Of course we love our mom & pops, and our favorite burger joints around the country are pretty much all independently owned, but there are certain times in life—overnight layovers, hungover Sunday mornings, all-day shopping trips at the outlets—that the only options around are the chains. Chain Reaction is here to help you decide when to go for the burger, and when you're better off sticking with the chicken fingers.
150 S Michigan Ave, Chicago IL 60603 (map); 312 427-0570; plus mutliple locations across the US and internationally; bennigans.com
The Schtick: Generic Irish pub-themed restaurant with random photos and sports memorabilia on the walls
The Burger: Grilled, greasy, salty, fresh beef burgers with barely noticeable toppings on stale pretzel buns
Want Fries with That? The fries are prefrozen, too salty and peppery, skin-on. Avoid the soggy and fishy onion rings.
Price: Cheeseburger, $9.99; Big Irish, $13.99 (both w/one side)
Notes: Beautiful location in downtown Chicago
My first memory of Bennigan's isn't a good one. When I was growing up, among the other Irish-theme restaurants, like ones named "Flanerty O'Shenanigan's" or "Pantalones O'Kelly's" (okay, I might have made those up), Bennigan's was the frontrunner. Everybody I knew ate at Bennigan's. Just not me.
I was in high school, and for whatever reason, I wanted something light for dinner that night—so naturally, I ordered a salad. Topped with fried chicken slices. The place was nearly deserted, which should have been the first sign that something was wrong, but maybe it was a slow night.
The waitress was unusually nice and peppy, probably because we were her only customers that night. Then the food came. The chicken was greasy, as in slide-down-your-gullet greasy. Ever eat a plate full of lettuce covered in fryer grease? Well, I did. And of course, like a dumbass, I finished the whole thing. For the rest of the night I proceeded to feel absolutely terrible.
About ten years later, many Bennigan's locations closed due to bankruptcy, probably because they never market-tested the recipe of greasy lettuce within the theme-restaurant marketplace.
When I returned to Bennigan's for this Chain Reaction review, I was hesitant. Here in our grand city, the Bennigan's location is on iconic Michigan Avenue, just across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago. It attracts a lot of tourists looking for authentic Irish fare, like quesadillas, Tuscan Chicken, and Southwestern Egg Rolls. Real authentic.
I started with the most basic option off Bennigan's burger menu, the American Cheeseburger, a standard 8-ounce burger with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle on their default pretzel bun. It looked attractive at first draped in two slices of melted American, but ended up being overcooked—medium-rare instead of the requested rare—with barely any crust.
The monstrous Big Irish burger was no better. Featuring two eight-ounce patties served with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, and an extra piece of bun (again, pretzel) in the middle, it's sort of like a Big Mac, only way larger—it comes skewered with a steak knife to hold it together—and without the special sauce. (You can order any of the other burgers in the Big Irish style as well.) Once again, what looked attractive was overcooked, this time just shy of well-done instead of medium-rare as ordered. Drenched in grease, the burger was difficult to pick up, and its massive size made made things even more difficult. I ended up using my knife and fork for that one.
The pretzel buns were a little stale, not toasted, and didn't hold up well to the flood of burger grease, and the fresh beef patties weren't very beefy. Just...salty.
When I took my first bite of soggy onion ring, I was greeted with the overwhelming flavor of fish. The onion rings were likely cooked in the same oil as their fried fish. Then the entire piece of onion slid right out, making me wonder if you can "Lady and the Tramp" a piece of onion, but I don't think my cousin would have appreciated that too much. As usual, I ate them anyway, because I hate myself. The pale french fries were crisp, but also suffered from too much salt and pepper.
After we finished our meal, our mouths coated, my stomach went right back to feeling just as it did many years ago, overwhelmed with grease, and very uncomfortable. Even if you're in the heart of downtown Chicago, there are plenty of other great places to go. Unless of course, you're dead set on, uh, authentic Irish food.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.