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Reviews of burgers at chain restaurants.

Chain Reaction: O'Charley's

Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.

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[Photographs: Todd Brock]

O'Charley's

3550 Sandy Plains Road, Marietta GA 30066 (Map); 770-579-2690
ocharleys.com; 230+ locations in 17 states
The Schtick: "Good Food, Good Times" where "Everybody's a Regular"
The Burger: Basic lineup of burger options, all of which are awful
Want Fries With That? Anything out of the fryer is decent here... especially the chicken tenders
Setting: Generic brick-and-polished-wood, with local sports jerseys to remind you of where you are
Price:O'Charley's Grillers, $8.99; Classic Burger $7.79 (w/fries); Better Cheddar Bacon Burger, $8.79; sweet potato fries, add $0.79

It's pretty easy to rip on a chain whose most popular dish is the basket of free rolls they bring you before the meal. But like so many others in the fast casual category, O'Charley's doesn't really have that one signature menu item, apart from these warm wads of dough. Instead, the selling point here—at least according to the signage that's plastered all over the ubiquitous brick-and-polished-wood decor—is the atmosphere...with cuisine that never promises to be anything more than serviceable.

Unfortunately, after a recent test-drive of three-fifths of the burger offerings, I can't even classify O'Charley's burgers as living up to the first part of their "Good Food, Good Times" slogan.

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Even from the outside, O'Charley's seems to come right out and admit that you'd better bring people you enjoy hanging out with, 'cos the food is gonna be secondary. Signs lead the way to "Everyday Reunions" and "Spontaneous Celebrations." When you get right up to the windows they attempt to lure you in for "Famous Rolls." Inside, you're reminded that, "Good Times Start Here" and "Here, Everybody's A Regular." I'm no ad man, but that's some awfully subdued and generic language; not exactly a compelling call to action. (It reminded me of the recent fake ad for another chain via The Onion News Network: "It's just like my neighborhood restaurant, only completely geographically nonspecific!") Here, a mural including the Big Chicken and some framed Georgia Tech jerseys around the bar constituted "local flavor."

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The apostrophe restaurants (O'Charley's even gives you two of them!) do serve a niche, loading up their menus with a little bit of this and a little bit of that in hopes that no matter what circumstances have brought you in, you'll find something that sounds halfway decent.

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But please don't let that thing be O'Charley's Grillers ($8.99). "Four mini burgers cooked to medium well," is what you're promised. These shrunken pucks of beef couldn't have been much more than two inches across, with meat that was way past well done. They were positively dwarfed by their overly-toasted mini-buns, with underpatty pickle placement and just a smidgen of cheddar trying to melt on top. Supposedly-standard mustard was MIA, leaving a platter of dry, overcooked meat bites lost under entirely too much bread and paired with a smallish side of fries. It was possibly one of the worst burger entrées I've ever been served anywhere, and not a good omen for the full-size offerings.

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The half-pound Classic Burger ($7.79), with its traditional lettuce/tomato/onion/pickles and optional cheese, looked more encouraging...from a distance. A quick peek at the patty revealed deep jet-black striping, and the cross-section revealed not a trace of pink, despite a request of "medium." This one spent also entirely too long on a perhaps-too-hot grill, resulting in dried-out beef that provided no real flavor—unless you count the deathly-acrid notes supplied by those scorched grill marks. Think I'm being too hard? My nine-year-old (who admittedly thinks more analytically about burgers than most 4th-graders, given Dad's job), described it as "too burnt around the edges" and pushed it away before finishing.

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O'Charley's also currently offers a Wild West Burger (Jack cheese, bacon, fried onion tanglers, Cajun-horseradish sauce) and a turkey burger (um...no), but I opted for the Better Cheddar Bacon Burger ($8.79). This one comes with LTO, pickles, white cheddar, and applewood-smoked bacon. The cheese was already making a break for it by the time it hit my table, having slid halfway off the burger. Bacon would be apparently making just a cameo appearance, with just three not-even-full strips haphazardly piled on top. The interior of the meat did show some rosiness, but had blown right by "medium-rare" long before.

Were we victims of just a bad night for the kitchen or a new guy at the grill? Maybe. But every burger on my table was positively dreadful, Exhibits A through C of why O'Charley's and places like it are more often punch lines than destinations. If you're going to run a restaurant in this category, you'd better be able to deliver an at-least-passable burger every time. O'Charley's went 0-for-3 this night with a trio of fails.

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What they did significantly better was anything that came out of the deep fryer. The fries, both regular and sweet potato, had a crisp crunch and were skillfully seasoned. But the table's top choice (besides those rolls) was the Top Shelf Combo Appetizer. The Spicy Jack Cheese Wedges and Overloaded Potato Skins were plenty tasty, but the Chicken Tenders were the star of the show. Plump, juicy breast meat, buttermilk-dipped and double hand-breaded, the tenders will be what I get next time I find myself at the corner of "Familiar Faces" and "Comfortable Conversation." And some of those Famous Rolls to stuff them into.

About the Author: Todd Brock lives the glamorous life of a stay-at-home freelance writer in the suburbs of Atlanta. Besides being paid to eat cheeseburgers for AHT and pizzas for Slice, he's written and produced over 1,000 hours of television and penned Building Chicken Coops for Dummies. When he grows up, he wants to be either the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys or the drummer for Hootie & the Blowfish. Or both.

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