is more appealing and unpredictable than I’d expected…"
It's marketing Steve!
To be fair to Mr. Barnes, I questioned my previous experience because the menu for the Latham location does look quite good. And I visited the Latham location thinking that perhaps I was mistaken and the food was better than I remember.
No it's not. They fooled me again. Shame on me.
To be clear the food is not terrible. It's a solid step up from Applebee's, or Chili's for example. And anyone that frequents chains will like it. But it's still chain food. Much of it is processed and it shows. The thing that stuck in my head as I walked out of the restaurant after my lunch was "salt". Most everything I ate was salty. High sodium content is a dead giveaway that the food is processed. It's certainly possible to over salt when making things from scratch, but you really need to use a heavy hand, and that's not normal, especially for an experienced kitchen staff.
The space is really nice. It's modern, without being overdone. One entire side of the restaurant is an array of glass paned garage doors, which I'm sure they'll open up in the summer and it will be nice to sit in the open air, enjoy a beer, share an app, and watch the traffic flow by on Rt 7 (that last bit is sarcasm). I have a feeling it's going to be very popular. The seemingly creative menu, and upscale feel the interior has, will fool (cough, I mean appeal to) a lot of people.
Learn my lesson, and don't be fooled by what appears to be a creative, and fancy sounding menu. Brick House Tavern + Tap is fine. It serves seemingly creative American fare, with a few unique twists, but it's really just another chain.