CHICAGO: Hard Rock Cafe

Generally, I don't blog about large chains, whether they're fast-food joints or higher-end establishments. The positive (or the negative) of any chain is that we all know what they have to offer, they do what they do more or less consistently, and we either like it or we don't. However, my recent experience at the Hard Rock Café in downtown Chicago was quite different from my previous experiences and I thought it worth writing about.

It had been probably more than a year since I last visited a Hard Rock Café so, during our recent visit to Chicago, my wife and I decided to stop in for lunch. We were in the neighborhood, they're a known quantity, and the food is pretty consistent from one HRC to another, so it seemed like a good call for a quick bite.

As expected, the food was pretty good. We shared Santa Fe Spring Rolls and a Honey Citrus Grilled Chicken Salad with fresh orange segments, spiced pecans, red pepper strips, sweetened dried cranberries and bleu cheese crumbles. Both were very tasty.

The drinks, however, were less stellar. We each had margaritas – one classic and one specialty – and they both tasted watery. I expected better.

But the biggest surprise was how much emphasis was placed on pitching non-food items. First, it was the pitch to buy a Hard Rock Café glass with your drink, then the pitch to buy HRC logo’d merchandise. Toward the end of the meal came the pitch to donate to Yoko Ono’s “end hunger” promotion, followed by a pitch to join the “All-Access” card program.

Another surprise was how much the atmosphere at this Hard Rock Café resembled the craziness of the Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlours that were big in the '70s. Don’t get me wrong; Hard Rocks have always had a good energy, and that is in part why I like them. But at least twice – maybe three times – during the course of our brief visit, different servers made a customer stand up and do a "Statue of Liberty" pose with the sundae bearing a birthday candle while the server gave a spiel about how it was “so-and-so’s birthday, so let’s all wish them a very energetic ‘Happy Birthday’ or I’ll do this whole thing again.” Puhleeze! 

I don’t recall things being that frenetic in previous visits to other HRCs. Perhaps each restaurant has it’s own character, or perhaps upper management has decided to pump up the energy. I thought they were already quite energetic enough.

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