Frankie & Benny's, Walsall
Our undercover food reviewer The Insider has top wait for a table and then wait for his food. Was it worth it?
Let's begin by quoting the marketing department of Frankie & Benny's,
"The instantly recognisable red neon sign and warm inviting interior will ease you into the Frankie & Benny's experience before you can take your coat off!
"In typical stateside fashion, great service at Frankie & Benny's is second to none."
Hmm. To be honest, I think I would like the opportunity to be given the chance to take my coat off before I'm eased into any experience, stateside or otherwise, but I see the point. No-one likes to be left hanging around.
You will therefore understand my disappointment at the hour-and-a-half delay between our arrival at the chain's Walsall restaurant, and our food's arrival on the table.
The restaurant, at the Crown Wharf retail park on the edge of Walsall town centre, is one of the latest additions to the Frankie & Benny's empire, having only opened in October last year.
In the evening at least, car parking is very good. When the shops are shut, visitors have the run of a huge car park, and disabled access is excellent.
We arrived at 8.18pm. And 56 seconds to be precise, the time being recorded by car park entry barrier.
"There will be half an hour wait for a table," said the lady who greeted us on arrival, and after a brief discussion we decided we would wait.
We were handed a pager device - I've never experienced that before - and pointed in the direction of a small bar area at the end. Perched on high bar stools, we surveyed the menu and the drinks list under the watchful eye of Hosni Mubarak, who was glowering down from the large television screen behind the bar.
There's a choice of 23 different wines, each accompanied with tasting notes, and the prices are generally reasonable, ranging from £3.45 for a small glass of house wine, to £29.95 for a bottle of Piper Heidseick Brut NV Champagne. There is a choice of cocktails for those with a taste for the exotic.
Beer wise, it's the usual big brewers, and I went for a Becks low alcohol to begin with - not too bad all, although at £2.95 for a half-pint measure, it's not cheap either.
It was fairly lively at the time we arrived, but not exceptionally so, the numbers possibly buoyed by the fact it still basks in a fair degree of novelty value.
It is very much a young person's place. While Frankie & Benny's makes much of the 50s-America imagery, with black-and-white photographs and rock 'n' roll music, I would imagine the number of customers who actually remember the 1950s is pretty close to zero. There were quite a lot of young couples, works bashes and of course the birthday parties, the latter becoming instantly recognisable every time Happy Birthday was struck up on the public address system.
It was at 9.05pm that the pager lit up like a Christmas tree, with more flashing red lights than the old Walsall Illuminations.
After being shown to our tables we were asked if we asked if we wanted any more drinks, and thinking the meal would be coming reasonably soon, I ordered a pint of Boddingtons.
The large folding card menu had plenty to choose from, with five different types of bread, a dozen starters, and more than 60 main courses.
I decided to try the 10oz New York strip sirloin, while my companion went for the more adventurous crab salad.
Anxious of the time, and having already had 45 minutes to consider our choices, we placed our food orders quite promptly, and then sat back and waited for the meals to arrive. And waited. And waited.
We looked around, and saw the place slowly emptying. The young girls on the table next to us came and went - although I didn't notice them actually eating anything - but still no sign of our food.
It's funny how things that normally seem a bit of fun become intensely irritating when impatience sets in. After a while of staring at the empty table, the birthday songs began to grate. There are only so many Beach Boys and Bobby Vee compilations you can stomach on an empty, er stomach.
At 9.45, we inquired where our food was, and a member of staff went to find out, also asking us if we needed any more drinks. A few minutes later, another lady came over to apologise, and explained that the food was imminent. To be fair, it was. It was finally on the table before us at 9.50pm, its arrival heralded by another inquiry about whether we wanted more drinks.
And the long-awaited meal? Was it proof that good things come to he who waits?
Up to a point. It wasn't bad, but I'm not sure it was worth the wait.
If I were to be ultra-pedantic, I would say it should be described as a strip steak, as in the US strip and sirloin refer to two separate and quite specific cuts, but I guess you would probably think that's a bit geeky. And you'd probably be right.
What you probably would want to know is that it is a softer, more tender cut than a normal sirloin, with a slightly fatty flavour. It was nicely cooked and the American-style fries were a bit of a change. Was it worth £16.55 though? I'm not sure. It was more than, for example, the £13.55 feathered steak I had at Jamie Oliver's restaurant, which managed to be prepared in half the time. And for this price, I would probably prefer to go to one of our region's excellent independent dining pubs or restaurants, which offer something a little more personal.
On the other hand, my companion said her crab salad, which came with tomato, roasted red pepper and onion in a sweet chilli dressing, was excellent, so perhaps my irritation at the delay is clouding my judgment.
We were asked several times whether our food was up to scratch, which it was, but I was starting to get fed up with being asked if I wanted any more drinks. Maybe I was feeling unduly grouchy, but after a while it started to feel like I was getting the hard-sell. And that's one "typical stateside fashion" we can well do without.
By the time we had finished, my thoughts were more on getting home than having dessert, but a sense of duty persuaded me to finish the job.
There is plenty of choice, and we both went for options from the renowned New York cheesecake maker Elis; I went for the caramel pecan cheesecake, which I must say was very good indeed, and my companion went for the tiramisu, which she also enjoyed.
After finishing our desserts, we didn't hang about, settling the bill at 10.39pm.
In fairness, all the staff were very friendly and polite, and they apologised several times for the delay. Maybe it was an isolated incident, or teething troubles with a new restaurant. Even so, it did mar the evening. Perhaps I'm being harsh? I would love to hear about your experiences. You can email me at email@example.com
The total bill was £51.95, which included two courses each, a pint of beer, a glass of wine, two low alcohol lagers and a cup of coffee. I think this is quite expensive for a chain restaurant, and while I quite like the lively atmosphere and the menu, I think there are places I would rather go for that money.
Particularly when the experience consists of 90 minutes waiting and 50 minutes dining.
Frankie & Benny's, Crown Wharf Shopping Park, Walsall WS2 8LL
Phone: 01922 659100
Mushroom Alfredo Crostini garlic button mushrooms tossed in rich cheese sauce, served over toasted garlic ciabatta bread £5.15; Calamari sprinkled with Italian cheese and served with warm Neapolitan dip £5.25
Black pepper mayo burger £9.95; Meatballs on spaghetti tossed in tomato and beef ragu £9.55; 10in Lousiana chicken pizza £9.95; Sweet cured bacon steaks with hard cheese £11.45
Large cookie topped with a scoop of brownies and cream ice cream, red berries, cream, toffee crunch and chocolate £4.45; Chocolate marble digestive crumb base, with rich chocolate brownie and a baked cheesecake £4.45
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