Last year, a friend of mine returned from a trip to Joplin singing the praises of a restaurant chain that I'd never heard of: Cheddar's Casual Café. "The food was really good," he said, "and so inexpensive. Most of the dinner entrées cost less than 10 bucks."
My reaction was, "Gee, that's nice. It sounds like a Denny's or a Cracker Barrel." I mean, this country is loaded with moderately priced casual-dining restaurants that do a fair job of feeding the masses the kinds of food that Americans like best: burgers, fries, chicken tenders and deep-fried cheese sticks. Do we really need another one?
The answer, apparently, is yes. The original Cheddar's opened in 1978 near the Six Flags amusement park in Arlington, Texas, and immediately caught on as a family destination. The company opened a location in Overland Park this past December, and it's already one of the metro's busiest dining spots. It's not unusual for the free-standing restaurant to be running 45-minute wait times during the week, and the claustrophobic foyer is typically packed with a horde of hungry men, women, kids and, on one occasion, a dog. (OK, it was a working dog, but you get the idea.)
"Is this place always so busy?" I asked one of the harried hostesses on my first visit. She handed me a pager and laughed. I think that meant yes.
Whatever Cheddar's is doing, it's doing it right. The handsome building certainly doesn't evoke low-budget dining with its dark, clubby interior, polished-wood walls and heavy butcher-block tables. And the servers are remarkably well-trained, which is a bit of a phenomenon in this neighborhood around Oak Park Mall.
True, I groaned at the idea of waiting 45 minutes on a recent Sunday — at 4:30 p.m.! — to get the opportunity to order from a menu that serves no fewer than 19 chicken dishes and something called "baked Spasagna." Baked what?
"Spasagna!" said my friend Bob, who had loved the dish when he'd eaten it in Joplin. "It's made with layers of spaghetti with cheeses and a meat sauce. And it looks like lasagna."
I found the concept somewhat offensive, but I held my tongue. "Keep an open mind," whispered our friend Truman. "It might be very good. And everyone walking out of this joint looks happy."
Many of them were also carrying Styrofoam boxes, which led me to believe — correctly, it turned out — that Cheddar's Casual Café was probably more in the mold of a Cheesecake Factory: big portions and reasonable prices.
After we'd been people-watching for 30 minutes, our little pager began vibrating and flashing, and a cheery hostess escorted us to a table and introduced us to our server, a broad-shouldered kid who looked less like a professional waiter than the fullback for a high school football team. "Oh, no," he laughed. "I've been out of high school a long time. Two years!"
I took note of the casual details: no heavy paper napkins (like squares of Bounty on steroids) and no tablecloths. Almost all of the starters are fried. "We're most famous for our homemade queso dip," the server explained. It's cheap at $3.99, and the menu notes, in red ink, that "for a heartier flavor, add seasoned ground beef at no charge."
"That's a good deal," Bob said.
I guess that's true, but I kept thinking, "Has the downturn in the economy made people go completely mad?" To get so excited about a spoonful of ground beef in cheese sauce? I looked over at a woman in the next booth, and she was gazing at a basket of fried chicken tenders — "cooked to golden perfection," according to the menu — as if she hadn't seen food for a month.