Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Frankie & Benny's: Sunderland, UK

We were in Sunderland a couple of weeks ago for a course on brewery start-ups. For those who don't know, Sunderland is to Newcastle what Springfield is to Shelbyville (or what Springfield is to Eugene, take your pick). We went up on a bank holiday Monday, and the entire high street was closed and deserted, including most of the restaurants (specifically the one we were planning on eating at). It was rather post-apocalyptic feeling, which, it turns out, didn't go away for the rest of the week (though I presumed the shops did open up; we were just out before they did and back after they closed). Because our plan for supper on Monday was foiled, we decided to eat at Frankie & Benny's, which was very much open, perhaps because it's part of a chain.

To be honest, I don't really eat at chain restaurants. I can't say I never do; I dig the occasional Taco Bell (which doesn't exist in the UK) and Arby's (ditto), I like Red Robin, I really like Rock Pasta (or The Rock, I think it's now called), and I've eaten at my fair share of Shari's (random fact: the first Shari's was in Hermiston, Oregon). But if I'm going to go out for an evening meal, most of the time I want something a little more unique and a lot less corporate.

That said, Frankie and Benny's was on our list as a possible choice one night before we left for Sunderland. I'm (somewhat morbidly) intrigued by eateries that are "traditional _____" outside of their "native" culture. I'm always amused by "traditional Irish" (or British) pubs in the US, because they're often similar, but miss the mark in different, and sometimes amusing, ways.* Frankie & Benny's style themselves as a "New York Italian Restaurant and Bar." Since I've never been to New York, I can't speak as to the authenticity of that aspect, but I can say that they're a pretty good copycat of an American big-chain style of restaurant, similar in nature to TGI Friday's (I have issues with their punctuation, though it's probably not technically incorrect, just irritating to me.).

I'll be honest and say that the main reason I was interested in Frankie & Benny's (whose punctuation does not irritate me) is that, buried in their appropriately-large-for-the-style-they're-going-for menu, there's a pulled pork sandwich. I married a man who, upon his discovery of pulled pork, decided that the US was a perfectly acceptable place to live, provided he could eat pulled pork on a regular basis (ribs are also acceptable). Since I also have a bit of a thing for pulled pork, I mentioned it as a possibility. So it hit our "maybe" list, and got bumped up to "yes" when we found it was next door to our hotel, and just about the only thing open in the area (the Nando's next door was also open, probably because it's also a chain).

When we walked in, it was–again, for what it was trying to be–appropriately large. It really did feel like walking into an Applebee's or similar, and was oddly comforting (despite my general avoidance of such places). The clearest difference between it and a US chain was the service. It wasn't bad, rude, or anything else, just slightly different. In the states, they seat you, immediately bring you water (if they're still doing that, which some might not be), and come back fairly quickly to take your order. Everything was slower. Again, not bad, just slower. In a Red Robin, you aren't told to "take your time, stay as long as you'd like." Or if you are, they rarely mean it. But here, they meant it. That table was ours for the night if we wanted it (since they had free wi-fi, I might have, except I didn't have my laptop with me). The other clear indicator that we weren't in Kansas was how food was brought out and tables cleared. There's a skill to carrying trays, and while most waitstaff in the US are limited in their skill (let's face it, most places don't require one-handed, arm-locked-straight tray carrying these days), they can generally heft a full tray one-handed and carry it, either on their arm or shoulder, with seeming ease. The staff at Frankie & Benny's were using two hands, with the tray stand awkwardly tucked under an arm. It's a little thing, but it was a clear difference. There was also a lack of slightly manic smiles and false chipperness that's so prevalent in people who need tips so they can make rent (since most US restaurants pay so little that without tips, the waitstaff really might have to choose between rent and eating).

As for the food, there's not a lot to say. It was pretty good. It wasn't the best pulled pork I've ever had, nor was Adam's calzone the best ever, but both were tasty, and we got plenty of food. Shortly after ordering, a manager came over and told me they were out of BBQ sauce for the pulled pork sandwich and asked what I wanted to do about it. I asked how the pulled pork was made, and he implied it was made properly (low and slow), so I asked for an extra bit of coleslaw (which already came with it) in lieu of the sauce. It turned out that the pork was made correctly, and it really didn't need the sauce (I think if it had come with it, they would have put too much on). Adam's calzone was big, filled with cheese, mushrooms, and bacon, and, in a departure from the norm, really was just folded over on itself, instead of the dough being folded over the topping and then sealed to the other side. I got fries (they called them fries, not chips), but we paid a little extra to get the cheese and bacon fries. That cost an extra 90p, but netted us the regular fries on my plate, PLUS a side dish of fries topped with nacho cheese goo (seriously, think the creepy-but-tasty stuff that you pump over tortilla chips) and pieces of bacon. Definitely a steal, since ordering the bacon and cheese fries on the side would be £3.95.

As a review of food goes, I know this isn't the best ever, but I was pleasantly surprised at the authenticity that Frankie & Benny's achieved for an American chain restaurant. It actually felt right. The physical layout, look, and feel of the place was accurate, the menu was pretty spot-on, and the food tasted pretty good. It's not a classy joint, but I imagine their consistency is high. The price was a little higher than I would have liked, but I feel that way about most chain restaurants. I wouldn't say that you must eat at a Frankie & Benny's if you come across one, but I certainly wouldn't tell you to avoid it, either. You can certainly do far worse.

*I would argue that the biggest reason for the differences is the clientele. People say they want "authentic" _____, but don't know/understand many of the cultural differences that go along with something being completely authentic. Most people in the US want to give waitstaff their order at the table, they don't want to go up to the bar with their table number (usually a metal badge affixed to one end, but sometimes a large wooden spoon or similar with a number on it is handed to you). Many cultures don't want to eat with their hands, they would rather use utensils. Many people aren't comfortable with "family style" service (while others are). Others don't want to sit on the floor. So really, what people want is some level of authenticity to their food (American and British Chinese is NOT the stuff you'll eat in China, and a lot of Mexican is anglicized as well), with a comfortably local ambiance that has a touch of the exotic without being too far out of the comfort zone. There's nothing wrong with this, but it does tend to throw off (or amuse, or anger) people who are intimately familiar with that culture.