This week, I visited Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews in Hamilton Place Mall for an early evening burger and a beer. My MacBook needed some maintenance at Simply Mac, adjacent to the restaurant, so I thought it would be fun to try out a new restaurant (at least to me) that I've heard others rave about for years.
Red Robin is a chain of midscale burger restaurants founded in Seattle. As of 2015, you could find over 530 locations nationwide, including nine locations in Tennessee, plus two more Nashville-area additions coming soon. Red Robin at Hamilton Place is the only Chattanooga-area location.
The only things I knew about Red Robin before this was visit was that they offered a variety of burgers and the color scheme is, not surprisingly, red. And you know the theme song phrase, right? Don't click unless you want a three-second loop in your head all day.
The entrance to Red Robin is between Barnes & Noble and the food court entryway at the mall. Your senses are immediately blown apart by the lights and colors as you walk in the door. Like most curated chain restaurants, the theme is "let's have a fun, crazy time up in here" with clever, food-themed memes framed on the wall, a modern soundtrack, and something colorful and weird to look at wherever your eyes land. The takeaway for me is that Red Robin is sort of a mix between an old-school 1950s diner and the front page of Reddit.
I told the hostess that I would be dining alone, and she offered me a solitary booth of my choosing. Instead, I decided to sit at the bar, where another man was also having a beer. Bartender Jordan and others were busy prepping for the evening shift. Jordan was busy, but I never felt like she wasn't there when I needed her. The team also took turns passing around a small child during the early part of my meal, which I found endearing. The kid was incredibly cute. But it was apparent that I wasn't there during their normal busy hours. I like dining at weird times.
The menu seems daunting with its almost 30 burger options, not including the appetizers, wraps/sandwiches and salads. Fortunately, Red Robin has a system to help you decide. Burgers are offered in three categories—Red Robin's Finest, Gourmet Burgers and Red's Tavern Menu. Each category offers a different burger experience for the diner. Red's Tavern, for example, has "classic pub-style" burgers. The Gourmet Burgers category offers wild card options, with eccentric flavors like the "Banzai" and "Sautéed Shroom" burgers. But for the ultimate burger experience, Red Robin's Finest is the way to go. Described as "a delicious work of art," each burger offers a half-pound of Black Angus beef and "chef-inspired" ingredients. These are excellent words.
I was there for the first time, so why not go big?
I may be spoiled on burgers from having too many options like Universal Joint, Tremont Tavern, Urban Stack and Merv's at my fingertips. It would be a difficult task for Red Robin to even come close to those local options. Having said that, I'm also the type of person who can enjoy almost any burger if it's placed in front of me. I'm not a monster.
It's also worth noting that Red Robin's bar area is a nice respite from the shopping activity a few steps away. I generally dislike malls, so it's nice to have a place to get away if necessary for a beer. This bar only had one local beer on tap, though—Chattanooga Brewing Co. imperial pilsner—which I ordered. There isn't a happy hour special, according to Jordan, but they'll pour you up to 16 ounces per glass if you need that much. Jordan made several shakes and high-calorie Kahlua slushie drinks for other patrons while I sipped my beer.
I thought that while I was at Red Robin I might as well get the best burger. I chose the signature "Smoke & Pepper," which has black pepper bacon and cheddar on a ciabatta bun. It is topped with a housemade "Smoke & Pepper" ketchup (hence the name). At $13.49, this burger is one of the most expensive burgers I've ever purchased in Chattanooga. Even Tremont Tavern's fanciest creations are a few dollars less. But I'm getting the best, right?
No. No, I was not.
My experience was less than good with this particular burger. Each Red Robin burger is cooked to order—"some pink" or "no pink" are your options—and I, of course, chose "some pink." The burger I received was closer to well-done than I've had in a long time. If this is an example of "the finest" burgers on the menu, which it is advertised to be, I would hate to see the other burgers. And if it weren't $13, this burger would've been easier to swallow (no pun), but this was by no means anything other than an ordinary burger with some "extra" dressing up. I'm being generous and careful with my words here, trying to say something positive about the burger. But even the bacon was undercooked a bit. The fries—which I enhanced to the "garlic herb" version for an additional $1.49—were literally just sprinkled with some Parmesan cheese. Where are the herbs? I felt like a fool for buying into this burger propaganda nonsense.
Would I go back?
Again, I am spoiled. And if Red Robin is your only burger experience, I can see how you might think it's a great place. But I encourage you to sample some of Chattanooga's better, local options when you get your next burger craving. The folks at Chattanooga Eats conducted a poll to find the best burgers in town during last May's National Burger Month. The list contains 34 local burger options. Pick one. I would also be remiss if I didn't note that Thursday is Burger and Beer Night at Tremont Tavern. Many consider Tremont Tavern's burgers to be among the best in the city. Start there. And the next time you're at the mall, I would recommend spending your lunch money at the food court instead. I hear Charley's Grilled Subs is pretty good.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.