I stewed over how best to share this with you and ultimately decided to keep it simple.
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To give you a window into my life and where I live, the restaurant critic of the Peoria Journal-Star recently did a review of the Cracker Barrel. You know. Cracker Barrel. The chain restaurant of which there are about a thousand located on highways throughout the country. Lacking the energy to give this a proper treatment, I've reproduced it in full with some of my personal favorite parts highlighted.

MORTON — It’s possible that you don’t think about visiting Cracker Barrel unless you’re traveling somewhere. After all, the Lebanon, Tenn.-based chain has carved out a niche for itself by providing the imagery of the old country store along the highway much like Stuckey’s did decades before.

Before you get to your table at the Cracker Barrel, you have to walk the gauntlet through the bric a brac, old rocking chairs, racks of greeting cards and gift items.

The atmosphere at Cracker Barrel is sort of like eating at an antique mall. All kinds of things are on the walls: snow shoes, old lamps, coffee signs and an old clock or two.

At the table, I found that the word, “country,” pops up a lot on the extensive menu provided — as in country sandwich, country salad, country fried breakfast and so on.

Also noticed that you can get a bowl of pinto beans ($4.89) or turnip greens ($4.99) to accompany your meal. Now that’s a country touch you don’t find everywhere.

Like many places, there’s a choice of light dishes provided, complete with calorie counts. That’s how I know that country green beans are only 60 calories while a baked sweet potato is 190 calories.

We were there for lunch on a Friday so after screening the daily specials, I came up with the Friday Fish Fry ($9.99). My dining companion opted for breakfast (served all day at Cracker Barrel): Momma’s Pancake Breakfast ($8.59).

The fish was four pieces of crispy fried cod (you have a choice of cod or catfish) served with steak fries and creamy cole slaw plus a Cracker Barrel corn muffin. A little extra tartar sauce made the meal first-rate.

A word here about the service: exceptional. My server was attentive, helpful and obliging in every way. It goes with the atmosphere, I suppose, but you start feeling like you’re in that old country restaurant despite the proximity of the interstate outside.

My guest ordered blueberry pancakes with two fried eggs. The report was that there were a lot of blueberries and the cakes were fluffy. The eggs were a little peppery but she said she liked them that way.

As for beverages, I went with a Coke ($2.19) while my dining partner had coffee (.
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19). Refills were readily provided for both.

The Barrel also offers a number of weekday lunch specials for $5.99 with comfort food options such as baked chicken, chicken pot pie and meatloaf.
When it’s time to pay, you line up in the general store part of the operation where you find yourself tempted by giant gummy snakes and pecan logs.

I was able to resist, however, and headed outside past an array of rocking chairs lined up on the restaurant’s front porch. It must be the country influence of the Barrel but, next time, I plan to sit for a spell.

Kill me.

72 thoughts on “NPF: A NOVEL EXPERIENCE”

  • I actually found this interesting, having never been inside a Cracker Barrel ever since I heard about their strict "no gays" hiring policy. But a chain restaurant only deserves a review if it's new and the first instance of said chain in the local area. Is it?

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I prefer Waffle House, myself.

    The food's so disgusting, it's great!

    And any one fork in the Waffle House has more tines than all of the wait staff put together have teeth.

  • Good, I never have to go in. Consider the review a public service. And the 'kill me' might be quoting the reviewer who was sent to do this….Talk about not putting something on your resume….whew…

    Thanks for the insight.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    In this age of budgetary bloodbaths at every small news outlet in the country, I find it highly implausible that a the Peoria Journal-Star would have the wherewithal to employ a restaurant critic unless said critic had found a way to, shall we say, bring in their own revenue streams.

    In case that was too oblique, I'm suggesting that Cracker Barrel bought the review.

  • @Andrew — no. It gets a review if it's an advertiser — moreso if the person buying the ad says, "Where's our review?" And the review has to be glowing. The writer here is producing ad content disguised as "news."

    I worked in newspapers. God forbid a reviewer write an accurate review of a local retaurant. Never trust them — ever.

    The only ones who can do honest reviews are places like the NY Times.

    The other thing to consider is that probably 95 percent of the people in Peoria would think that Cracker Barrel is five-star dining.

  • I wonder just how many ads the paper's sales guy talked the local Cracker Barrel into buying in exchange for that review in the paper.

  • On the other hand, the British expat couple that lives next door regularly head to the local CB on Friday night for their fish & chips fix. So I guess that item can't be all bad.

