When I was 16, my mom bought a fire-engine-red Dodge Daytona with a turbo package that everyone could see, because the word "TURBO" was plastered down each door. Oh, it could go pretty fast — as I later found out, too fast, on a backcountry road in Wilson County where I slid off the road, hopped a ditch and broke the axle, prompting Dad to sell what was left of the car almost immediately. But most importantly, it looked fast.
Based on the appearance of that car, I was able to procure a date outside my particular social stratum, which at the time lay somewhere between band and the debate team, neither of which was particularly useful for getting a hot date. We went to O'Charley's.
I'd love to know how many teenage encounters like mine have happened at O'Charley's. I don't remember much about the date except that there wasn't a second one. But I do remember what I had — chicken tenders with honey mustard sauce. At the time, I chose O'Charley's because I knew I could afford it, but it was also a step above typical teen fare (Wendy's, Taco Bell). I hoped to impress my date with my worldliness. Hey, they had menus and breadbaskets! Back then, as now, it was a place that clung to the middle ground but had enough polish to look like a better place.
In the interim quarter-century, O'Charley's has had its share of struggles. As recently as 2011, same-store sales were falling and a slew of stores closed. New owners Fidelity National Financial decided to remodel both the restaurants and the menu last year.
"I would encourage you, in the first or second quarter of next year, to take a trip to where some of the stores have been remodeled and just take a look and try the food, because it's outstanding," Fidelity National CEO George Scanlon told the Scene's sister publication, Nashville Post, in November.
So, I took him up on it. Twenty-five years later, I returned with my wife, this time driving a thoroughly sensible Jeep product. And if I asked her to go back, she might dump me, too.
It was that bad.
I should say hers was that bad. Mine was just fine, because in a nod to nostalgia, I had chicken tenders with honey mustard, something they haven't taken off the revamped menu. But, honestly, if you're screwing up chicken tenders, you should just lock the doors and never reopen.
The bride went for something exotic, ordering the "Louisiana Sirloin," which apparently derives its name from a sprinkling of Cajun spice placed in a teaspoon of butter on top of the steak. Cooked poorly (they missed medium-rare by a good 20 degrees) and a little tough, it was a disaster. She couldn't eat more than a couple of bites. The mashed potatoes and broccoli casserole, meanwhile, did battle to see which could taste saltier.
Return trips to Nashville-area locations with others (Jen threatened divorce over the meal) confirmed a pattern: Anyone who ordered stand-alone chicken got a decent meal, while everybody else left copious amounts uneaten. The honey-drizzled fried chicken, for example, was pretty tasty, while plates of Cajun chicken pasta or prime rib pasta were nearly inedible. A "chicken Italia" was excellent at another meal, but the fried shrimp were just pieces of rubber covered in panko crumbs.
Appetizers are geared toward the bar crowd, with the high salt content in nachos, spinach dip and potato skins seemingly built to require another beer or two. Side dishes play the comfort-food card, but honestly, the best thing we ate was simply the broccoli. And don't worry, nostalgists, the lettuce wedge with bleu cheese is still on the menu.
But the steaks? On a couple of different occasions there were quality-control issues. There was certainly a training/service issue, because the meat was the wrong temperature. But some of the problem can also be attributed to the quality of the meat that they use: USDA Choice instead of Prime. Certainly, the cost is lower when you go with Choice cuts, but there's also a ceiling on taste. The Prime designation is for the top 3 percent of beef, while Choice is for roughly the next 50 percent. That's a wide variance, which makes you realize just how little the average consumer knows about meat, because "USDA Choice" is displayed proudly on the menus. They're betting you don't know Prime is better.
Chains like O'Charley's aren't competing with the Husks or the City Houses or the Lockeland Tables of the world. They're aiming for that wide stretch of middle-class and blue-collar customers who want to have a decent meal out but not pay too much for it. That's why O'Charley's has $9.99 menus (mercifully, with six chicken dishes) and free pie on Wednesdays — they're economic constructs betting on the right combination of factors to induce you to come in.
Is it any surprise that O'Charley's doesn't measure up when you start poking on it? No. But they don't care. For every Jim 'N Nick's out there, there are a dozen chains like O'Charley's — Applebee's, T.G.I. Friday's, Ruby Tuesday, Chili's, etc. — whose aim for quality isn't as high.
Maybe in a few years, when a new company buys them, they'll revamp the menu again. If so, I'll come back and try the tenders again. But next time I'm not bringing a date.