By MARK NIXON
There has to be a secret society out there whose members are current and former restaurant critics. Call it “Critics Anonymous.”
They gather, and one by one, they confess their sins. “Hi. My name is Mark. I’m a restaurant critic, but honestly, what the hell do I know?” This came to mind as I was walking out of recently. We had entered about an hour earlier, just after 5 p.m., and there was a sizable group of folks in the lobby, waiting for a table. When we left just after 6 p.m., there was a sizable line standing outside in the chill of the evening. Waiting to get in. For what? Meh food? Spotty service?
Yet, there they were. So the critic must ask himself, “What the hell do I know?” I know Cheddar’s’ food gets an “A” for Average, and an “E” for Excellent, as in excellent location, perched on a busy corner across from the Lansing Mall. Hundreds of cars stream past on Saginaw Highway every hour. Cheddar’s is certain to draw plenty of incidental customers, as opposed to destination diners. Yet on one visit, we sat at the bar next to a friendly couple, and they like this place. They are regulars. They must know something I don’t.
The best things I tasted over the course of two visits were the six-ounce sirloin topped with crab sauce ($9.99) and tempura-battered onion rings ($5.59). Judy ordered the steak rare, and I snagged a taste.
It was perfectly broiled. And while I don’t usually muck up a good steak with sauces, I thought the creamy crab sauce added texture and contrast to this entree.
We both agreed that a light, tempura batter on onion rings and, really, most vegetables, is the way to go. Sadly, the rings were cool to the touch and had to be sent back.
In descending order of goodness, here are some other tastes we sampled at Cheddar’s. The barbecued ribs were tender and smoky. Far from the best in town, but still fine. I paired up the ribs with barbecued chicken ($14.49). The chicken was crispy on the outside, but the inside was as dry as an insurance policy.
The chicken tortilla soup ($3.49 per cup) has a tomato-based broth. The best part of this side is that the kitchen added tortilla strips just before serving, so that the strips were still crunchy when they met my mouth.
The chicken potpie ($7.99) had a tender, flaky crust. Inside, however, lurked a runny gravy. Swimming in the gravy were tender but relatively tasteless hunks of white chicken meat. There was a scant showing of vegetables as well.
The cornmeal-battered whitefish ($8.79) was a hot — make that lukewarm — mess. Whitefish is so mild tasting that it’s hard to compete with corn meal. I don’t know how to rescue this dish. I’ve had excellent pecan-encrusted whitefish at the Common Grill in Chelsea, and somehow, the fish didn’t play second fiddle to the pecans.
A side of Mac and cheese accompanying my entree gets failing marks on two counts. I couldn’t taste any cheese, and I had to send it back because it was slouching toward Cold Country.
Similarly, Judy’s side of broccoli casserole competed with the Mac and cheese for Most Boring Item on the Menu.
The service was friendly if not always punctual. I fully understand that when a restaurant is slammed, prompt service is a likely casualty. What I didn’t understand is how long people had to wait in the lobby for a host to acknowledge them, get their names and, finally, seat them. That’s why, on our second visit, I gave up trying to get on the waiting list. We ate at the bar.
So now I’ve come full circle, still pondering what makes this restaurant so popular. One answer sits beside me as I write this. The bill. We shared two entrees, had four alcoholic drinks and one side of onion rings. The tally was less than $54 which, by today’s standards, is a decent bargain. Just one comparison: A Texas Margarita at Cheddar’s is $4.79. A tequila-based Drunken Donkey at The Cosmos/Zoobie’s (my favorite local restaurant) is $9.00.
Some day, I’ll be on Lansing’s west side again, passing Cheddar’s with its jammed parking lot and folks waiting outside. I’ll just keep driving. Wouldn’t want to be late for my Critics Anonymous meeting.SHE ATE
By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE
Depending upon your generation and how long you’ve lived in Lansing, you might remember eating at places like Jim’s Tiffany, The Parthenon, Mediteran or Mountain Jack’s. For me, the restaurant that brings me the most feelings of nostalgia is Cheddar’s. When I was a Big Red, on the last day of every school year, a large group of us went to Cheddar’s for lunch. We ate chicken fingers, spasagna, burgers and fries, and we always ended the meal with the most delicious thing I had ever eaten — the Cookie Monster.
It was with nostalgia flowing through my veins that we went to Cheddar’s for a recent dinner. We waited for a table for about 20 minutes while Baby She Ate mercifully slept in his car seat. We quickly ordered an appetizer of cheese bites, which upon first glance resembled my guilty pleasure IPA cheese bombs at Lansing Brewing Co. I’ve heard that LBC has removed these from the menu, and I was hoping that I’d found an acceptable alternative.
Alas that was not the case, and what should have been a bite of flavorful, hot, gooey mozzarella was more like a tasteless gluey raw oyster, but hot. I optimistically soldiered on and ordered the lemon pepper chicken with a baked sweet potato and steamed broccoli. The broccoli was steamed to death. The sweet potato was fine, but put a big dollop of cinnamon butter on a piece of Bubble Wrap and I’ll consider eating it. The chicken was forgettable.
Mr. She Ate, on the other hand, decided to take full advantage of his experience and ordered a full rack of ribs with fries, baked beans, and something called a Texas sweet tea. His drink was heaved onto the table by our petite server and the alcohol positively rolled off it. His ribs were surprisingly flavorful and well-prepared, he noticed, as he effortlessly pulled the meat off the bone.
The fries were totally unseasoned, but the black beans had some heat to them and retained their structure, unlike all of the other components of the vegetable plate that I tried on a subsequent visit. I understand that not many people care about the integrity of the broccoli, corn, and green beans at a place that is known for burgers and ribs, but I do, and when those things are steamed to the point that I could feed them to my toothless baby, it shows a lack of attention to even the most mundane detail.
We still ordered a Cookie Monster, because I’m nothing if not a creature of habit.
It is the quintessential Cheddar’s dessert and one that I’ve recreated at home several times in the past 15 years. A piping hot skillet is brought to your table, filled with an oversized chocolate chip cookie that is topped with vanilla ice cream, a heavy drizzle of hot fudge, whipped cream, chopped peanuts and a cherry. I remembered it as being absolutely decadent and absolutely worth the zillion calories that each skillet contains.
Upon further inspection, and much like many other bygone aspects of high school — my metabolism, being able to spend my entire paycheck on clothes and CDs if I wanted to — the Cookie Monster doesn’t stand the test of time.
In 2016, I read an article written by Andrew Knowlton for Bon Appetit magazine.
It was an ode to Hillstone Restaurant, a chain operation similar to Cheddar’s. He painted such an exquisite picture of a thoughtfully curated and well executed restaurant that I became obsessed with the idea of going there. On a trip to Phoenix last fall, we made it happen.
The service was absolutely second to none, and our server fell over himself apologizing because the kitchen had run out of some menu items by 10:30 p.m. on a Saturday, which was totally acceptable to me.
The biggest takeaway from the article, and from my subsequent dining experience, is simple — it is possible to operate a chain restaurant that isn’t full of mass-produced, mediocre food.
It’s easy to take broccoli out of the steamer two minutes earlier, or to season your french fries, or to whip heavy cream instead of squirt it out of a can.
As more and more diners pay closer attention to where they spend their dining budget and demand a higher quality experience, I hope that our major restaurant chains listen to what the people want and do things a bit more thoughtfully.
Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen 5719 W Saginaw Hwy.
Lansing, MI 48917 (517) 323-4963 Sun. - Thurs. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m. - 11 p.m.