Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nostalgia & Kitsch: A Review of Bob's Big Boy Restaurant

The following is a longer version of my Yelp review of Bob's Big Boy restaurant. A new location opened in my area.

For those of you unfamiliar with the chain, Bob's is a more-or-less typical middle of the road family dining establishment. The franchise has been around in one form or another since the late 1930s. It had its hey-day in the 60s and 70s as one of a dozen or so popular restaurants that appealed to the post-War generation of parents who, in possession of surplus income, found "eating out" to be a novel family entertainment.

Bob's was very appealing to children thanks to its rotund mascot, free comic books, and amble dessert options.

The chain went into decline in the late 80s and eventually declared bankruptcy. Subsequent revivals have seen an explosion of interest such that nearly 500 Big Boy's are now a going concern in North America.

In the following review, I refer to "The Fat Vegetarian." That is my moniker on Yelp. I write all my reviews from a vegetarian perspective. I try to locate vegetarian options at "regular" restaurants.

Pea-Soup Andersens meets Johnny Rockets?

The Fat Vegetarian hasn’t always been a vegetarian, but he’s always been fat. (Except for a brief but appreciated growth spurt in the mid-teen years that produced a rail-thin, Bowie-like vision that made him passable for leading a Roxy Music cover band… but I digress.) The fat begins and, evidently ends, with trips to Bob’s Big Boy, that bastion of family dining from the 1970s. Pappy Parker… Big Boy Combos… milk shakes… strawberry pie… and the infamous hot fudge cake, each were soldiers in the army that overthrew my will power for the better part of the Carter administration. (Equal blame can be laid at the feet of Sambo’s, Denny’s, Spire’s, The Park Pantry, The Parasol, JoJo’s, Norm’s, Alphy’s, and once a year, The Velvet Turtle… all those sundry middle-of-the road chains that sprouted up in suburbia between 1960 and 1980 that served predictable, inoffensive food to Boomers and their babies.) Bob’s was ubiquitous enough in the South Bay of Fat’s youth that you could drive from one location to the other and never have to turn left or right off of Hawthorne boulevard. They have always been an average, but enigmatic establishment. From the red relish to the near-perfect Thousand Island dressing, to the odd, pink glyco-gel they use to bind their strawberry pies, you were never unsure about where you were eating. The franchise, from what I can tell, has been through at least three revival attempts since the closures started in the 1980s. The “Hollywood hipster” revivals came in two phases in the 90s and seemed to coincide with the obnoxious Neo-Swing, doofus crowd converging at the Bob’s on Hollywood boulevard, and the old timey car crowd that, for whatever reason, associated Bob’s with car culture and nostalgia. But nostalgia is a poor business model. Just ask the owners of Ed Debevic’s. There has to be value and something you can’t get anywhere else. The reason Bob’s won’t die is because they use nostalgia to get old timers to visit, but they actually do provide a modestly interesting selection of unpretentious American food standards at a price comparable to the infinitely less interesting Denny’s or Carrows. (Has anyone ever desired their last meal to be catered by Carrows?)The newish location in Northridge (why is it listed as Chatsworth?) is immune to hip and keeps the kitsch to a minimum. It’s location predetermines it to be a utility player in the host of eateries up and down Corbin and Tampa. It’s traditional red and white color scheme partners it perfectly with its neighbor, Target, thus creating that all important “synergy” that businesses seek out. Load up at one, then load up at the other. The lack of hipness suggests that this location may be here to stay, and gauging by the packed house evidenced by a causal drive-by, it looks to have sparked the interest of the locals.

We went around 2:00 PM on a Thursday afternoon. There was plenty of seating.The interior is clean and bright, with lots of white surfaces and red vinyl seats . Chrome appointments accent the purposely-visible dessert station, thus providing the scene a hint of drive-in, “New Frontier” nostalgia without being pushy about it. The menus are falling apart… strange given how recently the joint opened.

From the vegetarian’s perspective, the Bob’s experience in general can be hit or miss. Not all carry veggie patties and most do not list them as an option on the menu. (Burbank being the notable exception.) And if they don’t have said-patties, the options are rather meager. Their grilled cheese sandwich is awful. The bread is never crisp and the cheese is skimpy. That being said, the Northridge location does offer the patty on request and is happy to put it on anything menu item you want. Because I was feeling jaunty I asked for a classic Big Boy combo with the veggie patty. I assumed the waitress would baulk at this idea as the classic Big Boy is a Big Mac-style burger… two patties. (When I have ordered a veggie burger at Burbank, they bring me a single-decker.) But she didn’t even blink, and a few minutes later, I had a double-decker with cheese with lightly cooked veggie and grain patties. Overcooking the veggie patty is usually a concern at restaurants, but here they were perfect. Also, the red relish was present and as tangy and tasty as I remember. I was charged extra for a second slice of cheese, which I thought was a bit cheap. Given the option of fries or onion rings I went with rings. They were fair. But frankly, the sandwich was a lot of food! This meant no room for dessert, but we did get a chance to watch many hot fudge sundaes and shakes being made. The staff looked to be very generous with the fudge sauce. Which is a positive sign.

Our waitress was very attentive. I asked for ice coffee (not on the menu) and she went to great lengths to make sure it was made the way I wanted it. She could have just said “no, we don’t do that” but she made a real effort, which is appreciated.

This Bob’s also has a modest salad bar that doubles as an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. Those options and the dessert intrigue made us curious to return. I suppose that is something nostalgia can’t provide... a future-tense of a place.

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