CHERRYHILL, NEW JERSEY -- My other half and I like to support local and privately owned restaurants but at 7 pm on a recent Friday night, we found ourselves ravenous and in no mood to wait an hour to be seated at our favorite hot spot. Friends of ours had been raving about Famous Dave's and being no stranger to BBQ, we decided it was well past time we give them a shot.
On this particular Friday, the parking lot was filled to the brim but we didn't wait more than five minutes to be seated. The staff, albeit young, was friendly and very professional. Normally at chain restaurants I get the feeling that my server was either just hired or is about to freak out and quit in a blaze of glory. It's obvious that this establishment trains their waiters and waitresses before they throw them on the floor.
They also sport Famous Dave's T-shirts with witty slogans on the back that are good for a light hearted chuckle. The establishment's décor was very rustic, consisting of moose heads and pictures of old fishing trips, and provided something to gaze at other than the sports game that was on TV. As I stated, our server was exceptional and the food arrived very quickly, most likely because the menu consists of a few basic items served in multiple combinations.
Our meals were hot and aside from the cookie cutter appearance that I associate with chains, was quite tasty. The compilation of BBQ sauces that graced our table were some of the best we've tried and we've spent some time seeking out the Holy Grail of sauces. Almost every meal comes with two sides in addition to a freakishly perfect ear of corn, an equally freakish but oh-so-good cornbread muffin and some wet naps.
We have since returned to Famous Dave's a handful of times and always leave pleased despite being uncomfortably full. Five minutes is still the longest that we've waited to be seated, the staff has always been courteous and the food is always what we expect. My verdict is, if you are a diehard BBQ fanatic with a smoker full of cherrywood in your backyard, you're not going to be smitten with what Famous Dave's has to offer. It's good food, not great BBQ.
Armed with a menu full of proteins and carbs that are served in plastic containers on paper plates, this isn't the restaurant for tree hugging vegans so I recommend dropping your family's hippy off at Saladworks before stopping in. However, if you live above the Mason Dixon line, it's a nice introduction to things you probably don't see very often such as brisket or fried catfish.
I do believe that the atmosphere, menu and prices make this a perfect place to bring the kids. Every table is equipped with its own roll of paper towels and there is a special “Trashcan Lid Meal” that is served on an actual trashcan lid, is reasonably priced, and provides a portion of everything your family could want. One thing is for certain, after eating a Famous Dave's platter, you won't be asking for a desert menu.
DENVER, COLORADO -- And yes, there really is a Famous Dave. Dave Anderson opened Famous Dave's Barbecue Shack in Hayward, Wisconsin, in 1994, and since then he's been like the Johnny Appleseed of barbecue, planting locations all over the place, often outside customary barbecue strongholds (the Stapleton outpost is the first in Colorado). Anderson and company have won awards for their sauce, for their meats, for their operation -- for just about everything they do.
And we're not talking rinky-dink local awards, either: In 1995, Famous Dave's took home a first place at the American Royal Barbecue Sauce Contest in Kansas City, Missouri (one of the biggest and most celebrated contests in the world). It's also won two "Greatest Ribs in America" titles (one in 1999, at the Great American Rib Cookoff in Cleveland) and more trophies than can be counted. All things considered, that ain't a bad run for a guy who was bankrupt in the '70's, turned things around with a Fortune 500 sales career, founded a barbecue chain and is now assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs.
I didn't love everything about Famous Dave's, but I was impressed. The place is big, but still near capacity on a Thursday night when everything surrounding it was as quiet as a grave. The service was fast and, if not entirely efficient, at least real friendly about it. It's done up in the style of a Wisconsin fishing cabin, with a lot of exposed, artificially weathered beams, antiques and fishing paraphernalia.
To me, it looked like they opened the joint in an abandoned set for The Red Green Show's Possum Lodge, but that could be because I watch way too much PBS. And tucked away among all the fly reels, rusted cans of engine oil, aged posters and copies of Life magazine was a surprisingly well-run restaurant operation. The warren of dining rooms was broken down into seating areas, each of which felt more intimate than the whole; the bar was being used as overflow seating; a separate area was set off for to-go orders; and the kitchen was huge -- prepped and staffed to serve a thousand orders a day, easy.
