Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tonight we dined IN HELL!!!

So when we were moving in, I noticed that someone was putting in some sort of new building on the Lamar/290 frontage road just north of Brodie. Sort of an odd location, but forward thinking as that whole area by Burger Center is turning Sunset Valley into a little economic engine like nobody's business.

Anyhoo... this winter I noticed it was going to be an Italian place with the dubious name of (name redacted by agreement w/ restaurant owner. It's a long story). The outside was brightly painted, indicating that it was a tiny Italian villa. I'm not sure. I'm usually going 50 over there, and I don't usually slow for such things.

This evening we were considering tacos at Serrano's by 290, and I recalled there was the new restaurant on the other side of the road. "Let's try Johnny Clambake's..." I announced from the back seat (Jason sat in front and Jamie drove). Of late, I've acquired my mother's ability (or inability) to recall proper nouns, but go ahead and assign them a name I feel works for me. (We did not watch Saturday Night Live. We watched Saturday Night Alive! We ate at Chick-a-Fillet. Yet she knew who all the Star Wars characters were. It's odd.) Jamie swerved in and out of lanes as we tried to decide where we were going, and finally we settled on Johnny Clambake's.

Upon pulling into the lot we noted that the place was an all-you-can-eat buffet. Never a good sign for a promising meal, but even The League tires of tacos upon occasion, and so we decided it would be a bit of an adventure, to pioneer Johnny Clambake's and be able to say "Oh, yes, I ate there. Oh, yes."

So the entry way at Johnny Clambake's was really pretty nice. Obviously designed to hold a great number of waiting diners, but not quite as EPCOT-ish as Olive Garden, but not exactly what one might think any self-respecting actual Italian would recognize as Italian. Heck, even a self-respecting Italian-American.

I knew we were in trouble when, as new customers, we were offered "the tour". The tour took up through "Il Vilagio" which really was an odd buffet line broken up into various ideas about one might want to eat. Anti-pasta, salad at one end. Dessert at the other. All nicely appointed. And the food didn't look like middle-school cafeteria food, but they also weren't shy about moving you through The Vilagio as quickly as possible. "And it's all you can eat!" the tour guide insisted four or five times, just in case we were worried we might not get our money's worth.

And then the tour took a curious turn as we were lead past several "dining pods", you might describe them, down a hallway, past the restrooms, and I suspected we'd be out by the dumpsters when we emerged in a new dining pod with about fifteen tables. The tour guide then directed us to the table crammed into a corner, directly next to the only other occupied table in the pod, complete with kids crawling right up on to the table. Luckily, not Jason, Jamie or I were too shy as we stepped on each other's words requesting a table across the room. Actually, I think Jamie wandered over to a table and Jason said "we'll sit there."

The dining pod was painted a nice shade of fancy-dining room red, and covered in reproductions of art you kind of maybe thought looked like something that was supposed to be nice (including an 18th century picture of hunting dogs), and gave off the illusion that one was somewhere okay... but the little plastic standee on the table then announced our meal would be $13.00 a head. This did not include $2.00 for a drink.

"Let's go," I said. "We can leave."
"We came here for something new, let's try something new."
"Okay," I agreed. But I knew... Hell, Golden Corral is about the same price. I don't know what I expected.
The tables were also all squeezed remarkably close together, which was part of our decision not to sit next to the kids. It would have been like sitting at the same table. But the dining pod was mostly empty and we decided we were far enough away. After all, Jamie loves to drop the f-bomb to punctuate dinner conversations.

Also, Johnny Clambake's had this weird table inventory system visible at the entrance to each dining pod. It looked like a security grid, but included a touchscreen interface so the tour guide could determine which tables were sat. I wanted to monkey with it, but feared retribution should I be caught in the act.

After placing drink orders and having to witness the tour guide do some paperwork to note that we'd changed tables (no, reallY) we wandered back out into the winding maze of (editor's note: name removed to protect the innocent meatball manufacturers). "If this place caught on fire," I said to Jamie as we squeezed past a patron going the other way, "It would be a firey deathtrap." The hallways were ADA, but they were hallways in a buffet restaurant. Where people must get up multiple times and get food (now, you could be reasonable and get one plate of food, but who would do that? Not the Steans Boys, I tell you that much.). Luckily the place was sort of slow, but I had horrible visions of Saturday night at Clamshack Steve's.

"Go for the meat!" I insisted loudly as we broke apart at Il Vilagio. "They want for you to get cheap stuff like bread and salad! That's a con game! The meat costs them! Don't fill up before you get your money's worth!"

But, it being an Italian place and not a grill, I saw a lot of bread sticks, salad and pasta, but very little meat. Except for some meatballs listed as "Homemade Meatballs", which is a lie. Unless the cooks actually live at (editor's note: name removed under suggestion from legal council), this place is nobody's home, and I don't much care for the fib.

Other offerings included meatloaf and fried fish. But, yeah, for the most part it was sort of vaguely Italian-ish faire.

But I was mostly just confused by the whole operation. $13.00 for dinner and the food was, at best, the low end of the Olive Garden spectrum. Plus you had to fetch it yourself, and there flat out weren't that many "entree" type options.

And some guy who was just lingering in Il Vilagio had some nasty BO that surrounded him like a bubble and stung my eyes.

Upon returning to our table, they'd packed in more families (that table LED system was lit up like Christmas, I tell ya), and despite there being multiple empty tables far from us, the tour guide had chosen to pack them in around our table. We immediately noticed that if both tables sat back to back, neither could stand to return to the buffet line, which might save them money, but certainly seemed to defeat the purpose of the buffet concept. The League must be free in his movements when going back for soft serve ice cream.

We weren't the only ones to notice as the room became more densely packed and the family seated behind us got up and moved on their own, causing a landslide of paperwork for somebody.

And the food I got? Okay. Nothing great. Nothing that suggested they needed to clear out Deck the Walls' post-Holiday sale to decorate the joint. I'm an American. If the food is hot and there isn't vermin dashing across the table, color me pleased with my dining surroundings.

Then I noticed the bottom of the table was covered in that super-dense carpet they use in elementary schools. "There's carpet under the tables!" I exclaimed.
"Yes," Jamie blinked.
"No, on the bottom of the tables," Jason said, noting the odd texture. "Not the floor".

I do not understand Johnny Clambake's. I don't get the dining pods, the narrow, deathtrap hallways, the chocolate fountain they would not let you touch, Il Vilagio, substandard food, too many "fancy-lookin'" prints on the walls, and a 9:00 closing time.

At 8:15 Jason told the waiter, who was fishing around to see if we wanted our bill, "Oh, no. We're going to sit here for an hour, digest, and then go back for more." He sort of blinked and then said "We close at 9:00." Apparently someone had put our plan into action.

Oh, Johnny Clamshack! You are one senior citizen taking a spill in your narrow hallways away from closing your doors. Or someone noticing that the pizza bar is not dissimilar to the one in the Jester Dormitory cafeteria.

Oddly, the place (we found out because Jason likes to ask questions) is owned by the same folks who own (editor's note: name removed to preserve future dining experiences) (also a place where I expect I could meet a firey end). And I like (editor's note: name removed to preserve future opportunities for BBQ). I think I get where they're going with Jimmy Clamshack's, but there's a lot of work that has to happen with the menu if they want to make it. Or not. They could drop the price, and then, really, who cares? Ain't nobody going to Cici's because the pizza is good.

If the place does fold, it would make a swell Laser Tag arena. Otherwise, I have no idea what they could do with the oddly shaped space.


Sal Costello said...

Thanks for the review! You saved me money and time!

Sal Costello

The League said...

Any time, Sal Costello. Any time.