Fried: Bleu Ribbon Burger at Red Robin
Four of us -- my sister-in-law and my brother and my dad -- had just decided on pizza for lunch when another brother piped up.
"Pizza?? I have a sore throat! I can't eat pizza."
This is life in the Fenske family. There is never consensus. Nothing can ever be simple. We might spend 40 minutes deciding which restaurant to go to -- and then a full hour afterwards, second-guessing our choice (and heaping ridicule on whichever moron had been stupid enough to recommend it.)
It's kind of charming, really. Until you're stuck there, standing in a crowded mall one day after Thanksgiving, arguing about lunch.
Yes, I went home to Cleveland. And of course the best thing to do when you're thousands of miles from your home is to go a chain restaurant, right? Umm, right?
It wasn't my fault we ended up there. We were desperate. The Italian place we like was closed for lunch. Adam didn't think he could swallow pizza. None of us were willing to deal with Mom's pick; it's despressingly filled with bluehaired old ladies. Dad was pushing for Red Robin, but it was the day after Thanksgiving, and we were already stuffed to the gills. (Plus, I noted helpfully, "it's a chain. I like to eat local." In typical fashion, everyone just ignored me.)
Rachel thought a deli might be nice -- but did we know of any nearby? It was Abby who had the answer: a nice locally owned place, just around the corner, big enough to seat all ten of us. Score! Half the party started to move toward the exits.
Then my mom made the fatal mistake. "Amy, what do you think about the Stonefield Grill? Abby's recomending it."
"What if they don't have a children's menu?" Amy asked. She is a first-time mother and (like most first-time mothers) completely preoccupied with motherhood.
"They'll have a children's menu," Abby said. "Everybody does."
"What if they don't?" Amy persisted.
"I'm sure they have a children's menu!" I will admit to shouting. We were starting to get glares from other shoppers.
"We don't know that ..." my mother said.
"I've never been there," my father said. "What if I don't like it?"
In most families, this question would be easily answered. So what if you don't like it? It's one meal. You give it a go.
Mine family, suffice to say, is not like most families.
"Let's go to Red Robin," Dad said. Of course. His favorite.
"We know they have a children's menu," he added. That was enough for Amy!
So off we trudged. I know there are Red Robins scattered throughout the entire Valley, and I certainly know the chain's distinctive jingle. ("Red Robin! YUUUUUUUM!") But I'd never actually been in one until that day.
And you know what? It was actually worth all the bickering. Not that the food was that good -- but just that my dad looked so freakin' happy. From the minute he sat down and announced, "I think I'll order a tower of onion rings for the table," I realized this was his place, he had the routine down, and he was indubitably pleased to once again get the chance to show his kids the way it's done. "The fries are bottomless here," he instructed me, and I felt like I was four years old again. It was kind of nice.
Of course the entire family had to pester the waitress with questions and special orders. Somebody wanted to substitute a salad; somebody didn't want any condiments on their burger; somebody else had to change their order because if Rachel was getting fries, well, then they wanted a salad. It's amazing how complicated things can get with such a simple menu.
But in the end, it all worked out. I ordered a "bleu ribbon burger," which was loaded with onion straws and a tangy chipotle sauce and crumbles of bleu cheese. Hard to go wrong with that list of ingredients ... and sure enough, it was tasty. Add in the bottomless fries, and my dad's beloved onion ring tower, and I was so pleasantly full that I was ready to take a nap right there in the lobby.
I wasn't about to become a chain restaurant aficianado (that's my Dad's job, apparently). Nor was I ready to commit to acquiescing quietly the next time we're trying to figure out where to eat (that's not the Fenske way). But for one meal, at least, I was glad I gave in. -- Sarah Fenske
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.