July 4th, 2010


farewell to the fallback

While driving through Medford today, muffyjo and I noticed that the Outback Steakhouse in the Stop & Shop plaza -- and indeed, one of the last few reasons to go to that plaza other than for the Stop & Shop -- is gone.

Windows boarded up, doors locked tight, sign removed from the facade, potential inconvenience apologized for, gone gone gone.

For many it may not be that harsh a blow to American chain restaurants, or to cuisine in general. And truth be told, the US Version of Australia that the Outback Steakhouse featured was tiresome and frankly embarrassing, what with the KANGAROO XING signs and boomerangs everywhere and dishes with names that used outdated Australian slang. The restaurant has ashamed at least one Australian expat I know in the States, and I am certain there are others whose faces will be slightly less red after hearing this news.

But then again, says Mr. Mondegreen, the coin falls on the other side of the shoe as well: There are US-themed restaurants elsewhere in the world which seem to believe that Texas is the true face of all things American. They might believe it -- and Texas believes it, for sure -- but it isn't truly representative of the country as a whole. So it was with the Outback Steakhouse and Australia. Embarrassing culturally, but ... oddly enough, this restaurant was a social focal point for me.

Several of my circles of friends, it turned out, frequented the Medford place. It was where bets were made over poorly-designed cocktails, where Margarita Bob conquered the chipotle-pineapple margarita, or where the margarita conquered him. We're still not sure of the final score there. The post-modern rock group Razorblade Motorcade (so post-modern, not a single song was ever written or recorded) had their CD cover art taken in the parking lot outside after eating there. One could get drunk and saunter a few doors down to the TJ Maxx (now AJ Wright) and make fun of the exquisitely tacky home furnishings out loud. (Trust me, it's worlds of fun if you've got the right store and the right buzz and don't have to drive anywhere.) It was also where a Theatre@First delegation regularly went after their monthly meeting and indeed, one of the first thoughts that muffyjo and I had when staring at the boarded windows was "Now where will the Steering Committee eat?"

Most importantly, it served the best cheese fries with or without the bacon on top and if you asked nicely you could get both ranch dressing and honey mustard sauce on the side and that was practically a meal in and of itself. The French Onion soup was definitely not recommended and I have a cracking great story concerning another soup of theirs which unfortunately cannot be told in mixed company, but their steaks were consistently good and again I draw your attention to the cheese fries and the copious amounts of alcoholic beverages, some of which were actually quite tasty.

It wasn't a destination restaurant. Nobody, with the exception of the T@F Steering Committee I guess, ever said "Hey! Let's up and go to the Outback Steakhouse!" The decision process leading to a visit usually went more like "Hey, let's go out to dinner! You free tonight? Awesome! Where should we go? No, not into the Square, it'll be too busy... oh that's a good idea, but I had Chinese last night... not feeling up for Indian? Hmm, what about Outback? Does that sound good? Okay, let's go."

Because of its magical power to be there for you by default, it was often referred to fondly as the Fallback Steakhouse. But now we no longer have our fallback.

Oh, there are other middle-class restaurant chains nearby. The Valley of the Things in Everett has a Texas Roadhouse, speaking of that whole Texas thing, which gives you free peanuts and lets you drop the shells on the floor (but which does not have a "No Yee-Hawing" section; make a mental note never to take someone there on their birthday unless you truly hate them) and a TGI Friday's. Cambridgeside has a California Pizza Kitchen which features a kitchen that makes pizzas obstensibly from California, and a Cheesecake Factory, which does not feature a factory that makes cheesecake. (That revelation is still a stinging disappointment.) You can head up to Burlington if you're really jonesing for a Chili's or, as the Medford sign suggests, another Outback.

But they're just not the same. Try as they might, they just won't capture the spirit of the place I'd been going to with friends of one stripe or another for eight, nine years now. I fully realize I am waxing rhapsodic about a restaurant chain of dubious theming and getting all nostalgic like Butters talking about Bennigan's, but you probably have a similar restaurant which you frequent. It may be embarrassing for you to admit it to the snobs you know who consider themselves gourmets, but you go anyway because hell not every trip out can be a visit to the French Laundry and your friends go too and it's fun and you know what to order and what not to and sometimes there are drinks specials. And then one day you go by and the whole operation has disappeared.

I am going to hit myself over the head with this keyboard if I use the words "end", "era", "of" and "an" in a certain combination, so I guess I should finish up and ponder the fireworks tonight instead. Or maybe just take a nap. It's been a long day.