Denny’s Does Hobbit Fan Chow for Middle-earth

“Dinner and a movie” just got a whole new meaning, thanks to Denny’s, the American diner/restaurant company. They picked up what could be a very lucrative restaurant contract for Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy. Starting on November 6 patrons will be able to dine in Hobbitish style at their local Denny’s in anticipation of the upcoming “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”. However, a small group of bloggers (including me) were invited to try the menu in advance of the general campaign launch. Obviously they were hoping we would chat it up.

You can read my review of the menu at SF-Fandom.com. The SciFi Guy at Communizine wrote a roundup of all the available blogger reviews. Serious Eats sent one of their people but I have yet to see an article.

Rather than recap everything that has been said elsewhere (I liked the dishes — they were creative and are NOT just renamed standard Denny’s fare as some Websites are claiming), I thought I’d share a couple of tidbits here that you may not find elsewhere. But first, here’s the obligatory 15-second TV spot that is being shown all over the Web. I love this one, even though I have watched it a dozen times already.

So, people are claiming “foul” and accusing Denny’s of just relabeling their standard menu items. Is that true? Absolutely not. According to the presenters the development team compiled a list of about 100 recipes for the project. They scoured English cuisine and all sorts of ideas. In fact, I had to take a personal break after sampling most of the Hobbit meals at Denny’s coprorate test kitchens and I could not help but notice that their Men’s Room (Men’s Loo) had a stack of cooking books by both well-known and obscure chefs.

Yeah, Denny’s has a standard diner menu — all chain restaurants do — but the chefs who tweak the menu are real students of the culinary arts with cooking degrees and years of experience and they take their food seriously.

They are also a bunch of geeks, hobbit fans, and Tolkien fanatics. The challenges that a guy like Scott Richard (the executive chef who led the menu development project) faces when dreaming up almost a dozen dishes inspired by a movie (and a book) are not simple, so the critics who assume (wrongly) that Denny’s just slapped new names on previously developed diner fare should sit up and take notice.

The limitations of creating a Hobbit menu for 1700 restaurants include using ingredients that are already available to the cooks in those restaurants, making dishes that are similar enough to the “standard diner fare” that teaching the cooks how to prepare the new dishes is relatively simple, and adding the unique twists in presentation and ingredients that make these menu items different from whatever you normally get “off the shelf” at a Denny’s.

Then again, Denny’s prides itself on giving customers freedom to change their dishes around. Supposedly there are 270 different ways to configure a Grand Slam Breakfast. So what can you do to mix that up even more such that it deserves to be added to a Hobbit-inspired menu?

One of the things they did was replace their regular sausage with a true English sausage recipe. So you can compare the “standard Denny’s sausage” to the Hobbit sausage and you’ll see what I mean. I hope they keep the English sausage on the menu after this promotion ends.

The Denny’s test kitchens have about 300 items in their pantries, all pretty much stuff that any normal Denny’s restaurant is expected to keep in stock, too. Still, for the sausage alone they decided to add a new “non-standard” ingredient. Now, some people may say, “Well, sausage is sausage”. Okay, some people have more taste buds than others and that does affect how food is perceived. Also, a friend of mind pointed out to me that even with a standardized menu a large restaurant chain like Denny’s may inevitably introduce regional flavors through local products such as eggs, milk, fresh vegetables, etc.

That makes sense, but from what I could see the creativity behind the Hobbity foods was pushed as far as they could take it. The Radagast’s Red Velvet Pancake Puppies are not just the normal Denny’s pancake puppies. And they’re not just red. The seed cake french toast is an interesting twice on a popular American diner offering, too. Bilbo does have seed cakes in his pantry, after all, and this ain’t your mama’s french toast (although it may become that if people like it as much as we taste testers did).

Not that taste is everything in the culinary world: presentation matters, too, and some thought has been given to presentation. It’s not fair, though, to criticize Denny’s for naming a smoothie after Bilbo. They have some smoothies on the menu now but there are a LOT of different smoothie flavors out there — Denny’s only offers a few. So the Bilbo’s Berry Smoothie may not be anything new to smoothie aficionados for all I know but it’s not anything on the current menu.

Some people won’t feel the distinctions are distinct enough to warrant all the hype and marketing effort but then there is something to be said for the atmosphere a Hobbit feast creates. When I was in college I knew a guy who had worked with kids and when he took them to lunch at a local burger outfit he renamed everything on the menu in Flinstone-speak. It took the restaurant employees a few visits to figure out what a Brontosaurus Burger with Pterodactyl Wings was supposed to be, but the kids loved it.

So imagine a local Tolkien fan group walking into a Denny’s for a weekly or monthly meetup; they can have The Build-Your-Own Burger or they can eat the Ring Burger. You can make a Ring Burger from the menu items or you can just ask for one, knowing it was named in honor of Bilbo (and added to the menu as part of the money-making program). But you know what? Now that Denny’s is hand-pressing the burger at order time rather than shipping out frozen patties, the burgers taste better. The Ring Burger will be a change for people who don’t eat at Denny’s very often.

Maybe a better example would be the Pumpkin Patch Pancakes. I don’t see any pumpkin pancakes on the regular Denny’s menu. You know what, these will probably be added to the standard fare and hauled out every Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I never knew a pancake could taste so good. These are NOT renamed standard Denny’s pancakes.

Now, the Denny’s Hobbit menu is not all about the food. They are throwing in non-food benefits as well, such as the exclusive online videos and trading cards. The whole package does a pretty neat job of bringing a fan’s vision of Middle-earth into an everyday diner experience. I see nothing wrong with that. The kids in the kitchen wanted to do something cool and this merchandising license gave them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

You can be a food snob and rain on their parade but at least try the food first before you diss it. It’s not fair to the millions of Americans who might just want a change from the “standard diner fare” to tell them that only the names have changed. That’s just not true.

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