Written by R D Lang Friday, 18 April 2008 00:00
The other day I noticed Foster's Grille on Pine Island Road took home the dubious title of "Cape Coral's Best Hamburger" from one of our local media outlets.
These regional "Best Of" lists always worry me. They're usually full of questionable winners and arcane categories. This particular list had a category of "Best Aluminum Store". I wonder what criteria was used by the voting public to narrow down the winner of that competition? And who votes on these things anyway? In an internet and cell-phone world, are there still people who take the time to fill out, and then mail in, newspaper forms like these? Judging by the winners announced in many of the categories, I would guess the demographic responding to this particular survey consisted of four blue-haired, elderly, snowbird-women from Cleveland and some random guy who owns an aluminum store.
Everyone's a winner these days. Everyone's a current, or potential, advertiser. We can't bite the hand that feeds us. Times are tough.
I say Boo-Hoo to all that. Restaurant reviews and "Best Of" contests should serve as a barometer for the local dining scene. When all reviews are glowing, and there are no losers in any of the contests, mediocrity begins to run rampant. Why? Because people believe what they read. And if you're already being called "The Best", where's the incentive to improve?
My opinion is that honest, unbiased, restaurant reviews help to raise the bar for the local dining scene. Many corporate restaurants pay "Secret Shopper" companies to show up unannounced at their locations once a month. They dine, and take notes, and fill out a survey. Their final report is sent to the main corporate office, and then the manager of the restaurant in question is either held to task for deficiencies or rewarded for a job well done. This process, though imperfect, helps many well known restaurants keep the quality of their food and service in check. The threat of embarrassment, and discipline, keeps everyone from the manager on down in the position of always having to put their best foot forward. Everyone's a suspect. Anyone could be the 'Secret Shopper". Paranoia pays huge dividends for restaurant stock-holders. Next time you're at an upper-scale chain restaurant...look suspicious, tell them it's your first visit, ask lots of questions, and pretend to secretly take notes. Then just kick back and watch your service improve.
Now, if there were no such thing as "Secret Shoppers", do you think the employees at the restaurant would take it upon themselves to always give their best effort? Of course not...that's why these companies pay for the "Secret Shoppers". This is why a local dining scene full of Mom and Pop, independently-owned, restaurants needs honest reviewers. Most privately-owned restaurants do not have "Secret Shoppers". As such, the responsibility falls on our shoulders...the honest restaurant reviewers. We need to visit these establishments intermittently and undetected. We need to report on what's working and what isn't. It's up to us to provide the motivation for these service industry employees...big crowds when the good reviews come out and bad word of mouth when the ball's been dropped. We are the only line of defense against the ever-impending threat of restaurant-mediocrity. Somebody buy me a beer!
I digress. Back to Foster's Grille and my pursuit of "Cape Coral's Best Hamburger".
The Foster's Grille website (Fosters Grille) has an animated intro page with blaring music. A brick wall crumbles as a threatening and flaming Char-Burger crashes through it and an accompanying rock song informs us their burger is "too big for two hands". That's a grandiose claim to make in this era of super-sizes, quad-stackers, and monster-thickburgers. Then there's the moral question of whether or not restaurants should be offering such unapologetic sizes to a buying public with an obesity epidemic. I'm not burdened by any of those arguments, though. It's a free country...let the people eat what they want...and let the restaurants sell it. If someone's hungry, they're going to eat. If a big burger's not available, they'll just have two smaller ones. What's the difference?
The parking lot outside Foster's Grille was packed. My dining guest and I had to park at the opposite end of the lengthy plaza.
The interior is a big, open, unfinished looking room. The floors are plain concrete and stained from spilled soft-drinks. The tables are set cafeteria style, on a grid in straight lines. An upside-down race car hangs suspended from the ceiling in the center of the room. The accessories hanging from the walls are eclectic to the point of being completely mismatched, with no central theme apparent. A Spiderman model crawls from the ceiling. A pair of old boots hung over one of the tables. Fishing gear bumped shoulders with Frank Sinatra records and autographed pictures of star athletes. Almost every corner is filled with a video game machine or sets of those vending machines which let you trade quarters for plastic bubbles with stickers and chintzy toys encased within them.
The room is loud. We arrived near the end of the lunch rush, and most of the tables were still occupied. The crowd was diverse, lots of parents and children, older couples, redneck guys, and a few people in business attire. A group of about eight people were just finishing up a birthday party at one of the tables.
The atmosphere is frenetic. Lots of shouting, children being disciplined, and kitchen noises bouncing back and forth between the open ceiling, concrete floors and brick walls.
A sign near the front door advised us to place our order at the counter. Within seconds of our arrival, an employee approached us with strange little order forms and pencils. We went to a recently vacated booth off to the side, one of the only tables available. It was still dirty, but within a few more seconds another employee came and cleaned it off for us. The restaurant is full of action and the young staff is both capable and fast-paced...a pleasant surprise for such a casual restaurant.
