Meet Dave Anderson, the founder and chairman of Minnesota-based Famous Dave's of America Inc., whose story is heart-wrenchingly detailed in his publicity materials. "In 1979, Dave Anderson was bankrupt and penniless, forced to sell everything he owned in order to put a roof over his family's head. To provide food for his family, he resorted to digging for coins in seat cushions and begging fast-food restaurant owners for leftovers."
It's easier to make those kinds of confessions when you're looking backward at misery. Anderson is now a millionaire, the chairman of a company with 88 restaurants in 23 states, including the four-month-old Famous Dave's Grill and Barbecue, across the road from the Nebraska Furniture Mart in Kansas City, Kansas. To call this honky barbecue joint an overwhelming success would be an understatement: There's usually an hour's wait for a table in one of the dining rooms on weekends, and only slightly less of a logjam on weeknights.
And baby, it's not cheap. I toyed with the idea of going outside and digging around the seat cushions of my Dodge on the first night I dined there, when my friends insisted on ordering the $52.99 "All-American Barbecue Feast." This generous sampling of the restaurant's most popular dishes -- from ribs to chopped pork -- comes attractively arranged on a metal garbage-can lid.
At Famous Dave's there's no shame in being trashy. The place has been designed, quite brilliantly, to look like a redneck roadhouse. Instead of napkins, there's a roll of paper towels on each table, and the décor leans heavily to vintage beer signs and memorabilia, including a full-color illuminated "Land of Sky Blue Water" sign promoting Hamm's Beer and, just above the bar, a plastic Hamm's bear.
Naturally, though, the bar doesn't actually serve Hamm's. The place may be designed to look like a party shack off some gravel road, but the beer offerings (Bud and Bud Light, Fat Tire, Boulevard and Miller Lite) as well as the stuff on the menu are pretty conventional choices. There's an unenthralling (and limited) wine list. The servers aren't exactly wine-savvy, but it only added to the absurd charm of the place when "Famous Abiyah," a somewhat ditsy eighteen-year-old with copper-colored cornrows who told us he had spent the summer dancing at the Renaissance Festival, informed our little group that the wine list included "Marlo" and "Cabaret."
"I'll have the Cabaret," said my friend Ned, pointing to the BV Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon on the menu. Bob considered the "Marlo" but ordered a frosty mug of Bud instead. Our server took the rest of our order somewhat grudgingly after I had to firmly nix his suggestions and insist on getting what I wanted. "Whatever floats your boat," he said.
We were dining in the bar that night because the wait to get a table in the dining rooms was too long. Oh sure, the pretty hostess at the front desk handed me a pager and said it would be 55 minutes "or so." But 55 minutes later, when the pager wasn't lighting up or vibrating, I took a peek at the still-lengthy list in front of Miss Hostess and realized that her sense of timing was all off. It would be another thirty minutes easy before anyone would usher us out of the bustling bar to a dining room. So we quickly got chummy with a family finishing up their dinner in the bar and snagged their table as soon as they paid. We nearly got into fisticuffs with a trio of chubby drunks who'd had their eyes on the same table, but I gave them my nastiest "fuck you" look and sat right down, figuring that if things got ugly I could use the paper-towel holder as a weapon.