Tuesday, July 29, 2008

I Guess Bennigan's Lost Its "Slàinte" Today

I was quite surprised to hear on the radio today that corporate parent of Bennigan's and Steak & Ale restaurants filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy today and immediately shuttered its company-owned locations (including all the ones here in the Metroplex).

This was surprising to me, because a lot of companies will go through Chapter 11 (reorganization) first, rather than going straight into Chapter 7 (liquidation). I don't necessarily read the business section religiously, but I usually catch the big headlines, and I didn't recall them being in trouble. Those who were headed there for lunch today were probably in for a shock, as were the restaurants' employees; many of the managers only got word through an early-morning conference call today.

Bennigan's, known for its use of the Irish toast "Slàinte!" (which means "good health"), was probably number four on my list of festive, eclectic casual dining restaurants, behind the mighty triumvirate of Chili's, Cheddar's and Friday's, but I certainly went there on many occasions. The most recent time, I believe, was in April during Jazz Festival at the college, where we went with the guest artists after one of the concerts (and, ironically, first learned of the troubles at IAJE that would lead to its own Chapter 7 filing a few weeks later). I may not have been a "regular," but I was glad Bennigan's was around, and I'll miss it. (The franchise-owned Bennigan's aren't affected, but, seeing as how the parent company was located in Plano, all the local ones were company-owned and are thus closed.)

And while I hadn't visited its corporate sibling, Steak & Ale, in quite some time, it leaves a legacy of innovation in its field. As this morning's radio report noted, it was not only the chain that launched the salad bar, but it also pioneered the practice of having the server introduce him/herself to the customers. (What did they do before that--just go straight into the "What will you have today?" spiel? Weird...)

My personal memories were mostly good (including a long first date in the '90s with a woman who smoked like a factory; I'm normally allergic to cigarette smoke, but we talked for hours and it didn't affect me at all. I guess hormones trump allergies?), and the one on Northwest HIghway was a common post-concert hang in the early days of this blog. I didn't go for their signature Monte Cristo all that often (just because I knew it was bad for me), but I could always find something good to eat, or occasionally drink, on their voluminous menu (which weighed a ton, if I recall).

The only bad time I can remember having there involved one really hideously awful server (whose name really was Gidget, I kid you not), the final debacle with whom would prompt our alumni association to change its monthly meeting place across the freeway to Chili's, where we've been ever since now, for nearly a decade. (Other Dallas Morning News readers share their Bennigan's memories here.)

It's possible that, with today's economy, some other large restaurant chain will go belly-up like this, but today's news still came from out of left field for me. Were you a fan of Bennigan's? Feel free to share your own memories in the comments.

UPDATE: According to a follow-up article in the DMN, there are two non-company-owned Bennigan's in DFW--at the airport and in Las Colinas--that are evidently staying open.

AND ANOTHER UPDATE: Lileks has the best one-word description of the closing: Bennegone's.

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