The order forms were frustrating and gimmicky. They are small copies of the menu. Each diner is supposed to fill out their own form, write in their name, choose the items they want, and circle the condiments they desire.
The menu is concise. The Charburger. A hot dog. A couple sandwiches. A couple salads. Buffalo wings. Fresh squeezed lemonade. Extra thick milkshakes. Soft drinks. A limited selection of beer and wine. There are also a Kid's Menu and a garden/veggie burger available.
Once you're finished filling out your order form, you must proceed to the counter and hand it to the cashier. The cashier then needs to decipher whatever you've scrawled onto the order form, by asking you to verbally confirm what you've just taken the time to write down for them. The information is entered into the cash register and you are charged accordingly. The process is time consuming and a waste of paper...but the place is full, so someone must enjoy filling these things out.
My dining companion wanted to mix things up by choosing the Garden Burger and Fresh Squeezed Lemonade. I went with the predictable Charburger and Extra Thick Chocolate Milkshake.
Another gripe I have is with the pricing scheme. Each sandwich includes french fries and a fountain drink. The cost of these are absorbed into the price of the sandwich. So, every meal is an extra value meal of sorts. All fine and good...until you go for one of the inviting specialty drinks. The Charburger is $7.99. The Extra Thick Milkshake is $3.50. Order the two together for $11.49, and somewhere along the line you've paid for a fountain drink you never received. They should either lower the price of a milkshake when purchased with a sandwich, or separate the cost of the fries and drinks from the sandwiches to allow more freedom of choice.
I paid via debit card. The slip was presented, with a line for me to enter a gratuity before I totaled it. Perhaps my readers can help me out here? A place like Foster's Grille falls into the gray area for me as far as gratuities are involved. The three families in front of me paid cash. None of them were asked for a gratuity. They were all given correct change, which they quickly pocketed. I did not witness anyone leaving a gratuity on any of the tables before they left. Yet, because I paid by debit card, I was asked for a tip. The societal pressure was upon me, as the cashier watched intently and waited for me to sign the slip. I put in a 15% tip, grudgingly...after all, I had just paid for a fountain drink I never received, and now I was tipping on it as well. It's not a full service restaurant. They do deliver your meal to your table, but you order and pay at a cash register. I mean, technically, the cashier at a fast food drive up window brings the food to your car, and no one ever tips him. Regardless...I'm quite certain I was one of the few, if not the only, person who tipped at Foster's Grille that day. What do you think? Do you tip at these kinds of places?
A few minutes later, my name was shouted across the room. I raised my hand, and the food was auctioned off to us.
The Extra Thick Chocolate Milkshake, was indeed extra thick. A plastic spoon was sticking straight up in the middle of it. I had to let it melt a little before I could even pull some of it through the straw. Chocolaty. Creamy. Excellent.
The Fresh Squeezed Lemonade was good. Tart, refreshing, and not overly sweet.
Once again, another gripe: huge styrofoam cups. Both drinks were served in larger-than-life styrofoam cups...this is an issue I will let morality reign on. It is unforgivable for any company to continue, unabashedly, using such an environmentally unfriendly medium. It's unrecyclable. The manufacture and/or incineration of styrofoam releases poisonous chemicals into our atmosphere. I hate thinking that a cup will be sitting in a landfill for over 500 years because I needed to have one chocolate milkshake. The use of styrofoam in restaurant packaging needs to be outlawed completely. Shame on Foster's Grille for using these cups.
The Charburger was middle of the road. They don't take temperatures on their burger orders at Foster's...mine came out well-done by default. A half-pound of char-grilled beef on an airy, seeded bun served with fresh, hand-cut fries. The tomato, onions and lettuce were fresh.
Contrary to the "too big for two hands" theory, the burger fit nicely into my two hands, and was quite manageable compared to other local burgers I've had. The meat did have a pleasant, smoky, grilled flavor...reminiscent of sunny days and fondly-remembered cook-outs. Other than that, nothing special to see here.
The Garden Burger was acceptable. It had none of the smoky character or fire-grilled goodness of the Charburger. Plain as Jane. Nothing out of the ordinary about it. Pretty much the same garden burger you'd get just about anywhere. Another missed chance to shine.
The hand-cut french fries on both plates were good, maybe even very good, but not great.
All in all, Foster's Grille did not meet or exceed my expectations. The food cost more than it should have, and did not live up to the company's own marketing claims or the contrived word-of-mouth borne of the local media. My official rating for Foster's Grill is Neutral.
So, where is the "Best Burger in Cape Coral"? I don't know.
What I do know is this: Hamburgers are a symbol of America...a food of national pride. Lots of restaurants craft them lots of different ways. Types and versions of hamburgers are as varied as the myriad opinions people have of them. What's great to me may just be "eh" to you. But, as Americans, we need to be honest in our ratings of burgers. We can not allow mediocrity to emerge victoriously in the Battle of the Burgers.
Where is your favorite burger?
R.D. Lang is the nom de plume of a regular joe who dines on his own dime.
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