    Does the Barrel of Cracker really have a "no gays" policy? I didn't know that.

  • We're really, really glad that you have such fine local dining establishments to choose from. I certainly hope that you also have Dennys, Waffle House, and McDonalds to enjoy!

  • The idea that the review was bought literally never occurred to me but seems plausible. Stupid Andrew!

  • I suspect that like most things driven by bigotry and hatred, it's "That guy had an earring and swished when he walked," or "She had short hair and was wearing a plaid shirt." I'm pretty sure you don't have to be caught balls-deep in another dude's ass.

  • Leading Edge Boomer says:

    Ah, what you've missed is the obvious sarcasm and wit here. By emulating reviews of restaurants where actually good food is served, the reviewer subtly makes the distinction. Very clever, the CB owners get their "rave" reviews while the discerning readers get the real message.

    Or maybe not.

  • I do a fair amount of travel in Murika, and there have been times I've been relieved to come across a Cracker Barrel in Central Franchizistan. Several times I have walked out without feeling like I'd been poisoned by the US Food System Inc. There. That's my positive review.

  • Ya don't like it here, move.

    —>I am that guy.<—

    I am convinced that SOME people actually can tell one kind of beer from another and CARE about it.
    Same goes for wine, cigars, tea, olive oil, music, etc. etc.

    I deny that most people have that sensitivity. What they do have is an urge to fit in. They talk the talk because that makes them 'one of the in crowd.' If put to a test they would fail.

    Denny's, Olive Garden, McDonalds et al are good enough. Leave 'em alone.
    If you are one of the few who can "taste" color combinations and dislike how I dress, don't look at me.

    I am sorry you don't fit in but it is up to you to deal with your disabilities.

  • I've eaten at a Cracker Barrel while traveling. It was within walking distance of the hotel and my colleague took the car in order to connect with a friend.

    I ordered carryout since I was alone . It was very difficult to get the drink I ordered. Apparently the local custom is to not tip the person who gathers the carry out order.

    Thus I had the time to check out the country store. CB sells the biggest Hershey Bar I've ever seen.

    I'll split the difference between you and Jestbill. Stay in Peoria until you read an equivalent review for McDonalds.

  • Back in the 70's there was a good restaurant critic in Peoria using the name Mrv Frznp writing for the Penny Press.

  • Ed, your writerly instincts were spot on. It would take a Mencken to outdo what the nameless ink-stained wretch did by accident (with judicious bolding).

    I grew up in coastal California, and have never seen a Stuckey's, Waffle House or Cracker Barrel. From what I'm reading here, I'm okay with that.

  • The Jack of Hearts says:

    I actually *really* like their breakfast food. But the general store area gives me claustrophobia and has way too many triggers – patriotic blankets, angel figurines, cloying candles. I have never EVER been tempted to "sit a spell" on the porch.

    That review published by any other source would be satire.

  • Sheeple…this is about ETHICS in local NEWSPAPER chain restaurant JOURNALISM!!!!!! We are through the looking glass! Remember Ruby Ridge and WACO. Do you want the black helicopters with Cracker Barrel logos filled with jackbooted thugs in Cracker Barrel riot gear to come in the night to take your tchotchkes and oddly-shaped gummies?!!!! WAKE UP! This is why we have the 3rd Amendment!

  • catbirdman says:

    I love the reassurance that there's "comfort food" to be found on the menu. In case anyone was confused on that…

  • Steve in the ATL says:

    "I grew up in coastal California, and have never seen a Stuckey's, Waffle House or Cracker Barrel. From what I'm reading here, I'm okay with that."

    I went to law school with one of the Stuckeys! She was actually pretty cool. She went to UGA undergrad so Ed may have even taught her.

  • @greg – the sad part of that Slate article is that we have a totally awesome food scene in CLE, and other restaurant reviewers in town get it.

    I'm not sure how Collier kept her job, but is now basically a local yokel blog site, not a news or journalism service.

    (When I say serious… google food scene + cleveland – another one of our chefs won a James Beard award this year, I think that makes 5 or 6 local winners who have restaurants in town)

  • This shows how disconnected we are.

    My extended family and friends regularly eat at Cracker Barrel. I recently bought one of the rocking chairs for my wife's birthday. We love the place and my wife buys gifts on an occasional basis, even gift cards for our friends to eat there.

