I’ve been avoiding Cheddar’s, the Texas-based chain that now has a half dozen or so area locations, ever since they entered the Central Florida market a few years ago. There were plenty of smaller, locally owned restaurants to warrant attention in these pages. I didn’t see any reason to visit.
Then, in March, Darden Restaurants announced that it was buying Cheddar’s. And so I felt a certain duty to be familiar with the latest addition to the hometown megafeeder’s portfolio. So off I went to check a Cheddar’s.
After just one visit, I have only one question: What the hell was Darden thinking?
I left thinking that I had just had one of the most unpleasant meals of my entire professional career as a critic, which as of this week is 29 years, so I have a pretty good inventory to draw on.
Ironically, perhaps, the food drew the least of my complaints, though the menu itself is oddly unfocused and a culinary mishmash. I could not discern by reading it what Cheddar’s, if anything, wants to be known for. I was pretty sure it wasn’t cheese, although cheese featured in a number of the items. But even some of the dishes with a star by their names, usually a sign that it’s a signature item, also had the word “New” there. How could a newly added dish also be a signature item?
I won’t even quibble with the chain’s assertion that constitutes its complete name: Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen. It’s a term that one must take with a grain of salt, a hand-dried fleur de sel, if you prefer.
The information that much of what is made in house — 97 percent, according to my server — but be tempered with the knowledge that “made from scratch” doesn’t necessarily mean “high quality.” There are varying levels of scratchness. And of course one has to take into consideration the skill of the scratcher.
There wasn’t any in evidence with the Tortilla Soup I had as a starter. It gave me my first taste of cheese, but was overwhelmed by a heavy dose of cumin.
I chose the Homemade Chicken Pot Pie because it was one of the few items on the menu that specified something in it was “scratch-made,” so I could be assured that I wasn’t getting one of the three percent processed items.
Even so, only the cream sauce was said to be from scratch. And while this dish was the opposite of the soup in that it was too under-seasoned, it nevertheless was a good pot pie, including the flaky pastry that topped the crock and the tender chunks of breast meat within. The cheesed broccoli and rice casserole that sat in a dish next to it was quite unattractive, but nothing wrong with the taste there.
And let’s be clear about one thing: the food here is reasonably priced. Only one item, a full rack of ribs, is over $15 ($15.99), with plenty of choices under $10.
So what did I find so unpleasant about the experience? The service and the atmosphere.
All of the servers I observed, including my own, walked about with an air of obliviousness toward their customers, as though they were having a good time with each other.
My own server, who found it “awesome” that I was at Cheddar’s for the first time, took 20 minutes to bring a glass of wine because she was waiting for the soup to come up. Step saving is an admirable thing when waiting tables, but not at this extreme.
When I asked a question about the menu, she began to move toward the other side of my booth, as though she planned to sit down. Instead, she put both forearms on the table and leaned on the menu as though it were a secret treasure map.
At one point, after I had finished and wanted to go, she was nowhere to be seen. I made a point of exaggeratedly craning my neck and looking around as though searching. A hostess and two other servers walked by without asking if there was something I needed.
I now find myself typing a phrase I’ve used many times over the past three decades when I write about inadequate service: There was no one in the dining room I could identify as a manager or someone in charge.
The place is loud and dark. The wall of my booth was tall enough to block any view, and it was spattered with something that no one felt the need to wipe off. (It might have been permanent; I didn’t look too closely.)
As I left the restaurant, neither of the two hostesses at the stand bothered to acknowledge me, thank me for coming or to say they hoped I would come back soon.
A return visit? Scratch that.
I visited the Cheddar’s at 6650 S. Semoran Blvd., Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-438-8878.