There is definitely a dress code at Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill.
After sitting at a table waiting to get service for 20 minutes, I realized that the people around me in plaid, button-down shirts with pearl snaps and dusty brown cowboy boots with Wrangler jeans tucked into the top were getting drink after drink and platters of appetizers within minutes of being seated. I, in my green cardigan and Urban Outfitters sandals, still didn't have a glass of water. Once my friends came and we'd ordered and eaten, we all regretted that we had, eventually, been served.
Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill, named after Keith's popular song "I Love This Bar," is anchored by a 95-foot guitar-shaped bar mirrored on the ceiling by a 95-foot guitar sculpture painted with an American flag. The rest of the space houses a large dance floor in front of a stage for live performances, multiple pool tables, private event rooms and all manner of Toby Keith and Americana memorabilia placed haphazardly on the walls and in cases by the front entrance. If that (as well as the ridiculous name of the place) isn't enough to convince you that Keith's hand is upon this godforsaken place, you need only glance at the dozen or so televisions above the bar, each playing a Toby Keith music video that does not sync up with the various other country artists being played over the speakers.
Keith's scruffy visage was easily visible on those televisions on each of my visits, not blocked by hordes of adoring fans descending upon the restaurant for a true country experience bookended by a Bud Light and some fried Twinkies. No, when I made the trek out to the veritable ghost town that is West Oaks Mall to mingle with Keith's Houston-area groupies, I found myself in a 500-seat restaurant with about 20 other people, a few of whom got up and danced or played a round of pool occasionally. But mostly, we were alone in our small groups, separated by what seemed like miles in the cavernous, empty restaurant, while Keith's face mouthed silent words on the TV screens.
I could have sworn the words were, "Go. Now. Before it's too late."
I'm still somewhat mystified by my experiences at Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill. From the nearly inedible food -- strangely one of the less memorable aspects of my adventures in Keith-Land -- to the "Whiskey Girls," who serve with a smile while their bare midriffs with sparkly navel rings meet diners at eye level, the whole place is like an amusement park that's seen far better days.
Supposedly some of the other outposts of TKILTB&G (as my friends and I have come to call it) are thriving in cities like Las Vegas...and Auburn Hills, Michigan. Which makes me wonder if, somehow, here in Houston, Toby Keith is punking us all. I intend to ask him.
Dear Toby Keith,
I have a few thoughts and questions regarding the latest countrified chain restaurant that bears your name right here in Houston, Texas, at a once grand but now majestically empty mall on the outskirts of town. My friends have some thoughts, too, which they were kind enough to share with me.
First, Mr. Keith, you really should've been a cowboy, not a restaurateur. I understand that you don't personally own any of these Americana abominations with your moniker -- you merely have a licensing agreement with the chain's CEO, Frank Capri -- but I'm somewhat amazed that you seriously want your name on items like the "T.K. Stacker Regulator." Honestly, that burger with two cooked-to-death but flavorful patties topped with cheese and chili is one of the better things on the menu. It was only later that my friends and I came to regret our decision to eat it.
And what was with those St. Louis-style ribs, featuring special "Toby's Barbecue Sauce" sweet enough to send a diabetic into a coma? As one who has lived in St. Louis, I can say with certainty that those are not St. Louis style. They're more akin to Chili's style, only the ribs I recall eating years ago at the national chain of family restaurants were juicy, even without being covered by a thick layer of gelatinous fat.
All I can figure is that someone in the kitchen mixed up the sugar and salt when preparing your signature sauce, because the pulled pork sandwich -- drenched in Toby's Barbecue Sauce -- was also sickeningly sweet. Fortunately, the bun on which the pulled pork was served along with a diminutive side of mayo-laden coleslaw was light and fluffy, a decent roll on a plate of otherwise confusing food. Of course, the bottom bun became so soggy with sweet sauce that it was rendered inedible. But the top half was good.