    None of us is obese.

    Even though some of my Black friends eat there with us, they don't get it.

    It is the dog whistle in the name, of course, Cracka..


  • Having unfortunately eaten at both multiple times, I would take Cracker Barrel over Applebees any day of the week.

    At least they do what they do reasonably well (is it worth doing? A different question).

    Applebees offers a cornucopia of styles: American, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, etc., all of which have the same nauseating blandness.

  • I have never liked Crapplebee's (yes, there's one in my neighborhood), but now I'll have to try Crappier Barrel to compare.

  • anotherbozo says:

    "Kill me."

    Perfect ending. Why I come here (after visiting the Stupid Cafe.)

    Ed even gave the reviewer a pass on "giant gummy snakes and pecan logs." Which were confessedly TEMPTING.

  • I call bullshit. There's no way those green beans have only 60 calories. They're so greasy after eating them it was like I applied lip gloss.

  • The word "country" appears in that "review" 9 times. Somebody sure knows their demographic.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    The "Controversies" section of CB's Wikipedia page is worth a perusal. It's done a whole lot of corporate backpedaling since the '90s, FWIW.

  • This restaurant review is so "crackerish" it's hilarious. I don't know where to begin, so won't even try. Unbelievable. What? Is there a template on the internet for writing restaurant reviews? This person must have found one and added his own down home style. Sitting on the porch next time, the country touches and extra tartare sauce. Omigod.

    Btw. I think the paper paid for the reviewer and his "dining" companion, but probably by local Cracker Barrel's promise for a bigger ad.

    All right. Screw restaurant reviews in general. I've received a couple (Seattle, Lake Tahoe) and had no idea what was coming. Swamped on a Friday night without adequate inventory or personnel to deliver the goods. Total meltdown. Of course we weren't serving corporate food in Peoria, so all that Pacific Rim, California cuisine glowingly praised got fucked in the tsunamai.

    Kill me.

  • @greg: Cleveland really does have some excellent restaurants. The food secene has grown up since the time when I grew-up there. Useless reviews are not particular to the heartland. Atlanta had one fairly good reviewer when I lived here although he was out of his depth with Asian restaurants and the Washington Post has had some real jokers–long-time reviewer Phyliis Richman was notoriously well known to restaurant owners.

  • As others have said, the advertising department for small newspapers is often quite clear and blatant about it. $X gets you a small ad; $Y gets you a large ad; $Z gets you a giant ad plus a feature article (not marked as an ad) about your product or service. It's right there on the rate card for the publication, not "hidden" or secretive at all.

    Cracker Barrel paid $Z.

  • Freecookies says:

    What do you expect from the rural heartland these days? Hard hitting investigative journalism? If they were that talented with ambition, they would've moved themselves to one of the big cities.

    I don't have much sympathy for the rural heartland anymore either. For the most part, they're poor, dumb and mean. And listen to country music. Country music even. I bet they smell.

    But why are you paying attention to them? It obviously disturbs you, their condition – but do you care enough to do anything about it? And if not, aren't you just wasting time complaining about something that isn't going to change?

  • I think the review is pretty darn country accurate, judging from the CB I've sampled, in Burlington, NC. If you're on the damn road you gotta stop and eat somewheres, and typically you don't really have the time to search out the exceptional locally owned joint down in the town proper. I will say, however, that having stopped one time on the streets of Deming, NM, and sampled a very local Mexican restaurant, it was far better than CB. Deming was so small it wasn't hard to get off'n the pike, and I think we were going to head cross country from there up to Flagstaff so maybe we were actually on our designated route.

  • One of my favorite Bill Hicks riff was his Waffle House bit:
    Then I checked out Waffle House and found out they were the closest thing we have today to the classic 1920's- 30's diner with great breakfasts all day long – the wait staff are surprisingly mostly young and presentable – and there is nothing greater than watching an accomplished short order cook weild his spatulas — as to Cracker Barrell – they also serve a great breakfast all day long which when you are traveling is something you really need – they are one of the very few chains I know of that serve REAL BUTTER and NOT 'fresh country farm spread' And you can't beat butter on grits — sure you have to run the gauntlet of the Giftee Shoppee holding your nose against the onslaught of gagging PotPourie but for eggs,bacon and grits it is worth it – & just because Huckabee likes them grits doesn't mean they aren't good.

