Photograph by Michael Amsler
A walkabout through the forbidden pleasures of the Outback Steakhouse
By Sara Bir
The directions to just about any Outback Steakhouse in the country might be similar: just past the Circuit City, to the right of Best Buy, behind the Cinema Googolplex, crowning the top of a hill like a gigantic, abandoned shoe box. Peckish for protein and too indecisive to agree on an actual neighborhood restaurant, two friends and I had landed at Outback by default; in a lackluster antithesis of Mallory's majestic compulsion to scale Mt. Everest, we chose Outback "because it's there."
For some, taking a meal without luxurious necessities like freshly ground pepper and extra virgin olive oil feels dreadfully wrong, as wrong as neglecting to wear pants to work or not buckling your seat belt. This is one of the marks of a true gourmet--the type of person who frowns on salt that does not originate, unrefined, from the sea. Gourmets are not likely to admit that they have, once or twice, tested their refined palate at a franchised restaurant. Even less likely is an admission that they liked it. Perhaps even crave it.
Iodized table salt does have its time and place. The snowy grains attain perfection when sprinkled profusely over a glistening mound of golden-brown French fries poking their pointy heads through the top of a grease-spattered cardboard sleeve, yearning for ketchup to bless their starchy crowns. French fries whose crisp, salty-sweetness is to be tempered with alternating sips via plastic straw of fizzy kiddie-mead that manages to cleanse the palate and still maintain its definitive saccharine character. This is the beauty of a chain restaurant. This is its worth.
I know it's wrong; I've read Fast Food Nation. But I only enter those cookie-cutter refueling centers to satisfy unidentified biannual cravings. It seems petty--even downright irresponsible--to stuff money into a national chain's advertising budget by munching on trucked-in, genetically altered fries rather than supporting dedicated local chefs who are on their feet over 12 hours a day trying to keep their organic bistros open. Perhaps this is why some chefs have a notorious weakness for fast food, because it represents the complete opposite of everything they stand for, making it a forbidden thrill to enjoy something that, at its core, we all know is evil.
These are corporations who put Olympic-committee-level amounts of planning into reconfigured crouton distribution proposals or the launch of the Exploding Cran-Razzamatazz Volcano mixed drink; even so, some are better at it than others. Despite differences in price and quality, there are few distinctions between fast-food and sit-down franchises. You step through their glassy doors and enter a suspended reality, an edible Disneyland, another dimension where location is not a singular instance, but a universal shopping mall. A chain is a chain, freaky and possibly rewarding, but still freaky.
The Belly of the Beast
The fumes of meat over Outback's industrial indoor "barbie" (what our antipodal counterparts call a grill) overtake us before we even get through the door. The host sends us off to wait for a table with an industrial-strength pager and we sit, staring with glazed eyes at a television tuned to ESPN amidst random boomerangs and mounted faux mini-marlins dotting the walls.
A fat man sits alone with his Outback pager, taking up the whole bench as he waits for his table. Already seated and digging into their salads (one part shredded cheddar and jack cheeses to one part lettuce) are others of his bulk. Here, in the comfortable darkness and calculated din under mass-produced neon beer signs, the spacious booths are spread apart like picnic tables at an indoor campground, and a hard-working person can be a glutton with sanctioned anonymity.
Which is just what we were planning to do.
Once we're seated, the host shuffles us over to our booth as '80s new-wave favorites play over the speakers. Our waiter appears in a red polo shirt and black pants--the generic uniform of all wait staff at casual eateries--and deals out logo-emblazoned paper coasters. "HimynameisJosh, I'llbeyour-servertonight. Our specials are potato soup and our fish tonight is a mahi-mahi. Wouldyoulikeanythingtogetyoustarted?"
Glutton Guilt: These are a few of our favorite things.
How about 22 ounces of beer? These tankards are an Outback trademark, enough to get anyone started and then some. To create a perception of value, Outback and its chain-linked ilk make portions impressively (and inedibly) huge--you begin by eating food because it feels good, but you end by eating food until it hurts--creating a bizarre parallel between the dining habits of ancient Roman aristocracy and modern patrons at Hometown Buffet. This effortless access to prolific second and third helpings shifts the emphasis of dinner out as respite to dinner out as recreation, making the experience a leisure activity with an unfortunately high impact on the body.
Australian for Food, Mate
The typical American identifies the following things with Australia: "Crocodile" Dundee, The Crocodile Hunter, INXS, koala bears, and fat beer cans. Australians basically eat like we do, only in a different accent, so to construct a whole empire of Australian steakhouses, Outback had to fictionalize and miniaturize an entire continent to distinguish themselves from the John Wayne aura of other interchangeable midprice steakhouses. Outback Steakhouse has taken advantage of our blank Aussie impression to create an alter-Australia, as defined by their menu: Grill everything on the "barbie" and punctuate every description with an exclamation point. The menu items are Australian only in the vernacular used in naming them--"The Ab-original Bloomin' Onion," "Walkabout Soups of the Day"--thus making this an Australian-themed restaurant rather than an Australian restaurant. No Vegemite sandwiches or Anzac biscuits or lamb to be found anywhere at the Outback, though the wine list has a respectable selection of affordable Australian wines.
