Earlier this week, we had a post by Mike Seely lamenting what had become of the iconic, original location of the Red Robin burger franchise


Comment of the Day: Defending Red Robin, Chain Restaurants, Tom Douglas and the Charm of Funky Bathrooms

Earlier this week, we had a post by Mike Seely lamenting what had become of the iconic, original location of the Red Robin burger franchise--that single address (a former tavern in the U District that, decades later, became the more recognizable burger bar) which spawned a nationwide chain of family-friendly locations now numbering in the bajillions. He'd visited the original because it is scheduled to go dark for good on March 21, ending a neighborhood reign that began in the 1940's, and he wanted just one last hit of the old nostalgia.

Of course, he would come to regret this impulse soon enough. And his thoughts on the failings of a once-legendary restaurant inspired a bristling (and lengthy) response from commenter David Mann who had this to say about the history and enduring charm of the original Red Robin:

Red Robin grew from just one location, which food critics love, to become something bigger, that appeals to more than people in more than one location, which food critics hate.

Some local food critics write about the original Red Robin like they were there in the 70s when it started. Some were not even old enough to have been there at all, or just at the side of their parents. They write about a time they never experienced, but felt they should have, when it was young and locally owned.

That Red Robin, along with all the others, was a starting point for many in restauranting. It has developed many people into fine adults. That Red Robin, along with all the others, served meal after meal and survived year after year, and created smiling guests that wanted to return to it. A lot of restaurant are only open a year. They were successful for a very long time. That Red Robin grew and changed over the years. Tom Douglas's opened his first restaurant over 20 years ago and his restaurant has changed and adapted over the years to his guests. That first Tom Douglas restaurant is different today than when he first started it, just like Red Robin. Tom Douglas runs several restaruants now, some would say a chain, and local food critics don't moan about what Tom Douglas, Inc has become or that he is operating succesful profitable restaurant in more than one location.

Our town is full of the little locally owned restaurants chain and the food critic don't pick on them. So why pick on Red Robin?

That location was a funky location. It's parking lot is awful, it's kitchen too small, the bar too small, and the floors in the restrooms are all uneven. That Red Robin, in that location, survived over the years. Why? Because it and the rest of the Red Robins adapted to what

the times and their guests wanted. More than a few local restaurant folks have moved their restaurants to different locations over the last 2 years, because of changing nieghborhood demographics. Often those new location lack the charm of the orginal, funky location, where rent was cheap. The local restaurant critics don't really write about that.

More than a local restauranteurs have closes that other restaurant they run because of the interesting ecomony we live in. The local restaurants critics forget to write about how those restaurants did not change and adapt to what the times or the people want or become

profitable and they had to close. The times are changing. There are winners and losers. That location will be missed. So miss it and not slam Red Robin having a degree of success. If it was so easy, more food critics would open their own restaurants.

Wow, David. That's some defense. I included every word you wrote, didn't change a thing, but now would like to take your points one at a time in order to lend some structure.

First off, I believe the original piece was meant, more or less completely, as a lament for the bygone days when the original Red Robin was what you were describing: "Not to be confused with its suburban brethren," Seely wrote, "the original Red Robin always felt like a tavern--which it originally was. This made it a peerless destination for young families; the adults could swig large mugs of beer in what felt like a tavern, without having to get a sitter for the kids. And high school promsters who wanted to feel like they were of age could bask in that same glory."

Where things fell apart for him was in the leap from beloved local hangout to all-things-to-all-people national chain. Also in the fact that the cheeseburger he had at the original in its dying days was awful and made him want to barf. No amount of nostalgia or past good works can remedy that. As anyone who has spent any time in restaurants knows, no one cares about how awesome you were yesterday. The only plate that matters is the next one going out to the floor.