  • I actually want to go to Cracker Barrel now- we don't have chain restaurants with gift shops here. Is it kind of like a Sizzler that was cross branded with 'Deliverance'?

  • "I'm pretty sure you don't have to be caught balls-deep in another dude's ass."

    Let me tell you about today's specials.

  • @Glen H. yes; yes, they are.

    I live in the south, but only technically. Further south is a huge amusement park that's a popular place for companies to hold summer picnics. I was first introduced to Cracker Barrel about 20 years ago when a co-worker who was driving insisted we stop there for breakfast on the way. My first impression was all the excessive kuntry krap they had strewn about (they sure do know their demographic). The second was the bland, greasy food. The phrase "rill merkkkun" hadn't been invented yet, but that's exactly what they were trying to convey.

    Now Cracker Barrel has spread north like a cancer, metastasizing into my state. Still kuntry krap, fake "down-home" language, and bland, greasy food. Still proud to push the "rill merkkun" schtick.

  • bb nailed it by pointing out the dog whistle in the name. As a white person born and raised in central Wisconsin, but with a decent racial awareness and a touch of snobbery, I have no desire to go to anything called Cracker Barrel.

    This review does not change my mind, but does alleviate any possible curiosity that I might have. I consider that to be a public service.

  • I have to admit that I didn't catch the dog whistle until it was pointed out. As a military brat who grew up mostly overseas, my only experience with the term "cracker barrel" was the thing they had in Little House on the Prairie that kept them from starving in the winter, or else a brand of cheese on the supermarket shelf. The term "cracker" to mean a certain type of white person isn't one I hear often, despite where I live.

    It was obvious to me when I went to one that they were going after a certain demographic, and it wasn't mine, so I didn't feel particularly welcome. If I want crappy food, there are enough other places to go.

  • Steve Gravelle says:

    When I'm on a road trip, I pass the Interstate franchise strip and go in town to find where the locals eat. The extra 30-40 minutes are usually more than worth it: better, less expensive food, and quite often the people you encounter actually tend to support a naive faith in human nature. Seriously.

  • I've never been hungry enough to eat in a Cracker Barrel and I've managed to avoid Denny's since I found out that they too were racist assholes. If I ever find myself hungry enough to eat at either one of those places, I'll slit my throat.

  • Fifth Dentist says:

    My college self writes a review of Taco Bell

    It's probably not too great of a good sign when you find yourself throwing up everything except for your sphincter* before ordering your food.
    After finally getting kicked out of the bar two hours after last call, the time made tolerable by the six drinks each we had ordered against the puritanical blue laws that prevent purchasing anything to drink on Sunday in Georgia, my friend, "Bob" and I made our way to his car. Before we got there we got into some kind of argument over I don't remember what. I vaguely remember saying something over the top about his mom, and he wouldn't open the car door for me to get in.
    After another 10 minutes of yelling, stopped only when the bouncer stuck his head outside of the door and glared at us, I finally managed to get my hands on the keys to the 1966 Volkswagen.
    "This idiot's too drunk to drive," I remember thinking at the time. The argument had tapered off of its own volition and Bob uttered the magical words "Taco Bell."
    There followed another five minute discussion on whether to drive or walk the probably half a football field distance from the bar parking lot to the restaurant, which was doing a brisk business with people who were in a similar frame of mind as ourselves.
    Feeling that we definitely were too drunk to walk, I pushed Bob into the passenger seat — not an easy thing to do in a Beetle with a 200 pound person who is nearly passed out — and drove us to a parking space almost directly in front of the side door. OK, maybe I actually almost drove INTO the side door. A friendly manager came out to suggest that we use one of the VIP parking spaces about 20 feet to the right of where my first instincts had told me to park. After graciously thanking him we were soon inside the restaurant.
    This next part is where the throwing up comes in. The familiar smell of Taco Bell wafting into my nostrils and feeling the need to relieve myself, I made my way to the restroom. The ambiance was less than spectacular, as it seems that someone had recently made a large deposit of former tacos and beans and cheese.
    Marveling at how the previous user had managed to coat most of the surfaces inside the stall, I suddenly realized that I was going to be painting over his masterpiece, as it were. What followed was three minutes of pure gastrointestinal hell in an environment whose air was more foul and deadly than anything faced by soldiers in the trenches of France.
    Backing my way out of the stall, I thoroughly washed my hands because cleanliness is important.
    At least it is to me, but not, apparently, to the employees at this particular establishment. When I got back to the line to order food behind some pimply freshman whose date was furiously avoiding his hands I noticed that the police were loading Bob into the back of a patrol car.
    Well, at least the poor bastard will probably get a better meal than the one I had. And at least he didn't have to stagger the two miles home.

