The idea behind this series is fairly simple: My girlfriend and I will go out to eat at a Chattanooga-area restaurant and then describe our dining experience there. Keep in mind that this is not a food review per se, but instead an attempt to relate to readers our single, one-time experience at a restaurant. It just is what it is, as they say. There will also be pictures. Lots of pictures.
I am a 30-year-old voracious eater of anything weird, while my girlfriend, age 24, is the complete opposite. This makes dining for us a strange affair. I enjoy a tremendous amount of flavor and complexity, but her M.O. is “simple, no frills.” These dining adventures will test both of us at various restaurants around Chattanooga. This week, we tried the legendary Nikki’s Drive-In at 899 Cherokee Blvd.
Nikki’s Drive-In has been an institution in Chattanooga since 1941. A combination of old-school diner juke joint and seafood house, not much has changed since they opened. The menu features a spread of fried food and burgers. “Home of the World Famous Onion Rings” is the phrase plastered all over their T-shirts. Nikki’s is CASH ONLY, which is both charming and frustrating, depending on whether you brought cash. Lauren and I arrived at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and the place was packed with children and senior citizens. A man-presumably the manager-escorted us to the last available booth. The smell of hot oil was intoxicating and alluring.
Mandy, a very polite and lovely woman with a big, charming smile, was the main server for the floor; and when she finally made it our way, we rejoiced. She apologized for the delay and fetched us a couple of drinks. Someone played Marvin Gaye on the jukebox, and we took a moment to take in the place. At the risk of sounding cliché, a stop in Nikki’s really is like a step back in time. Everything is clean but also very dated and old. Each booth had its own jukebox that fed into a main system. People kept entering the restaurant and lining up for a table. I’m not sure what we expected from the food, but we always carry with us a travel-handy defibrillator kit in case something goes awry. I can handle greasy. Can my heart?
They’re “world famous,” right? That’s enough of a motivation for me to try a plateful of onion rings. We ordered the “small” and received a heaping pile of at least 12 rings. Lauren rarely eats onion rings, but she enjoyed her first bite of one of these. The batter has a tempura texture instead of a firm fry. This helped the flavor of the onion shine through. Immediately, you notice that very little seasoning-if any at all-is used. The flavor is a simple one of batter and onion. These were good onion rings, but I’ve had better. They certainly don’t warrant a T-shirt campaign. Also, we had sweet tea to drink. It was very good.
And here’s where things got interesting. I ordered the legendary fried shrimp-three of them because they’re huge-and Lauren ordered the “1/2 fried chicken,” which we thought was either a half of a chicken or that the chicken would be delivered only halfway fried. After a bit of a wait, our food arrived, and we did some preliminary stretching. The first thing I will tell you is the fries were the worst I’ve ever had, and yet I still ate them. They were far too crispy and had little to no flavor. Lauren’s chicken was delicious but once again completely under-seasoned. She picked the breading off and applied salt and pepper to liven it up a bit. My shrimp were very good. Though no seasoning could be detected, I thought the batter/shrimp combination was spot-on. The salads served with the meals were simply a bed of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. Overall, the presentation and flavor left us disappointed with Nikki’s Drive-In.
Would we go back?
I can understand the nostalgic appeal of a place your grandparents took you when you were a child. Being inside Nikki’s certainly provides an ambience you can’t get anywhere else. Lauren and I-having no emotional attachment whatsoever to the place-felt that the entire experience was underwhelming. The fact is, the food isn’t that great. Our visit found the food completely under-seasoned and both of us wishing we’d gone somewhere else.