You make a blanket proclamation that all food critics hate all chain operations. And that's just not true, David. When at our best, food critics judge every single dining room they find themselves in on their own unique merits, no matter if it's one of a hundred or just one of one. Personally, I've given glowing reviews to chain operations (Capital Grille, as an example), put the boot to beloved local institutions and given awards to outfits like Chipotle which, in a nice mirror of the Red Robin story, began as just a single, individually-financed burrito joint in Denver and quickly grew into an international chain large enough to affect world agricultural markets.

"Critics hate chains" is a gross simplification of how most of us critique and report on the restaurant scene. The truth is, most of us simply couldn't give less of a crap about chain restaurants in general until one of them does something either really, really good, or (much more likely) really, really bad.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say that Red Robin helped people develop into "fine adults." But considering the size of most of their burgers, I can certainly see how Red Robin would've helped people develop into very large adults. As for the comparison between Red Robin and the Tom Douglas restaurants? Not terribly apt, my friend. Just as there is a difference between a local chef with three locations of a popular concept in a single city and the hard-working chef-owner dedicated to the operation of only one, there is a universe of difference between a chef opening three or five or even ten restaurants and a chain operation with 400 locations in the United States and Canada. The major difference is scale. Tom Douglas could conceivably visit all of his restaurants in a single night. It would take me a year to hit every Red Robin in operation. Longer, probably, because I have no doubt that I'd be dead after just a couple months and the whole rest of the journey would have to be like one big re-enactment of that movie, Weekend at Bernie's.

But you understand that, right David? You were just being hyperbolic in comparing a massive, publicly traded food service corporation to an (admittedly successful) local restaurateur with a few addresses on his business cards, weren't you?

That's what I thought.

Finally, you speak about the staying power of Red Robin like that, alone, ought to be the barometer for success in the restaurant world. If that was the case--if locations opened and dollars banked were the only yardstick by which we were allowed to judge the great from the terrible--then McDonald's would be the best restaurant in the history of everything, there'd be statues raised praising Colonel Sanders and Steve Ells from Chipotle, and guys like Tom Douglas, Kevin Davis, William Belickis and Eric Ripert, David Chang and Francois Vatel could just suck it as the losers that they are.

Does money and popularity mean something? Yes, it does. It means that there are a great many Americans (and Canadians) who think that wolfing down a Monster Burger with two beef patties, bacon, cheese and barbecue sauce, weighing in at 1435 calories, 89 grams of fat and 3594 mg of sodium, is just awesome. Like a wise man once said: no one ever went broke giving the people what they want. What the people want are enormous, messy cheeseburgers, baskets of french fries, mozzarella sticks and onion rings, all washed down with light beer and diet soda. And that's precisely what Red Robin delivers.

That still doesn't make it a great restaurant or a great chain. And it certainly doesn't somehow make Red Robin immune from criticism.

Oh, and one last thing, David? You wisely make note of the restaurant industry not being easy. "More than [one] local restauranteurs have closes that other restaurant they run because of the interesting ecomony we live in. The local restaurants critics forget to write about how those restaurants did not change and adapt to what the times or the people want or become

profitable and they had to close." What I think you're saying there is that food writers don't write about the troubles that independent restaurants go through to stay open or the battles they have to daily fight because of chain operations sucking up such a huge percentage of the American people's dining dollars. You say that if it was all as easy as we (the restaurant critics) appear to think it is, we would be out there opening restaurants of our own.

Honestly, that's just a crock. A food writer's daily bread is the weepy story about the poor little mom-and-pop joint that couldn't compete in the down economy and had to close. We live for that shit. And as for opening our own restaurants, look: I spent nearly 15 years in the restaurant industry before I started writing about it. And when it came time for me to leave the kitchens, I decided to work in the field of journalism because, compared to the restaurant world, journalism looked stable. Even if someone were to hand me a million dollars tomorrow, I would not use it to open a restaurant. I know better. And while I have nothing but respect for those who work so hard every day to feed people like you and me, David, even to this day I know that you have to be more than a little bit touched in the head to willingly get into a business based around the notion of throwing dimes into a deep bucket and getting nothing back at the end of the day but pennies.

I'm nuts, David. But even I'm not that nuts.

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