Due to circumstances beyond my control, my milkshake does not bring all the boys to the yard.
It did, however, bring my friends Ben and Jen — not the movie stars but a couple of attractive locals — to Independence. Jen wasn’t thrilled with the idea of driving “out into the boondocks” for a burger and a shake, but I’d promised her that great things awaited at our destination. “Damn right. The milkshake you’re going to taste at Red Robin Gourmet Burgers & Spirits is, like, better than yours.”
“But I don’t make milkshakes!” Jen whined. She wasn’t interested in drinking one, either, once we arrived and squeezed into a big booth. She ordered an alcoholic version instead, a “Jungle Shake” made with vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup, banana liqueur and Bailey’s Irish Cream. “It’s really sweet and tasty,” Jen said. “But there’s no alcohol kick to it at all.”
Despite its lack of booziness, Jen did appreciate its decorative chocolate sprinkles, just one of the many small but festive touches that separate this Denver-based “gourmet” burger chain from the standard greasy-sandwich joint. Red Robin is big, it’s noisy, it’s colorful and it’s loaded with visual stimuli, such as a 6-foot-tall Statue of Liberty reproduction (the second I’ve seen in a metro restaurant in as many weeks), a TV embedded in the floor and a giant poster of Britney Spears.
“It’s Chuck E. Cheese for adults,” observed my friend Anthony, who, along with his wife, Fatimah, joined our group a little late. Jen was well into her Jungle Shake by the time Anthony and Fatimah pushed their way past a tangle of vinelike ribbons, hanging from helium balloons floating near the ceiling of the lobby, to the left of a very grown-up-looking mirrored bar.
Despite the presence of alcohol, however, Red Robin is so darn kid-friendly that even the adults in the dining room are treated like juveniles. The five cynics at our table were the snarling delinquents in this happy place. We all cringed at the sight of the entire serving staff clapping along as they serenaded a seemingly normal-looking couple with a birthday song. I questioned the couple’s sanity, though. The “birthday boy” not only allowed himself to be pulled out of his seat and draped with balloons during the musical reverie but also seemed thrilled by the attention.
My rich, creamy chocolate malt was booze-free, but that didn’t prevent the scene from bringing back disturbing memories of my twenties, when I worked for a casual dining chain that blended youthful enthusiasm and silly costumes with the hedonism of a 1970s pickup bar. There, the servers were required to be full of bogus excitement, “up, up, up!” A manager once told me with a straight face, “We are in the fun business. Our customers expect you to give them not only hospitality but fun!” It was a tall order considering that our clientele came in either for a quick burger or an easy lay. One night I quit midshift. I had simply run out of fun.
Happily, the night our group nested at Red Robin, we had a lovely young waitress who was practically bubbling over with genuine good humor. Even her name tag was puckishly offbeat.
“Is your name really Lizard?” I asked.
She giggled. “It’s Elizabeth, but my nickname around here is Lizard.”
OK, sophisticates may gag, but we thought Lizard was adorable. And she was chock-full o’ suggestions and ideas. As we debated sharing an appetizer, Jen suggested the Creamy Artichoke and Spinach Dip.
“Oh, I love that one!” Lizard said with an almost passionate squeal. We were sold, and she raced off to the open kitchen to turn in the order.
Alas, I didn’t love the lime-green purée (which wasn’t very warm, by the way) as much as Lizard did, though we all admired its assortment of accompaniments: corn chips, tidy piles of carrot and celery sticks and a few wedges of pita bread. But, Jen noted, “The dip has a funny aftertaste.” I snagged a chip and dipped it into the green goo. “Lots of onion,” I said. Not bad but not lovable.
Surely there was something to love, though, on a nearly 2-foot-tall menu that offered descriptions of 24 different “burgers.” Purists will question whether the six “chicken burgers” (including a version made with grilled chicken breasts) and the Crispy Fish Burger (a tempura-battered fried-fish sandwich) are legitimately burgers. My Random House Dictionary defines a burger as a hamburger, which isn’t made of ham, come to think of it. So why quibble over whether the nine beef-based burgers under the “gourmet” heading come anywhere near that word’s definition in The Food Lover’s Companion: “food … of the highest quality, perfectly prepared and artfully presented”?
The Red Robin’s burgers are tasty enough and nicely prepared, but gourmet might be stretching it. These are novelty burgers, such as the teriyaki-marinated Banzai Burger, laden with a hunk of grilled pineapple and cheddar cheese, or the Five Alarm Burger, heaped with salsa, jalapeño peppers and pepper-jack cheese. I ordered the one creative exception to the list, the Pot Roast Burger, and loved its combination of tender slices of pot roast, grilled onions, melted cheddar and a splash of kicky horseradish sauce. Ben and Jen also gave thumbs-up to their choices: the barbecue-sauce-drenched Whisky River BBQ Burger and the Banzai Burger. “It’s a little pinker than I thought it would be,” Jen said of the latter, “but it’s good.”
Ben was just happy to be eating “a big, sloppy burger,” though he, like everyone else at the table, thought that spending nearly eight bucks on a hamburger was too much, gourmet or not. “But it’s served with bottomless steak fries,” Lizard countered. That argument might carry some allure for starch addicts, but it didn’t for us. In fact, we didn’t even get to the bottom of the first order. These fries weren’t the thin, crispy and addictively good kind (think pommes frites or McDonald’s). Instead, they were chunky slabs of spud so filling that, as Jen said, “If you eat five, you’ve eaten an entire potato.” They weren’t hot, either.
Anthony, the beef-phobic member of our group, ignored the sandwiches and perused ten “entrée” choices, an ersatz international mix of Mexican, Italian, Cajun, Chinese and Howard Johnson’s-inspired items. He finally settled on the Ensenada Chicken Platter, which turned out to be two of the stringiest-looking chicken breasts I’d ever seen, “rubbed in zesty Mexican seasonings.” The dish was artfully presented, but it lost points in the taste department. Anthony thought the sour lime dipping sauce was disappointing.
A few nights later, I returned with burger-loving Bob, who polished off his basic cheeseburger but thought it unexceptional for the price. “And the fries were lukewarm,” he griped. My cheeseburger was wonderful, juicy and cooked just as I had ordered it. But I’d already had too many crunchy bangles from the phallic-looking Tower of Onion Rings. They came stacked on a lethal-looking wire device and were so thick and greasy that we could finish only a couple of them.
“They’re really good when you have a big group sharing them,” said that night’s server, a pretty blonde whose name I can’t remember. “They’re really fun.”
But fun is just as subjective an idea as gourmet (or bottomless, for that matter) at this restaurant, which seems to be making much ado about nothing. A burger by any other name is still just a grilled beef patty on a bun.