Not everybody is good enough to eat at every restaurant in this country, and in places like New York and Los Angeles, some people are not even qualified to walk into restaurants. I understand how the system works because, while I'm not V.I.P. in Hollywood, in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where I'm from originally, my family has become heavy hitters at our most popular local eatery: Outback Steakhouse. At Outback, the Garcia name equates to power and priority -- an influential position we've earned thanks entirely to my Dad, the Woody Allen of American franchises.
Being V.I.P. at Outback is a big deal because people who eat there don't realize there are other restaurants. My dad is no different. Every time I come home for the holidays and we plan to go out to eat, we head directly to Outback. The choice derives not from a lack of options -- there are many restaurants around town, and even more in the nearby city of Asheville -- rather, fear of the unknown. And whenever I complain about the situation, I automatically get shut down.
"Can't we try something new for once?" I ask desperately. "You know, see what else is out there?"
"Where else would we go?" My dad snaps, as if I'd suggested we travel to another country for dinner.
Fans of Outback can't fathom anything better than Bloomin' Onions. Accordingly, there is always an influx of people waiting to dine, yet Outback doesn't accept reservations. Instead, to keep the flow constant, they pack in as many people as possible so that the noise level is so intolerable you have no choice but to order quickly, eat and leave. For this reason, my dad was elated when Outback implemented their "Call Ahead Seating" policy, which allows guests to phone in a half hour before they arrive and add their names to the waiting list.
It's kind of like reservations except it's not.
Waits at Outback average anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half, so "Call Ahead Seating" edges you up in the queue. In Hendersonville, Outback provides tables and benches outside so patrons can enjoy the sunset while they fantasize about grilled shrimp on the barbie. The porch overlooks the scenic surrounding area, including a parking lot, Interstate 26, and the Red Roof Inn. If you look closely, you can also see a Wal-Mart sign in the distance. From what I can tell, approximately half the people eating at Outback wandered over from Red Roof, and a quarter of the remainder are on their way home from bargain village.
Because we are Garcias, when we arrive, we're greeted immediately by the hostess and rushed along in the process. We sit in the lobby and wait for, at most, five minutes, observing others who aren't as fortunate as us, and feeling sorry for their subservient existences. After getting seated, the hostess pats my dad on the back and tells him she's going to go grab the manager and bring him around to our table.
"I'm sure he'll want to know you're here," she says with a wink.
My dad became tight with the manager after all the times he's complained about his food. He does this everywhere -- his dissatisfaction is not limited to Outback -- but because the wait staff at Outback pretend like they care, my dad's pretty nice about it. It makes him feel special to see people lament over the fact his steak was overcooked.
"Mr. Garcia!" The manager greets my dad, shaking his hand just as I imagine Woody gets welcomed at pizzerias in the Upper East Side. "Haven't seen you in a couple weeks!"
They talk about golf, the weather, and stocks. The manager tells my dad to let him know if his meal is up to par even though my dad needs no push to be vocal.
Inside, Outback looks like a saloon at Disneyland. Kangaroo sketches serve as signs around the restaurant; paintings of the Aussie bush and sparkling beaches most patrons will never see hang on the walls; and there are enough TVs around the room so that every car in any given NASCAR competition can have its own screen. Servers wear colored metal pins on their uniforms that they earn by doing good work out on the range. The better waiter you are, the more protection you have in the event of an unexpected quick-draw. My dad is single-handedly responsible for getting his favorite waitress, Gwen, at least 50 of her 2,000 pins. Gwen has so many pins she had to start wearing them on her pants too. She loves my dad and even if she's not serving our section, she always comes over to say hello. My dad is sure to be armed and ready with Outback-themed jokes.
"Not so quiet tonight in the wilderness!" He says to Gwen. "You should earn a charm bracelet for this one!"
My mom doesn't care about my dad's flirting because Gwen always brings them an extra loaf of bread.
Both of my parents find the dishes at Outback to be extremely impressive. They constantly tell me I'm "going to love the new mahi-mahi dish," and emphasize that it's brought in "fresh." Since Hendersonville is hundreds of miles from the coast, I figure that means recently thawed. I'll admit the food tastes fine, but I question an entrée that tastes exactly the same in every single restaurant across the United States. Conversely, this is the reason my dad loves Outback.
A couple years ago, my family got in real deep with the franchise when my brother started working there as a busboy. That's when we learned the underpinnings of our local foodie haven. We found out about how one manager ousted the other in an attempt to rise the ranks and transfer to the Charlotte branch; we got details on the fiery debate surrounding elimination of my mother's favorite dish, towoomba pasta; and we heard rumors about servers stealing Gwen's shifts because they were jealous of her pins.
"Should I say something?" My dad, concerned, asked my brother.
My brother said absolutely not.
From that day forward though, my dad made it a point to talk about how great Gwen was to the manager -- a few pins just weren't enough, he stressed.
No Outback experience truly ends when you exit the premises of course, because, as my parents are wont to point out, Outback gives such "generous portions" there's always enough for leftovers. It's the gift that keeps giving, and since my family will drive the entire length of town to eat there every weekend, it's just one more reason for my dad to argue, "What's not to love about Outback?!"