Late last year, I put on a new Focal dealer in a small town near Springfield, IL. I was at the store doing training one evening and was going to take the group out for dinner afterward. However, the owner went home sick and the rest of the staff either had family obligations, other plans or, in one guy's case, had to go work at a second job. I went back to Springfield and settled into my hotel, sort of cold and hungry. I decided to go out and scope what was in the general area for food establishments and I happened upon a Smokey Bones barbecue place just down the road on Dirksen Parkway from where I was staying. (See map).
Smokey Bones is a somewhat regional chain of nearly 70 restaurants located in 17 states - primarily in the Southeast. Based out of Orlando, the original Smokey Bones restaurant was opened in 1999 by the Darden Restaurant Group, the same corporation that owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden (two restaurants that I'll never go in), but they also own the upscale Capital Grille steakhouse chains and the very good and not so upscale LongHorn Steakhouse restaurants (both of which I'll happily eat at). The original concept of a Smokey Bones restaurant was to have barbecue served in a somewhat Northwoods lodge appearing structure, complete with pine paneling and high ceilings, with stone-hearth fire places. It was somewhat out of character for a place like that to get its start in Orlando, but with Darden's money behind the restaurant they began to grow and branch out with franchises across Florida and the Southeast.
In 2007, Darden sold their interest in Smokey Bones to Barbecue Integrated, an off-shoot of the huge Sun Capital Partners investment company based out of Boca Raton, FL. Many of the Smokey Bones locations have been upgraded in their look and feel, getting away from the rustic, mountain lodge theme and going to a more contemporary decor.
The one in Springfield still had the mountain lodge motif going for it. The main dining room featured booths with wood backs with similar wood paneling on the walls. It as well lit and it seemed comfortable enough.
I took a seat at the bar and waited for the bartender to acknowledge me. She was the only one behind the bar and most of the people eating at Smokey Bones that evening (after 8 p.m.) were seated at the bar. There were two ladies to my right - a mother who worked as a waitress at Smokey Bones, and her 20-something daughter who was there to pick her up, but was also getting something to eat. How did I know all this? They were loud in their conversation and their banter back and forth was so rapid fire that I thought I'd walked into a Gilmore Girls episode.
The bartender stood there and conversed with the lady and her daughter for about a couple three minutes, completely overlooking the fact that I was seated two spots away with neither a menu or a beer - two things I wanted and wanted right friggin' now! When she finally came over, she was all nonchalant and folksy, like I'd just sat down seconds before instead of about five minutes prior. I did get a menu and I did get a beer.
The menu at Smokey Bones is nothing overly special - it was typical of a chain with a number of appetizers, sandwiches and burgers, chicken entrees, pasta and seafood, and, of course, barbecue with steaks and chops. Places like this with large and varied menus scare me because they do so much that they can't do everything really well. They can only usually get the food "good enough".
I was in the mood to try their barbecue that evening and in most cases at barbecue places I've not been to before, I like to do the combination platter. Smokey Bones had a combination where you could choose three meats from a list of brisket, pulled pork, smoked sausage, chicken and turkey that are slow smoked. But you could also choose from chicken fingers, smoked chicken wings, deep fried chicken wings or a grilled chicken breast. I'd never seen those items on a barbecue combination menu before.
I looked briefly at getting one of the rib combos - a 1/3 rack of Smokey Bones baby back or St. Louis-style ribs with your choice of pulled pork, brisket or sliced smoked turkey. I would have rather liked to buy the ribs individually by the bone as some barbecue joints will do. But not at Smokey Bones.
The bartender, busy as she was, came back long before I was ready to order. I found that was a mistake as when I was ready to order, she was too busy to come to me now. I left my empty beer glass toward the bar side of the top and waited for her to show back up. She was getting a number of "to-go" orders for people who had called ahead and were waiting at the bar for the pick-up. When she finally did get back to me, I ordered the three meat combo, but I only wanted brisket and pulled pork. So I did double brisket for two of my meat choices and the pulled pork for the third. She said I got a couple sides to go along with the barbecue, so I took baked beans (always have to try the baked beans) and the cole slaw.
When my meal made it out to me, I was ready to eat. It had been a long day of travel, meetings and trainings. Smokey Bones has four different types of barbecue sauce available - a sweet sauce, a hot sauce that is a little more subdued in sweetness and more tangy than hot, then there was a sauce that was a vinegar and tomato based, and a Carolina mustard sauce. I'm not big on the mustard sauces for barbecue, so I didn't try it. I did try the vinegar sauce and it was just too runny and vinegary for me. I ended up combining the hot sauce and the sweet sauce to try on my barbecue.
The brisket was lean and tasty, but nothing all that special. Actually, it tasted more like a roast beef than a smoked brisket. It was edible, but not the best brisket I've ever had. The pulled pork was similar - nice chunks of pulled pork that had a good flavor to it. I probably should have ordered a double shot of the pulled pork because it was a little bit better than the brisket.
The beans were all right - a little bit of the hot sauce helped zip them up - and the cole slaw was sweet and creamy, actually it wasn't all that bad. For a meal that was close to the hotel, it did all right for me.
Smokey Bones is one of those types of places that you can count on if you're hungry, it's close to your hotel and you don't want to do a lot of research on some of the better local places to try. The food was acceptable to me, but as I said, they try to do so much that they can only do everything just so well. Still, Smokey Bones shouldn't be dismissed as another chain that tries to cater to the masses. The barbecue I had was good in the pinch. At least you hope that the other locations are as consistent as the one in Springfield.