Chili’s Restaurant Review: Here’s to the Good Old Days

If you have been to a new or remodeled Chili’s restaurant lately, you have noticed a difference between their new concept and the Chili’s restaurant we once knew.

Updated exteriors of Chili’s restaurants resemble Kentucky-based Italian fast-food chain Fazoli’s while the interior reminds one of Texas-born Cheddar’s restaurant.

It is hard to watch the interior and exterior of Dallas-based Chili’s restaurants simultaneously heading toward such a mundane existence. We hope that this new design concept is just a test and will not be forced upon existing Chili’s restaurants. Norman Brinker, the founder of Chili’s, definitely had more exciting things in mind when he started the Chili’s franchise.

In the 1970’s, when Chili’s first started out, food servers carried up to eight wicker baskets holding burgers and fries on a single extended arm. Sure, it was schtick, but the sheer audacity of handling a customer’s food with such wild abandon drew customers in.

Guests were likewise awed by the infamous ability of a Chili’s foodserver to carry up to 8 mugs of cold beverages in a single grasp. No small feat, as back in the day, those mugs were made of solid glass, not plastic like many mugs used today.

While retiring the stylish flair of serving food reflects a more cautious era, what has happened to the fun and enthusiastic interior of Chili’s restaurants? Where are the terra cotta planters, Saltillo tile floors and Mexican cantina-style table tops? We miss the funky lamps hanging over each table and the candid photographs of folks enjoying chili cook-offs. In the new prototype for some Chili’s restaurants, such things no longer exist.

Additionally, those of us who have spent time waiting for a table at Chili’s or sitting in a booth having a conversation with our friends while waiting for our food to be delivered, will miss looking at the unique items packing the decorated shelves throughout the restaurant. Yep, no more “funk shelves,” as those jam-packed shelves of nostalgia were called.

While we are dismayed at the route the new concept for Chili’s restaurants is taking with their restaurant atmosphere, we are also disheartened at the direction their menu is heading.

Can you say cheese? Chili’s 2011 restaurant menu contains an awful lot of food that appear to be dripping in cheese. Cheese sauce, cheese blends, bleu cheese crumbles, shredded cheese — it is too much cheese to mention. We’re blowing up like puffer fish just thinking about it.

The visual’s on Chili’s latest menu are also a bit jarring. Why are there so many enlarged photographs of food? Does the franchise really think that people cannot figure out what they are ordering based on a reasonably detailed description of the items listed on the menu?

Our last few visits to a Chili’s restaurant revealed that perhaps the menu at Chili’s is designed so because the food servers are not aware of precisely what is in each menu item. When their menu was simpler, wait staff tended to be well-versed about what, for example, was in a Frisco salad (which is no longer on the menu – but it was delicious.)

We visited our local Chili’s a few days ago and asked the food server just 2 questions about items on the menu. He did not know the answer to either question. [“What kind of cheese was their queso for tostada chips made with?” and “How much does a regular margarita cost?”]

Although economics must surely explain the dumbing-down of their interior, it is difficult to understand why the menu has become so complicated and laden with heavy fare such as Boneless Buffalo Chicken Salad, potato skins and a Hatch Chile Cheeseburger. Remember the comparison we made to Cheddar’s?

Our latest visit to Chili’s will not be our last. We will continue our typical once-a-year visit just to see what is going on. If you have never visited a Chili’s restaurant, hurry and get to one soon before it’s charm is entirely eradicated. And do yourself a favor — skip the queso, it’s schlock.

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