Nostalgia Trip: Chili’s Grill & Bar

Why Chili’s?

Bar and Grill really rolls off the tongue. When you switch the words, well, you get Chili’s Grill & Bar. That’s not the only thing that offends me about Chili’s.

Let’s rewind. I remember as a kid going to Chili’s pretty often. It was in the rotation with other casual dining options of the era like Ruby Tuesday, TGI Friday’s, Applebee’s, and Outback Steakhouse. I remember being excited, eating fajitas, and thinking I was eating somewhere of absolute substance and quality. In fact, I remember it being pretty darn good to my young palate. All that changed I got my driver’s license, a job, and went to a taqueria for a real food experience. Now, I understand that Chili’s isn’t exactly built upon Mexican food, but all I ever got was the Chicken Fajitas.

Chili’s Chicken Fajitas

So, does anyone actually like Chili’s anymore? They must, if there are still around 1,600 locations. Maybe people are just afraid to try new things so they stick to what they know. Or maybe people are just sticklers for value in their dining experience, and I’ll have to give Chili’s that advantage.

But before we speak of my experience in detail, let’s talk history.

A Bite of History

In 1975, Larry Levine opened the first Chili’s in Dallas, Texas in a converted postal station. The original focus of the menu was affordable hamburgers. Chili’s took off and by the 1980’s, 28 locations populated the Dallas, TX region.

Lavine was smart and cashed out in 1983 when he sold the Chili’s brand to a multinational hospitality industry company that is known today as Brinker International, Inc. Brinker today owns Chili’s Grill & Bar, Maggiano’s Little Italy, and It’s Just Wings. They were also involved with On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina before they sold it off in 2010, and have a minority stake in the owners of Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

Today there are Chili’s locations all throughout the United States, and in such corners of the world as Sri Lanka, Guam, Bahrain, Honduras, and Tunisia.

Chili’s in Tunis, Tunisia

With that level of success and international appeal, clearly they are doing something better than the other comparable chains. In fact, closed in my community are the local Ruby Tuesday’s, TGI Friday’s, On the Border, and Applebee’s. However, Chili’s still stands. And when I went inside for the first time since 2009, they are not hurting for business.

Ambiance & Service

The interior was just as I remembered when I was dragged there by my coworkers from the local grocery store I worked at years ago. Pleather upholstered booths, a rectangular bar without much character, and a bunch of televisions stapled high up on the walls (with a third of them turned off).

I sat at the bar, and noticed the Happy Hour deals. $3 for a draft beer? $4 Classic Margarita? Made in those same acrylic blue shakers? Food deals? Count me in. That’s a damn deal.

I’ll be honest, I wanted to love Chili’s. As someone with an abundance of time and seemingly no money these days, I thought Chili’s could be a new hang for me to spend just a few bucks while I get some work done, and maybe get a nice meal in. Chili’s already had a leg up.

I arrived at 3:00 and sat at the bar. I noticed a bunch of senior barflies sitting by themselves. A couple of folks had plates of food which looked awfully pallid, dry, and uninspired. It’s what I expected, but perhaps a bit worse. Beyond the senior clientele at this hour, I noticed small groups of families there. Two mom-and-daughter combos, a four-person family, and two middle aged couples. I enjoyed seeing families sit and eat something that they were likely familiar with and perhaps made it a tradition to do so. I also noticed a group of three high school kids seated at a table, which makes me think that Chili’s is still popular with the kids in high school like it was when a group of my friends dragged me there when I was their age. Later, a group of girls in their twenties sat at the bar and had some Classic Margs. Seems the clientele is a very mixed bag from children to seniors, high schoolers to people in their 20’s and 30’s. If Chili’s is aiming for an “anybody and everybody” model, they are nailing it.

The service was nice enough. My bartender was attentive and checked in on me, offered me helpful suggestions, and was kind. It appeared she was taking care of the bar as well as the high tops and booths in the bar area. I figured the location is suffering from staffing issues but that is not unique to Chili’s.

Food & Drink

I figured if I was going to order something, I ought to order an item that I am very familiar with, an item that I love and can eat with fervent joy. It’s an item so easy to prepare that you cannot mess this up. This item happened to be on the Happy Hour menu: Buffalo Wings. I ordered an 8 piece of buffalo wings, and opted for the new Nashville Hot flavor. I’ve had this inspired flavor at other wing places and have been pretty happy with the taste and level of heat, so I figured I’d really be giving Chili’s an advantage.

The wings came and were pushed to the side of what looked like a dog dish. They were all flat pieces, which I am unsure as to if that was pure coincidence or planned. They smelled like nothing in particular. The sauce covered just half of the wing surface, as if it was lazily tossed before throwing on the plate and sending it out.

The wings were fatter than the ones you get at Buffalo Wild Wings, but smaller than the ones you would get in a grocery store. The wings were crispy, and when I bit into them I noticed the bone separated at the joint without much bite or pressure which is a pet peeve of mine – as I often need two hands to eat the wing so I don’t end up swallowing a bone shard.

The meat felt watery and disappointing, but no more disappointing than the Nashville Hot Sauce which was completely dull and forgettable. I decided at that point that if the wings were that poorly done, I did not want to waste money on any more food at Chili’s.

I needed a beer, and seeing as theirs was $3, I opted for a draft Miller Lite. For just a dollar or two more, you can boost it up to a 22 oz. so I opted for that. I haven’t had a Lite beer for quite a while, preferring a nice craft brew if I am going to drink something. I drank half of it in one gulp.

After I finished my 22 oz. beer, I opted for another – this one being Coors Light, and something strange happened. After I finished my first tall beer, I felt absolutely nothing. I was confused, thinking it may be the Miller Lite. I sat and got some work done while drinking a second beer, a Coors Light, over the course of 20-30 minutes or so. When the bartender asked if I wanted another, I was really confused as after 44 oz. of beer, I truly felt nothing. I switched back to Miller Lite for a last beer and closed out the check.

I drank the Miller Lite, and at this point, 66 oz of beer, or roughly a six pack of lite beer. I should feel something, shouldn’t I? I began to theorize that Chili’s may be watering down their beer. If not during service, perhaps at least during happy hour. I went home and got a tall can of Coors Light at a package store and cracked the can at home, drinking that and finally feeling something. Now that’s awful strange. Do I honestly believe that Chili’s is watering down their beers? No. That would cause immense corporate chaos and is technically illegal. I chalk it up to coincidence, even though it is a very rare coincidence indeed.

Chowtrip Score: 2.0/10

The food quality seems like what anyone would expect, true value food that is good for families looking to go out while still experiencing savings. The staff is friendly enough, and they keep things fun with a new margarita every so often and trying out new promotions.

If you are looking for a culinary experience, then the obvious is true: go elsewhere. Grab a meal at a local hole-in-the-wall and drink a craft beer.

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