I ordered the Georgia chopped pork and was pleased to see it come lumped atop a single slice of thick-cut white bread. The meat was smoky, shoulder-cut and touched with just enough sauce to give it a little sweet, Southern sting. The side of apples was awful -- at once tough and mealy and mushy, with an unpleasant tinny aftertaste -- but the honey cornbread was decent, and the beans (studded with big pieces of pork) were excellent.
Still, it was the ribs that really proved that Dave knows what he's doing. According to the legend of Famous Dave, Anderson spent 25 years traveling around the country eating barbecue and tasting sauces and experimenting with cooking methods that ranged from dry baking to greenwood smoking in a garbage can before he finally settled on his secret sauce and hickory slow-smoke process.
I could taste his dedication in the ribs -- seriously, I got a little swoony after the first bite. They were that good -- tender, hit with just the right amount of sweet and peppery Southern rub, deeply smoky and served (on request) totally naked. I tried a bit of three different sauces on the side, but there was no need: The ribs were just fine on their own. So if you ever find yourself out in the wilds of Stapleton with a hankering for some good 'cue, give Dave's a try. It might not be the best you've ever tasted, but it's a good addition to Denver's vibrant barbecue culture.
SIOUX CITY, IOWA -- I am by my own admission a very large man 6'8" and weighing over 300 lbs.. I like being fat! (Get over it!) Shortly after Sioux City, Ia.'s Famous Dave's BBQ opened, I went there to dine. On the particular day I arrived I was limping due to an ankle injury, and I hobbled into this BBQ Joint with the use of a cane. I asked for a table in their non-smoking section, and was promptly escorted up a long flight of stairs to an upper level. The journey was a painful ascent. As I sat at my table I noticed that the other customers up there fit into 4 categories. They were either fat people, ugly people, or fat/ugly people like me, or fat/ugly people with kids.
There were no beautiful people seated up there. They were all downstairs. (By the way they have a non-smoking section downstairs too.) I had a good meal, and good table service. The next time I went back I took along a friend who describes himself as being ugly. He's also skinny as a rail. Again we were ushered upstairs to the Fat & Ugly Section. I mentioned to him that they seemed to be profiling customers, and sending all the fat and ugly people up stairs.
He looked around the room, and agreed with me. I brought this to the attention of the waitress, who was a plump female. (She was a trainer who had been sent down from the Sioux Falls F.D.'s BBQ to help train the wait staff in Sioux City.) I bluntly suggested that perhaps she too had been profiled, and assigned to work in the fat & ugly section due to her weight. She commented, "I sure hope they aren't doing that here!" In subsequent visits I have always insisted on being seated downstairs in the non smoking section.
I have also noticed a similar trend in the Red Lobster in sioux City, Ia.. Which I have only been in 2 times. But both times they assigned me to be waited on by a heavyset waitress. While other skinnier wait staff milled about waiting for customers to serve. I haven't received this type of treatment in the other restaurants that I go to in Sioux City.
I also received this type of treatment in the Eyemart Store in Sioux city. Where I was greeted by a physically fit female sales person. But she handed me off to a very heavyset employee she had to summon from the back room. I have been to this eyemart store 2 times, and both times I have been paired up with the heavyset sales person from the back room. While her lighter weight peers milled around waiting for the next customer to enter the store.
NEW BRITAIN, CONNECTICUT -- My boyfriend and I went to Famous Dave's on Columbus Blvd. in New Britain, CT for dinner. While we were seated promptly, after 20-25 minutes of waiting our waitress never came over. I went to the Hostess and asked her if we could be moved. We were moved to another table and the new waitress came over very quickly. She apologized for the mix up and said that the other waitress didn't realize that she had a table. She took our order and returned quickly with our drinks. The manager came over to apologize and offered to buy our first round of drinks for us. (That was fine with us, we weren't looking for anything free, we just wanted our BBQ!)
Our food was served, and it was great! The food is delicious and the portions were huge. At the end of our meal, the waitress came over to tell us that she had convinced the manager to comp our meals as well. We only ended up paying for the second round of drinks and salads and she gave us $35 in gift certificates. We left our waitress a $30 tip because she worked so hard to make us happy. Way to go Dave's!
They went above and beyond to fix the mistake of the first waitress. We have returned a few times since and have never had any other problems. Thank you Dave's for having such great customer service. We will be back again and again!