The idea behind this series is fairly simple: My girlfriend and I will go out to eat at a Chattanooga-area restaurant and then describe our dining experience there. Keep in mind that this is not a food review per se, but instead an attempt to relate to readers our single, one-time experience at a restaurant. It just is what it is, as they say. There will also be pictures. Lots of pictures.
I am a 30-year-old voracious eater of anything weird, while my girlfriend, age 25, is the complete opposite. This makes dining for us a strange affair. I enjoy a tremendous amount of flavor and complexity, but her M.O. is “simple, no frills.” These dining adventures will test both of us at various restaurants around Chattanooga. This week, we sampled heavy Oktoberfest food from Big River Grille downtown.
I don’t have much to tell you about Big River Grille that you don’t already know. The restaurant is a part of a conglomeration of establishments under Craftworks Restaurants & Breweries. Chattanooga is home to the first Big River Grille (opened in 1993), a restaurant that rightfully deserves the labels of both “chain” and “tourist trap” —as we’ve all heard a million times from locals. Here’s the thing, though: there exists in our culinary reality numerous terrible chain restaurants (I’m looking at you, Chili’s!) and then places like Big River Grille and Bluewater Grille that are SO MUCH better than the other chains. Eating at a “chain” restaurant does not make you a terrible person. You can just go ahead and relieve yourself of that guilt. This is especially true if the restaurant serves consistent, high-quality food and beverages. You could do far worse (I’m looking at you, Applebee’s!) than Big River Grille. Read on. The food was delicious and the service was quick and friendly. By the way, there are only three Big River Grille locations and two of them are in Chattanooga. The Nashville location changed its name to “Rock Bottom.”
Lauren and I were seated in a boothy two-top in the center of the main room. There are three main rooms at Big River Grille downtown: the left side is a bar with extra seating (perfect for sports fans to watch the game or a drink after work), the middle area (or main room) can accommodate large parties and smaller, intimate dinners, and the far right room is for those rowdy late-night minglers and drinkers. The latter room also connects to Rhythm & Brews for easy access to live music. Our server, Rox, was a seasoned pro. Typical of a large, well-oiled chain restaurant, the service was a team effort. Rox offered suggestions and seemed (maybe great acting?) to genuinely enjoy many of the menu items. It helps to get excited about a meal when your server is gushing over how delicious the food is going to be. As usual, Big River Grille was full of hungry patrons. I can only imagine the stories some of the servers have to tell about strange tourists.
With a budget of $60 (including tip) Lauren and I had a lot of eating to do. We’ve realized that ordering and consuming an entire appetizer before dinner sometimes makes our dinner the opposite of appetizing. With enormous portion sizes, Big River Grille is kind enough to offer “half-size” versions of a few appetizers. We chose the “Pepperjack Nachos” and I also sampled the seasonal Oktoberfest beer. Here is a list of other beers brewed on site. The nachos arrived—a huge portion considering this was half an order—and Lauren and I quickly disposed of them. The cheese was almost crunchy and the multi-colored chips were salty and delicious. However, my beer was a little lacking in flavor, I thought, for a “special” Oktoberfest selection. Ironically, the beers brewed at Big River Grille are the last reason you should go to the restaurant. The food, ambience and location all trump the beer, in my opinion. This is especially true for the Oktoberfest, which was not a great beer. The beer at Big River Grille is like Top 40 radio: consumable for the masses who don’t know any better.
I was intrigued by the “Oktoberfest” menu, which include pretzel breaded burgers, sausage dishes and something called “Deep Dish BBQ Chicken.” Rox told me the chicken was “fantastic” so I ordered it without coleslaw and doubled up on cheesy mashed potatoes. That’s how I roll. Lauren, feeling equally as willing to load up on the carbs, decided to order the “Mac n’ Chicken,” which is basically just four portions of heaven. I really enjoyed the chicken dish and was pleasantly surprised the bbq sauce was kept at a minimum. The dish was served with two chicken breasts on a pile of mashed potatoes, which I promptly divided into two portions. Slices of bacon added a savory, smoky counterpart to the sweet bbq sauce. Lauren’s “Mac n’ Chicken” was as rich-tasting as a slice of cheesecake. This stuff was heavy and I kept remembering the oldest story on the internet as she started eating. Luckily, we didn’t have to buy new underwear or have the restroom hosed. We were not only good with our portions, but we even saved room for a dessert.
Also on the “Oktoberfest” menu, the “Apple Cinnamon Strudel” was really three strudels that tasted exactly like those fried apple pies you get at gas stations in North Carolina. Of course, these were better quality. The highlight for me (and the lowlight for Lauren) was the use of allspice as a seasoning. I’m a huge fan; she is not. Our dessert was good, but I kept wishing a dollop of french vanilla ice cream was included. I’m not about to be the guy who asks for extras with his dessert.
Would we go back?
Telling yourself you’ll never go back to someplace like Big River is like saying “I’ll never support the Vols if they lose another game.” It’s just something you say because people have convinced you a place like Big River Grille is not worth your time. You could do far worse than Big River Grille (again, looking at Chili’s and Applebee’s) on a weeknight. Weekends are jam-packed with people who are looking for something quick and easy so they can get back to the Aquarium. Heck yeah, we’ll be back.
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