Oddly enough, it's the gimmicks--mascots, special drinks, sombreros for birthday celebrations--and not the food itself that differentiate one chain from the next. The Hard Rock Cafe and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. both offer caesar salads, but one establishment has Axl Rose's leather codpiece on display while the other has a replica of the Nikes Tom Hanks wore in the movie.
Josh returns and squats down at the head of our table, awaiting in serf position to take our order. I don't know which CEO first brainstormed this maneuver, but it spread like wildfire throughout casual, sit-down chains across the country. I think it's vile. I wanted to say, "Josh, I respect you. Please get off your knees and take my order like a human being, because right now what you are doing makes me feel that you are about to give us all a blow job." Customers at most of these places earn their money by figuratively getting on their knees for someone, so the whole idea must be for the diner to feel empowered, in control, and therefore more likely to spend money. I tell the now waist-level Josh that I would like a Bonzer Salad, thank you, and that is all.
The Bonzer Salad promises your typical chicken breast sliced over your typical greens, tossed with an Asian dressing and a "special crunch." Special crunch? Last time I had a special crunch it was inside a Nestlé chocolate bar. But I feel daring. My friends select "Land Rovers," aka steaks.
And they are good steaks; I try pieces of both, since they each rival a teenage boy's basketball shoe in size. Outback prepares steaks by first dipping them in clarified butter, then seasoning, and then giving them the barbie treatment. This they are indeed doing correctly: Generous amounts of fat and salt make meat tast-ee. When cooking at home, bringing yourself to give food big, wet French kisses of butter instead of tiny, dry pecks with Canola oil can be cringe-inducing. Let someone else surround your food with yummy fat and sodium behind closed doors; it's easier to accept, and the palate-pleasing result is one that keeps people going out to eat.
Not all restaurants stress the importance of generous seasoning to their kitchen staffs, but you can bet a franchise will. And if not, it's only because the food comes half-prepared--portioned, seasoned, and flash-frozen--thereby eliminating the chance for human error . . . and the opportunity for culinary creativity.
My Bonzer Salad is a satisfying treat, a less challenging version of the sort of thing that would have shown up on the menu of a trendy late-'80s fusion restaurant. The chicken is moist and thinly sliced, and the salad arrives doused with the perfect amount of a flavor-packed dressing, dominated by sesame oil and undercut with the sweetness of honey. Prior to digging in, I scrutinize my salad for signs of special crunch, though I can identify no such thing . . . until I spy a semi-intact curl of a Frito chip. A-ha! This is the executive stroke of genius--that a corporate kitchen will take lunch box snack food and secretly scatter it through your $9 salad.
I try some of the blue cheese dressing--my dining companion swore it was good--only to discover the stuff is nothing but blue cheese crumbles and mayonnaise. Everyone likes blue cheese crumbles and mayonnaise, so of course a dressing mixing the two and nothing else will be a big hit. Outback's menu takes maximum advantage of the fact that any salad, appetizer, or entrée that can be reasonably laced with bacon, cheddar and jack cheeses, or sour cream will be. The Aussie cheese fries are gilded with the aforementioned two cheeses and bacon, plus ranch dressing on the side. Just what is the flavor profile they are shooting for here? Why not toss in a packet of lard and some popcorn topping for good measure?
The Temple of My Familiar
But even though my outer food snob turns its nose up at crossing shrimp with ranch dressing, my outer food whore is more than happy to wolf down the small, doughy loaves of bread that keep appearing at our table. The steaks are cooked to their requested doneness, Josh provides us with prompt and cordial service, and all of the food is well-seasoned.
This is the one steadfastly good thing about chain restaurants: The food will always be seasoned correctly. A chain's existence relies on its consistency, for if an Outback in West Virginia did not offer an identical experience to an Outback in California, then customers would be faced with a dreadful, gnawing uncertainty. For a finicky crowd's spectrum of demands, generic menus and ample parking make chain restaurants the lowest common denominator for overworked parents and fussy kids. Afloat in familiar brand names, favorite upbeat pop songs, easy-to-navigate paths to the bathroom, and a moderate din that diffuses any need for deep conversation, we can bond instantly with recognizable food that plunges us, headfirst, into the fleeting deep-fried therapy of a spa of gluttony.
We pay our bill; the price of my Outback salad rivals that of a salad at a fine-dining restaurant. You cannot, however, enjoy fine dining without thinking, and the only thing I had to think about at Outback was how to chew my food and swallow it, and how pleasing the Men at Work song playing in the background sounded. Chain restaurants do the thinking for us, which can be a real treat . . . sometimes. The problem is that there are a lot of people who are habitually choosing not to think.
Often, the determining factor that makes a restaurant a favorite restaurant is not that the food is spectacular or the service outstanding, but simply because being there feels right. Slipping into the overblown comfort factor that franchised restaurants try so damned hard to create is, for some, an escape, while for others it is an act of subjecting yourself to an eerie Twilight Zone of eating out. Where does the novelty stop and the brainwashing start? I don't know, but if I wait another five years before I venture into an Outback Steakhouse, I am sure I will enjoy my salad.
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From the April 25-May 1, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.