That's why I've never understood why some diners wait as long as two hours to get a table at the Cheesecake Factory, where the food is tasty but hardly remarkable. I mean, after two hours, wouldn't you expect four-star cuisine rather than oversized burgers, mashed-potato omelets and a 1,560-calorie slice of cheesecake? If I'm not working, I'll happily go to a less-crowded joint rather than endure a trendy boîte's packed bar. Yes, I prefer civilized restaurants -- the kind that take reservations.
Johnson County's current hot restaurant, the one-month-old Mimi's Café, isn't uncivilized, but it's not going to start taking reservations until November. The corporate policy, issued from its California headquarters, is that the free-standing restaurants don't take reservations for the first two months they're open, and only for parties of six or more after that. Why should they? The minute the newest Mimi's -- number 66 in the fast-growing chain -- opened at Oak Park Mall, customers were happily waiting 90 minutes for a table.
But the wait times seem to be decreasing. I waited only forty minutes on a busy Friday night and just twenty minutes when I dragged three friends for a late Sunday supper.
The delay is relatively painless, thanks to a spacious waiting area where a bartender or a manager will, upon request, gladly run out with a cocktail or an appetizer. It's also a perfect place to eavesdrop on hilarious conversations. One young couple gazed in awe at the décor. "It looks like it belongs, you know, on a mountain!" marveled the male. "Yes! In Paris!" echoed his mate.
Huh? A mountain at EuroDisney, maybe. The brand-new building is done up in a quasi-cottage style, with cream-colored stucco walls and lots of rustic (phony-looking) knick-knacks, some reminiscent of the Shirley Temple version of Heidi, others from Irma La Douce. Rooster-inspired plates, cookie jars and gee-gaws clutter one area; in another hang French signs and posters and, ooh la la, a painting evoking the spirit of both the Moulin Rouge and Hanna-Barbera.
"What exactly is this restaurant supposed to be?" my friend Bob asked our waiter, an apple-cheeked youth nattily attired in a black-and-white-striped bistro apron. The kid was thrilled with a chance to rattle off the company line.
"We offer classic American homemade food with a little of the flavor of France and New Orleans," he said. Mercifully, he didn't go into the corporate myth behind the name, which weaves together a tale of World War II, an American spy, a French girl named Mimi and artichoke hearts.
Puccini's Mimi, the heroine of La Bohème, wouldn't recognize the "French flavor" of the décor or the menu at Mimi's Café. Despite Gallic-sounding names for a couple of dishes, the place is a straightforward American diner. But local patrons can sing an aria or two over the restaurant's primary lure: Mimi's gives frugal consumers a lot of coup pour le mâle. For prices comparable to Applebee's, TGI Fridays or, yes, the Cheesecake Factory, the portions are huge, the service is genial and the stuff that comes out of the kitchen actually tastes good.
There's not a meal that costs more than $14, and dinners include a petite salad or one of three hearty soups. A delicious French onion steams under a thick blanket of mozzarella cheese, and the creamy corn chowder tastes as if the corn had just been husked. But this isn't some rural luncheonette or country café. The appetizers cost nearly as much as a dinner entrée and aren't nearly as filling, though I did find that a crock of taupe-colored spinach-and-artichoke dip took the edge off as we waited for a table. The pile of Cajun popcorn shrimp wasn't particularly generous, but everyone seemed to love the greasy, crunchy miniature crustaceans, freshly netted from some bubbling deep fryer. They weren't a bad snack, but the flavor was hardly Cajun -- the golden breading was no more spicy than the wedge of watermelon on the same plate.
On my first visit, my friends and I sat in a beamed dining room. A stuffed pheasant perched over my head. As I buttered a slice of freshly baked carrot-raisin bread, I noted that the musical soundtrack -- 1940s standards by Sinatra, Ella, Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole -- was as nostalgia-heavy as the menu.
Unlike most of its corporate contemporaries, Mimi's Café serves on a daily basis such pre-WWII favorites as grilled liver and onions, chicken pot pie and turkey with dressing. A tender pot roast comes drenched in a thick gravy and sided with a mound of fresh green beans sautéed in garlic and butter. Thick slices of Midwestern-issue meat loaf are baked in a tangy Southern-style barbecue sauce (thick with corn syrup, ketchup and molasses), then grilled, splashed with more sauce and served with a steaming heap of buttery mashed potatoes.
There are slightly more exotic choices too: a chicken-and-fruit salad that combines a stack of iceberg lettuce, a wedge of watermelon, a chunk of honeydew and a slab of cantaloupe alongside a slightly dry chicken breast "blackened" with a crust of sinus-clearing spices (a heavy dose of cayenne with garlic powder, paprika and celery salt). And a chicken stir-fry is available in two non-French variations: Chinese, which is sweet with soy and an apricot sauce; or the vastly superior Thai, which is gingery with a hint of peanut sauce and lots of fresh cilantro.
On our return visit, my friend Debbie began to expect the worst as soon as she sat down and noticed spotty, dirty knives on the pastel napkins. "This is not a good sign," she said. Looking at the menu, she proclaimed that Mimi's would be "two steps above Denny's and two steps below the Cheesecake Factory."
But the nasty knives were whisked away by a savvy waitress named Jenna (a corporate trainer who will soon move on to Florida and her next Mimi's Café opening). The rest of the meal was flawless.
Debbie even raved about her bowl of Artie's Fettuccine, a wildly rich concoction of pasta, cream, Parmesan, fat artichoke hearts, pink shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes.
Though I'd barely made a dent in anything I ordered, I was stuffed after both visits. Unfortunately, this forced me to wave away the dessert tray. It's a visually appealing load of pastry props (made from God only knows what) that resemble the actual desserts, almost all of which are imported "from the company's corporate prep kitchen," according to one chatty manager. But the big slab of New Orleans bread pudding, dotted with raisins and glazed in a warm whisky-flavored syrup, is made in this restaurant's kitchen. That and the other doughy things on the menu caught my eye: a pain perdu stuffed with cream cheese and marmalade or the San Francisco version, made with a sourdough baguette.
A return visit might force me to spend another forty minutes listening to Hit Parade tunes from 1954 and drinking in the fake-French scenery. Mon Dieu!