The same buns were used with the burgers, which were also not bad as chain-restaurant burgers go. But I do wonder, Mr. Keith, if the kitchen is aware of the ingredients listed on the menu. When we ordered the T.K. Stackers "South of You" burger (by the way, what's with the name?), it came without jalapeños or the cilantro cream cheese listed on the menu. When we asked for the cilantro cream cheese on the side, the server brought us a -ramekin of sour cream. Also, the onion straws were less like crisp straw and more like limp, wet hay. Maybe you could show the kitchen the photo of the burger on your website and tell them to emulate that?
Still, give the folks in the kitchen a pat on the back for cooking what looked like frozen burger patties until they got a nice sear on the outside. True, they ended up a little dry, but I bet some of that cilantro cream cheese could have helped the situation.
While we're on the subject of the burgers, you might also want to give the staff some pointers on how to answer questions regarding the provenance of your food. Granted, most people who come into TKILTB&G probably don't care where their burgers come from, but for the assholes like myself who are prone to asking, "They come off a truck" isn't a great answer.
Not that I'm surprised that anything I ate came off a truck, possibly right before being plated and served. The Toby's Platter -- an appetizer option featuring nachos, "Whiskey Girl Wings," jalapeño poppers, deep-fried pickle spears, mozzarella sticks, and fried macaroni and cheese triangles -- seemed as if the fried and then frozen offerings had been plated and then driven across the country in the back of a hot 18-wheeler, allowing them to thaw, then heat, then become stale and soggy during the ride.
Can we both just agree that macaroni and cheese should never be served in triangle form? And could you let me know how long ago the desiccated pickles enveloped in limp, flavorless batter were prepared? And why were the Whiskey Girl Wings lumpy? We never did figure that out.
We also couldn't figure out why the "zesty Southwest Ranch Dressing" on the Southwest Chicken Salad tasted like dishwater. Or why the chicken topping it arrived cold, with shredded and congealed cheese stuck to both it and the stale, multicolored tortilla chips intended to Southwest-ify the dish. And what part of the Southwest grows and then candies pecans for their zesty salads? Just curious.
Mr. Keith, I am ashamed to admit that one of my favorite dishes at your befuddling restaurant was the fried Twinkies. True, the batter on them is a strangely dark hue, making them appear more like stacked turds on a plate than carnival food, but the crispy logs filled with melted artificial cream were actually a pleasant end to the strange meal.
It would have been nice to cap the dinner with a strong Old Fashioned from your "fully stocked" bar as well, but when the waitress replied, "An Old Fashioned what?" to my order, I figured another Lone Star would have to do, especially since the bartender was having trouble keeping up with the orders from the two people seated along the giant guitar bar.
By the way, is there a reason the Whiskey Girls' shorts are so short their ass cheeks hang out the back?
Do you see now, Mr. Keith, why I'm confused by this restaurant? Especially being that it's here in Texas, where all you really have to do to create the type of bar I think you're probably aiming for is to play country music and watch the wannabe cowboys saunter in...? I can see how your establishment might do well in places like Massachusetts or Minnesota, where Stetsons and cowboy boots are few and far between. But opening Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill -- even on the outskirts of Houston -- feels a bit like opening an Olive Garden in Florence, Italy.
I forgive you for the misstep, though, buddy. Houston is a difficult city to define. It's hard to know what will work here and what won't.
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What I don't forgive is that nasty song you wrote about critics back in 2003. Though I guess this letter isn't likely to change your mind.
Most sincerely, Kaitlin Steinberg
Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill 1000 West Oaks Mall, 281-404-2387. Hours: Sunday through Tuesday, 11a.m. to 10 p.m.; Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 12 a.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Toby's platter $14.99 Southwest chicken salad $10.49 T.K. Stacker Regulator burger $11.99 T.K. Stackers "South of You" burger $11.99 Pulled pork sandwich $10.99 St. Louis style ribs $15.99 Fried Twinkies $5.99