Thursday, October 6, 2011

Great Baraboo

I’ve already written ad nauseum about my theory that I can categorize most Michigan Beer pubs as either breweries that serve food, or restaurants that make beer (with the delicious center of that Venn Diagram being places like Bastone, Brewery Vivant, and Jolly Pumpkin Ann Arbor that offer the epitome of both).  Apparently, I’ve missed one category: “breweries that really want to be a chain restaurant.” 

The Great Baraboo Brewing Company is housed in a gigantic, warehouse shaped building in Clinton Township, Michigan, right in that murky half moon shape of suburbs where the residents say they’re from Detroit, but really they’re not. While I am far from qualified to make judgments on an entire town based on a few hours of exploration, in many ways it reminded me of Portage, Michigan – where the primary public business zones were just huge, five lane roads bisecting acres of chain stores, malls, and fast food joints. It’s very possible I missed a quaint, adorable neighborhood in Clinton Township, but my point is that perhaps the Great Baraboo is trying so hard to look like a chain restaurant because that’s the competition it’s up against.

Inside, the Great Baraboo is cavernous and confusing, the copious sports memorabilia competing for attention with Keno screens. There was a Jagermeister St. sign hanging from the window into the (admittedly quite beautiful) brewing facility. I don’t think the genius interior designers at Applebees could’ve done a better rendition of barely controlled wall-art-cacophony. For people used to chain grill restaurants (and be honest, every family has a few), this place feels like home.
We were seated by a very polite hostess. She allowed us to sit outside in their covered patio area, letting us watch the rain drizzle down while being protected from the elements. Here, we were served by an attentive and knowledgeable waitress. The service was superb.

The menu itself suffers from the same problem that many chain restaurants endure; that is, in an attempt to offer a personality for everyone, they end up with no real personality at all. I counted a phenomenal 13 appetizers, 9 soup/salad options, 23 sandwiches and burgers, and 13 entrees, running from traditional pub food to Mexican flair to Italian cuisine. Again I will say: this is a tried and true recipe for success. Chain restaurants make a lot of money using this strategy, so while it is not my preference, I can’t fault a restaurant from using it. Assuming, of course, they can delivery on quality.

And they did deliver! Because we brought along two extra hungry stomachs, Laura and I were able to sample four dishes. Laura’s steak and gorgonzola salad was very good, with crisp lettuce and steak cooked to her satisfaction. My Bleu Cheese burger was cooked just the way I like it, with a generous helping of bleu cheese served on the never healthy but always delicious pretzel bun with perfectly crispy waffle fries. We also tried the spicy Black Jack Burger with Cajun spice and pepperjack cheese. The star of the night, however, was the Buffalo chicken salad. I’m not sure if they use a special house mix for the buffalo sauce or if I was just really in the mood for Frank’s Red Hot, but the chicken was perfectly spicy and the creamy blue cheese dressing highlighted not only the contrast with the spicy chicken, but also the crispy lettuce. I’ve had several buffalo chicken salads, and this was definitely one of the best.

The beer, unfortunately, left a bit to be desired. As I can always find at least one beer that’s worth a second pint, I would recommend the Shark Tooth Golden Ale. This is the Great Baraboo’s fill in for the “what’s the lightest beer you have” request, and as a Blonde ale it gets the job done, with more flavor than some Blonde Ales without being so aggressive as to scare off the recent convert to craft beer. The emphasis at the Great Baraboo is clearly on the food. I suppose the fact that the waitress offered me their special on bottles of Bud Light should have tipped me off to that conclusion, though. 

So is the Great Baraboo worth driving from Oregon to visit? Admittedly, no. The food and service are maybe slightly better than chain restaurants you can find down the street or across the nation. The beer they make isn’t really newsworthy. However: this is a brewery and restaurant owned by someone who lives right in Michigan, and even if you can’t find a single craft beer served to suit your palate, they have hundreds of other options, from macro beer to liquor. If the choice is between a corporate owned monolith and a local grill, why wouldn’t you spend your money at a Michigan business?

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