Monday, May 04, 2009

Restaurant Review: Toby Keiths "I Love This Bar & Grill"

The final word right up front: I'll give it a C, but with potential.

The Setup

One of the benefits of living in Phoenix, is that we are often used as a test market for various products, services, and concepts. For example, we generally get new candy bars, soft drinks, and other foods test marketed here, and even movie previews long before other markets see them.

Because we're a market with a relatively low cost of doing business, cheap land, and high value demographics; we've also been used as the opening market, or one of the early markets, for a number of chain restaurants.

For a while there it was retired sports stars; but recently the big thing has been musicians (I'm not counting Alice Coopers place which has been here for 15 years). We had Carlos Santanas joint "Maria Maria" open up here about 18 months ago, a number of others open since; and just last weekend, Toby Keiths "I Love This Bar & Grill".

Actually from what I understand, we were intended to be the second location for the chain (the first outside of Tobys home state of Oklahoma), but the restaurant has been delayed for the last three years, and had to change sites; so instead we're I believe the fourth location (the others are in Oklahoma city, the Chicago suburbs and Las Vegas)

Mel has been wanting to go ever since she heard the place was coming; but we wisely avoided opening weekend, and decided to head out this past Friday instead.

The Review

First impressions? It's big, and it's loud. Very big, and VERY loud in fact.

The place is about 20,000 square feet, 200 foot plus wide with a HUGE 85 foot long guitar shaped bar running right down the middle; a dining area to one side, and a live music stage and smaller dining are to the other, plus outside seating.

There is no question, the bar is the focus of the restaurant. It's a gleaming neon lit show piece that takes up at least 1/3 their floor space. However it's also where the largest concentration of loudspeakers is. When you're within 20 feet of the bar, conversation is impossible.

In fact it's difficult to hear yourself think. I have a very loud voice, and I had to shout to make myself heard to the greater and hostess.

The music is a mix of country, classic rock, southern rock, and a little hard rock. Basically, if you'd hear it at a NASCAR tailgate, they'd be playing it at TKILTB&G.

... a word on that... Seriously, I know branding is important, but don't you feel silly saying "I'm going to "Toby Keiths 'I Love This Bar & Grill" I mean if nothing else, isn't it a little long?

Sure, it's a natural branding fit, but seriously...

While we were there, the live band of the night started up, and they were very good (I unfortunately didn't catch their name); but even louder than the recorded music.

At any rate, it was simply too loud inside to enjoy a meal, even at the far end of the seating area; so we chose to eat outside (many, if not most, restaurants in Arizona have outside seating).

The service is friendly, clean and neat. The women who they have titled "Whiskey Girls" (more of that branding thing) all wear the same "uniform" of a tank top, cutoff jean shorts or skirts, and cowboy boots, while the men have a more mundane short sleeve button down shirt, jeans, and boots.

The menu is pretty solid. Neither very large, nor limited, they offer a good selection of choices; though as you'd expect, focused on the beef and pork end of the spectrum. The dishes have a slight "country" feel to them, but it's the "suburban" country version. So there's no collard greens, but there ARE fried bologna sandwhiches.

The drinks were good, as was the beer which they had an acceptable selection of; at a slightly above average but not outrageous price for the class of place, and they were well sized. Oh and they serve them in Mason jars, which I always like.

This is where we hit our second point of dissatisfaction however. The fact is, I just don't think the place is a good value for money.

We ordered a single appetizer, the "buffalo" wings (they were good, but they weren't buffalo wings, They used a slightly sweet, slightly hot, thin vinegar based sauce) and the relatively small platter (8 whole wings; drums and winglets not disjointed as is typical) was $10. More typical pricing in this region would have been $6.99 to $8.99.

Other appetizers were in the $7.99 to $8.99 range, and although we didnt order any we did see them on other tables, and they appeared a little smaller than one would expect for the price.

Mel ordered the rib plate at $14.99 for a half rack, and two sides; and I ordered the "Fish and Game", at $22.99, a 10oz peppercorn sirloin and fried shrimp with two sides (and the most expensive thing on the menu).

They also sell the same peppercorn sirloin with two sides (but no shrimp) for $15.99; which honestly is a bit high for just a sirloin. $12.99 to $14.99 would be more in-line with other casual dining places offering a 10oz. For $15.99 I'd be expecting a 12oz or even 14oz steak from a similar place.

So, for $22.99 I expected a LOT of shrimp. In fact I expected a big portion of everything. If you're going to charge for it, bring it right?

There was a little 4oz (at most) soupcon of mac and cheese, a scattering of fries, a tiny little sirloin, and THREE tiny little shrimp.

Now remember, the exact same plate without the shrimp was $15.99; so they charged me $7 for THREE shrimp; and they weren't even big shrimp.

For $7 I expect at least a half dozen 16-20s or at the very least 21-25s; these were 26-30s (one size above "popcorn shrimp"), and there were 3 of them.

Mels "half rack" was more like a 1/3 rack; with the same portions of sides as mine.

Let me just say to balance off my criticism a little, the food was good. It wasn't great, but it wasn't at all bad. It was just the pricing for the portion that I was unhappy with.

The desserts were the highlight of the meal, and unlike the rest, quite reasonably priced. For $5 you got a reasonable sized slice of pie, cake, etc... Or a couple of deep fried twinkies swimming in a huge bowl of strawberries and whipped cream (which is obviously what I got). Mel got the pumpkin pecan pie and declared it delicious.

The total for our meal: an appetizer, two drinks, two entrees, and two desserts; came out to just about $70.

That isn't BAD, but it's $10 more than I'd be paying for the same thing at say an Applebees/Chilis/Fridays/Etc... for a similar quality of food (and all of those portions would be larger). Worse, it's only $10 less than I'd be paying at say, Claim Jumper; which would give me much more, and better, food.

Oh there is one point of great value on the menu: The burgers and sandwiches, although we didn't order them, look excellent; and they're priced very well ($7.99 with fries for a plain 1/2lb burger or lower cost sandwich to $12.99 for the super deluxe items).

The service was a bit iffy. There were some slowdowns and some little mistakes; but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This was just their second weekend up and running, and the staff were obviously trying hard; they just didn't have their crew or their routines sorted out yet. That will come in time, and I expect the service will eventually match the great attitude that the staff all seemed to have.

The Good: Great friendly attitude, good drinks, great desserts, big burgers at a good price, good menu overall

The Bad: The overly loud music, service isn't sorted out yet (give them a chance though)

The Ugly: $7 for three tiny shrimp

Would I recommend "Toby Keiths 'I Love This Bar & Grill" ?

No, I don't think so. I wouldn't warn you off of it, but I'm hovering somewhere between neutral, and slightly negative (thus the "C" grade above).

We had a good time, and an OK meal, but the negatives outweight the positives for me.

If they turned the music down, and dropped the price on everything by $1 or $2; or upped the portion size on everything by 20%, I'd recommend it in a heartbeat.

As it is, I'd say give it a pass, unless you just want to have a drink, a burger, and dessert; and listen to country. Then you'd be playing to their strengths, and none of the complaints I had would apply.

If you're interested, here's another review of the place.