On the website for Shoney's, you'll find the nostalgia glutton's answer to an all-you-can-eat buffet: a timeline. It starts with the launch of Alex Schoenbaum's West Virginia drive-in 60 years ago, then progresses through the merger with Big Boy restaurants, the adoption of the Shoney's moniker, and the new juggernaut's march to the sea across Nashville and the Southeast. Scattered throughout are a smattering of lesser American cultural milestones—the release of The Godfather II, the attempted murder of J.R. Ewing, the election of Ronald Reagan. But the top story, clearly, is the restaurant's emergence as America's (self-appointed) Dinner Table.
After the early-'80s launch of the famous Breakfast Bar, however, and the subsequent debut of Shoney Bear (who tragically replaced the iconic Big Boy as the company mascot), the timeline peters out around 1998. Even then, rather predictably, the chronology misses a few key moments in the company history. Such as 1988, the year employees brought suit against Shoney's for systemic discrimination in its hiring. Or when the company settled the suit, paying out $132 million. Or when The Black O was published in 1997, chronicling the corporate black eye of the landmark civil-rights complaint. (The title alluded to the practice of filling in the letter "o" on the job applications of African Americans.)
Also absent from the festive timeline—though far less conspicuous—is a date somewhere in the late '80s. That's when my family stopped eating at Shoney's altogether. Looking back, it's hard to remember whether our defection resulted more from a decline in the actual food quality and service, or from an expansion in our tastes and options. Either way, we were not the only ones. The once high-flying chain struggled, the publicly traded company was taken private, and the once-ubiquitous brand became all but irrelevant.
And yet, among a broad swath of diners, the Shoney's name still evokes great fondness. Ask a longtime Nashvillian about the recently revamped store near the corner of Thompson Lane and Nolensville Road, and you're likely to get wistful reminiscences about Sunday lunches, oft-replenished heaps of steam-table bacon, and not least of all, hot fudge cake.
If Shoney's of days gone by was a trailblazer, setting a standard for casual family restaurants, Shoney's of 2009 is playing catch-up, modernizing its look, feel and food in a 21st century marketplace crowded with contempo-casual-stucco-coated establishments serving grilled salmon and strawberry lemonade. Damaged by fire a year ago, the Thompson Lane store—celebrating its 49th anniversary as a Shoney's—has been extensively renovated, reflecting a prototype that will be extended henceforth to all new Shoney's restaurants. And from a couple of visits, Shoney's 2.0 is delivering its semi-upgraded, quasi-contemporary-casual American menu quite well, bolstered by a clean, well-lighted dining room, a bubbly, hard-working staff, and a price point that will make you ask your server, "Are you sure you counted everything?"
As if the menu writers were being paid by the word, the roster sprawls with seemingly endless permutations of chicken, chicken sandwiches, chicken baskets, steak, country fried steak, Philly cheesesteak, and so on. In addition, there's an all-you-can-eat food bar with meat-and-three style offerings, salad and soup. It's a repertoire that can get unwieldy, and we encountered a few extraneous items that should be eliminated. You weren't really going to Shoney's for a crab-artichoke pasta skillet, were you? You shouldn't. Furthermore, do you see a smoker out front? No. So why load up on steam-table ribs and barbecued chicken? But in general, our meals were satisfying and hearty.
Fried catfish got enthusiastic accolades from our table, with one diner going so far as to compare Shoney's favorably to nearby Arnold's Country Kitchen. That said, if you're really in it for the catfish, order one of the four catfish meals (including pecan-encrusted, spicy and blackened) from the menu rather than the all-you-can eat buffet. Time takes a toll on a deep-fried fish body. Similarly, the all-you-can-eat steak special provided an unnecessarily endless amount of tired-looking beef.
For my five bucks, the All-American burger was the best thing on the menu. Made from fresh-never-frozen (alert the buzzword committee) beef, the thick juicy burger was cooked to order, with just the right amount of pink in the middle and a generous pile of trimmings. Equally reassuring was the reincarnation of Shoney's classic Slim Jim sandwich, piled with about a half-inch of sweet ham, a paper-thin sheet of Swiss cheese, shredded lettuce, Thousand Island dressing and tomato on a warm sesame loaf toasted to yield a delicately crisp shell with a soft chewy inside. Couple either the burger or the Slim Jim with some piping-hot hand-breaded onion rings and a thick milkshake made with Breyers ice cream, and you've got a competitive, affordable meal by any standards. Throw in a hot fudge cake, and you've got an instant flashback to long-ago school outings when lunch at Shoney's was the most eagerly awaited part of any field trip.
And even if Shoney's can't stoke the taste memories of your own youth, it should delight anyone who is charged with feeding children. Junior chicken strips, pizza and mac-and-cheese are all $2.49. The meals met with hearty kid approval and caused some reverse sticker shock when dinner for three adults and three children clocked in below $50 before tip. (Home ec hint: Kids' drinks are $1.29, so if you're watching your wallet, don't assume drinks are included and stick with water instead.)
The Nashville-based brand now comprises 260 stores (franchises and company-owned) in 18 states and is owned by privately held Royal Hospitality Corp., based in Atlanta. With 20 stores in Nashville, the company is looking to build another store this year or next year and is remodeling three to five stores in the area over the next few years, in the style of the Thompson Lane location. During our visits, the crowd skewed older, as if younger families—who might not remember the glory days of Shoney's—still hadn't caught on to the revamped value proposition at America's recently modernized dinner table.
But if the expansion of the new menu goes smoothly, and the level of service and quality from Thompson Lane translates across the chain, Shoney's could win over another generation. If so, maybe the summer of 2009 will register someday as a milestone on the company timeline.
Shoney's is open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Breakfast Bar is available daily until 11 a.m. on weekdays and until 2 p.m. on weekends. On Wednesday, the Breakfast Bar is available in the evening.
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