Until recently, my only impression of Cheddar’s Casual Café (1937 Airport Fwy, Bedford, 817-540-0778) came from a friend of mine who used to work for the company. He was a manager at one of the chain’s many area restaurants, and his employers forced all of the supervisors to go on a cruise for a corporate pep rally. The company’s CEO gave a speech that ended with a question to his minions: “Are you all in?”
The way my pal described it, the conference room on the floating Best Western erupted as the company’s various lackeys fell all over themselves to appear more all in than everyone else. When my buddy and his wife retreated to their room to escape sycophant-apalooza, his immediate supervisor followed him and questioned his all-inness. As my friend put it, “I was paying off a house, so I had to swallow my pride and tell him, ‘I am so all in.’ ”
He also told me that the guy who started the chain hated Fort Worth and claimed he would never open one of his restaurants here. Though the company eventually graced the Fort with its streamlined presence. So naturally I wrote off the whole concept long ago. If the corporate overlords don’t want a part of my city, then I don’t want a part of their cheesiness.
But a couple of weeks ago, Last Call scribe Steve Steward was approached by a PR person who sent him info on Cheddar’s’ new cocktail menu, and Steward thought that would be good enough pretense for a first-ever crossing of the Last Call-Chow, Baby streams (see pg. 39). So off we went.
The place is exactly what I thought it would be: set off the freeway with its own ample parking lot, a vast, generic menu, well-trained staffers who are all basically clones, and an esthetic that tries hard to feel homey but just struck me as sterile and unremarkable.
OK, I know. Cheddar’s is a low-hanging cat toy for my sharpened claws. Why would I go to a place just to make fun of it? First of all, imagined cynic, I have a very open mind. I would never go to a restaurant just to burn it down with my fiery prose. Secondly, people go there. Like, a lot of them. The place was packed on our recent Friday night visit.
Maybe I’m just too comfy in my little local indie-joint bubble, but I’m always struck at the sheer volume of people who flock to bland places like Cheddar’s, Chili’s, and Macaroni Grill. But I guess I can’t blame them? When you’ve got a family to feed, a place like Cheddar’s is a good enough night out for most non-food critics.
Speaking of corporate minions, our appetizer order of Wisconsin Cheese Bites ($6.99), battered and fried lumps of cheese, looked a lot like the little yellow characters from the Universal movies. They were tasty little gut rockets that paired naturally with the accompanying marinara sauce.
I feel obligated to order potato skins every time I go to a chain that serves them. It reminds me of my early dating years, when the only eatery I knew about was Bennigan’s and the hollowed-out and cheesed-up spuds were then my idea of fancy eating. Cheddar’s’ version ($6.99), loaded with cheddar and sour cream, were a little bland, but maybe that’s just how they’ve always tasted.
My entrée, the New Orleans Pasta ($9.99), with tiny shrimp that looked like they were rescued from a salad bar, chicken, and smoked sausage, tossed in a Cajun alfredo sauce, was so cheesy and salty I thought it could kill a medium-sized house pet. It actually hurt me to eat it.
Steve’s order of Gigi’s Baked Spasagne ($9.49), layers of spaghetti molded to look like lasagna, was the sort of competently bland dish you might expect on days when the lunch lady at a high school cafeteria is feeling adventurous.
I left Cheddar’s wishing they would have stuck to their guns about opening in Fort Worth. They can stay in the ’burbs. I’m all out.
Contact Chow, Baby at firstname.lastname@example.org.