    * All good restaurant reviews begin with images of projectile vomiting and the word sphincter.

  • I recently moved from Southern California to Louisville, KY. You think Coastal blue-staters have great taste, well, maybe. I will tell you that people in LA fucking love them some Cheesecake Factory and Panda Express. And don't get them started on In n Out, which is pretty good for a fast food hamburger. But that's all it is – to hear SoCal natives go on about it, you'd think it was God's gift to the culinary arts.

    We do, of course, have a Cracker Barrel. Located conveniently close to the Interstate, because of course it is. But everyone with half a brain knows if you want to get a real Kentucky breakfast you go to Wagner's, the pharmacy/diner next to Churchill Downs. And if you really miss the country store aspect, they do have a bit of memorabilia for sale – penny candy (that costs 5-10 cents because inflation, but still, it's cheap), coffee mugs, collectible derby glasses from years past, etc.

    I'll bet there's a locally owned, mom and pop place in Peoria where you can get eggs, hash browns, biscuits and gravy, etc. that's going to be a lot better than Cracker Barrel, and probably cost you less. I have eaten at CB, and my impression is the food there is uniformly Fine. Not great, not terrible, just acceptable. But I've only ever been there for breakfast, you go there for lunch, or god help you, dinner, then I've got nothing.

  • Never been in a Cracker Barrel. Entered an I-Hop once, out of curiosity. Lasted about 8 seconds. Yikes.

    I like to imagine Cracker Barrel as basically Uncle Mo's Family Feedbag:

    "…good fuood, good fun and… a whole lotta crazy crap on the walls…"

  • A lot of our layover hotels are out on some suburban strip by the interstate. Doesn't really matter where it is. Could be Dayton, could be Tulsa. It's all starting to look the same.

    I try to avoid chain restaurants but sometimes that's my only option.

    A lot of the food at chain restaurants is not even prepared on site. It's a boil-in-a-bag meal that was prepared at some central location and reheated at the restaurant. You might as well just stick a frozen dinner in the microwave.

    And yes, I've been cooking for 30 years and I CAN taste the difference. I can also taste the difference between a craft beer and a mass-produced American lager. And no, I'm not trying to fit in.

  • I've seen more than one person mention "breakfast all day" as a good thing. I understand it's a matter of personal taste, but just to satisfy my curiosity, what's the appeal of breakfast-type food during the daytime or evening when you could have a nice burger or sandwich instead?

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    This is reminding me of how this one long-forgotten suburban rag I once worked for made all of its staffers do restaurant reviews. Because none of us knew anything about food, we were forbidden to write anything negative. That led to a lot of desperate attempts to say something nice about mediocre (or worse) food so that we wouldn't waste the evening. "The crackers were wrapped nicely, two to a pack."

  • @EJ: I don't get the In n' Out cult either. It's an OK fast food burger, but nothing special about it. I'm a SoCal native, and just never could understand the hype.

  • It's a GREAT fast food burger, made from fresh, never frozen, ingredients, and the french fries are made from potatoes that are peeled, sliced, and fried on site. Considering that it costs no more than the shitty fast food places, it's quite awesome. There are better burgers, but not at the price and speed of In'N'Out.

  • The best Waffle Houses have 3 AM murders as the floor show.

    CU goes to the fancy WH. At my local WH the waitress' have no teeth.

  • There are a pair of hotels that are cheek-by-doublechinned-jowl with each other, here in Oswego-by-the-Lake*. One of them has a pub of sorts, the other has a fine dining establishment. I think they both use the same Sysco Food Svc. stuff.

    Across the street from them is a sports bar with better food at lower prices. The hotels don't really give a fuck as their "custom" is primarily people eating on the Nuke's dime.

    * I'm planning on working that into a new marketing campaign.

  • Give me the old Oregon Diner in South Philly any day of the week…open 24 hours, with a menu as thick as a Bible, staffed exclusively by ancient waitresses who give precisely no fucks about your feelings, and they serve scrapple, which I enjoy tricking unsuspecting friends into eating.

  • Yer on the road. Your other choices are Mickey D's, Taco Hell and the Burger Whop.

    At least at CB you can get a damn green bean.

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