CRACKER BARREL OLD COUNTRY STORE

Food: () A corporate-driven menu and lots of breaded and fried foods are unappealing.

Service: () Servers are professional, but kitchen does not put the customer first.

Atmosphere: () Handsome custom building re-creates an old-time general store.

More Info

Locations: 20512 Robal Lane (at U.S. Highway 97 North), Bend

Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cuisine: Homestyle American with Southern country accents

Price range: Breakfast $4.99 to $12.69, lunch and dinner $5.99 to $17.69

Credit cards: American Express, Discover, Mastercard, Visa

Kids’ menu: A variety of meal options are priced under $6

Vegetarian and gluten-free menu: “Wholesome” options include a $7.29 vegetable platter

Alcoholic beverages: No

Outdoor seating: No

Reservations: Large groups only

Contact: crackerbarrel.com, 541-389-6614

For more area restaurant reviews, visit bendbulletin.com/restaurants

The setting: Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, a restaurant just off U.S. Highway 97 at the north end of Bend. The time: About 9 on a recent Monday morning.

My dining companion and I are seated at a table in the heart of the spacious eatery, surrounded by walls of kitschy farm antiques, not far from a stone fireplace. We are handed tabloid-sized breakfast menus, two feet long when fully open, and printed on both sides. There is no shortage of choices.

A server approaches. “May I get you started with something to drink?” she asks. My companion requests decaffeinated coffee. I start my day with the real thing.

“I’m so sorry,” the server says. “We have decaf, but we’ve just run out of regular coffee. Would you like a latte instead?”

If you’re a coffee drinker, you know there’s nothing worse than sitting down for breakfast in a handsome new restaurant and being told there’s no caffeine available.

It is on the menu: “Freshly brewed, premium blend coffee, $2.99. Bottomless refills.” The couple at the next table is getting those refills. I tell our server I’ll wait for a fresh pot. She again suggests a latte: It is real espresso, she assures me, with a choice of vanilla or caramel flavoring at the push of a button. That’s not what I am looking for, I tell her.

“But we haven’t received our shipment of coffee (from corporate),” the server says.

My companion rises, walks a few steps into the adjacent (and voluminously stocked) country store, and returns with a bag of Cracker Barrel Old Fashioned Premium Blend Regular Coffee. “You might start with this,” she says.

Our server promises to suggest that to kitchen management. She returns to say that’s not the way things are done here. Even though it is Cracker Barrel’s own coffee, it cannot be used to keep the customer satisfied. I wind up settling for water.

Breakfast fare

On to the menu. My companion orders a Sunrise Sampler ($10.39) with eggs, bacon, sausage and ham. I select Grandpa’s Country Fried Breakfast ($10.69) with “all the fixin’s.” That includes eggs, grits, fried apples, potatoes and country-fried steak.

“Oh, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed again,” our server says. “We don’t have any country-fried steak today. We ran out yesterday, and the truck hasn’t arrived yet. Would you like chicken-fried chicken instead?”

No, I insist, I don’t want chicken for breakfast. Isn’t this a from-scratch kitchen?

Apparently, it’s not. “We have to wait for the truck to arrive,” the server politely says.

I acquiesce and order a Country Boy Breakfast ($12.69) with three moist scrambled eggs and two slightly overcooked pork chops, made more flavorful by juicy fried apples. The “fixin’s” are inedible, especially the watered-down grits and a white “sawmill” gravy that accompanies a handful of buttermilk biscuits.

My friend nibbles at a cheesy hash-brown casserole that came with her over-easy eggs. Her bacon, billed as thick-sliced, is as thin as the paper on which the menu was printed. Her country ham is exceedingly salty. She takes a bite of smoked sausage and pushes the rest aside.

Another couple leaving the restaurant tell me they had an almost identical experience. When I mention the debacle to a Cracker Barrel staff member (who shall remain unidentified) and assert that with so many good breakfast places in Bend, I won’t be returning here, the employee nods, smiles and whispers: “Plus, most of those others serve bloody marys!”

Indeed, there is no alcohol service at Cracker Barrel, despite seating 180-plus diners.

Turkey and catfish

Just as coffee would have been nice in the morning, a glass of wine would have enhanced our dinner experience. My companion did the best she could under the circumstances, ordering an Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade).

We came on a Thursday evening, when Cracker Barrel offers a weekly Thanksgiving dining experience: roasted turkey and dressing ($11.79). My friend jumped at it.

Two slices of turkey breast were fine, she said, but a portion of brown gravy had a film as if it had been sitting for a while. Her cornbread dressing was dry, as if cooks had used the company’s own mix without adding onions, celery or other ingredients that augment the flavor. A sweet-potato casserole was satisfactory, nothing more. Turnip greens, simmered with country ham, were grossly overcooked.

I ordered farm-raised catfish ($12.99). Given a choice of spicy grilled or cornmeal breaded and fried, I requested one of each as a sampler. But the kitchen didn’t get the message, as I was served two of the latter variety.

They were not to my taste. The breading was thick and insufficiently seasoned. Gratefully, the restaurant manager responded to my dissatisfaction and brought two unbreaded filets, grilled in butter and seasoned with pepper and other spices. I practically inhaled them. They were delicious.

I would have liked rice with my fish. But that was not an available option, even though Cracker Barrel serves a chicken ’n’ rice dish on Saturdays. There’s nothing New Orleans about the restaurant’s cuisine, and precious little Low Country.

Of my three sides, my favorite was a gently dressed salad of shaved Brussels sprouts and kale with pecans. Pinto beans with a touch of ham were also good. But the breading on fried okra was too thick and oily to enjoy.

Southern theme

The Bend restaurant opened Feb. 4 as one of nearly 650 franchises across the United States. Still based in Tennessee, where it was founded 50 years ago, Cracker Barrel pursues a Southern theme in its food and its country store.

Wooden rocking chairs line the front porch. Two displays stand out just inside the entrance, one of them patriotically festooned with Stars and Stripes, a second promoting Christian literature and music.

Patrons are encouraged to stay awhile, before or after their meals, as they peruse a collection of gifts that include clothing, stuffed animals and Cracker Barrel’s own line of pancake mixes and jams. And coffee.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached janderson@bendbulletin.com .

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