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.[jump]
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.