Oh, Claim Jumper! You come onto the grid, where hipsters, urbanites and old-timers alike tend to eschew chain restaurants, and you start serving food that has a price-quality-portion ratio absolutely dialed in, as if you have a team of accountants, marketing visionaries and clever folks who hone and polish a concept until it makes perfect sense.
Several months ago, you replace overpriced and uninspiring McCormick & Schmick’s and set up shop in a local architectural treasure, the Elks Tower, which was built in 1926 and boasts plenty of history, along with Italian Renaissance touches such as friezes, urns, cornices and medallions. And because of who and what you are, you will probably be scoffed at, then ignored by nearly every self-respecting foodie and progressive urban dweller around.
But that’s OK. That’s not your target audience.
I visited Claim Jumper with an eye on what it proclaims to be – a popular restaurant and saloon – not what many of you had hoped it would be or assume it is. It’s not trying to be Mulvaney’s or Mother or Ella or Hot Italian or Moxie or Aioli. It is not a Sacramento restaurant, even if it is housed in a highly visible Sacramento landmark.
Chains are divisive. Some of you, maybe many of you, frequent restaurants or try new ones not only because of the quality of the food or the prices or the setting but because of what the place says about who are. Some of you like the reliability of a chain, the idea that the food and the experience will be the same here as it is in Temecula or Tempe, Ariz., or Tualatin, Ore. Why would I review a restaurant many foodies won’t even consider visiting? Because I have long been convinced that successful chain restaurants offer plenty of learning opportunities, good and bad.
What do they do right? Plenty, especially when it comes to hiring, staff training, customer service and a menu that pleases nearly everyone.
What do they get wrong? For starters, they have a menu that attempts to please nearly everyone.
That touch-all-the-bases and offend-nobody menu did little to wow us. The portions were substantial, but many of the dishes, like the battered shrimp appetizer, had the feeling of being prepared, packaged and shipped from elsewhere, and then opened and dumped into hot oil. There wasn’t a lot of personality.
That’s what we found throughout the menu on our two visits for dinner and one for lunch. The food rarely offended and rarely impressed. It was often solid and occasionally lackluster. The high point? The “beef back ribs” were actually perfectly cooked and delicious.
That first night, our server was excellent – personable, attentive and she was sincere in making recommendations when we asked. Turns out, we don’t necessarily see food the same way. The spinach-artichoke dip ($9.99) she described as her favorite was a bit of a soupy mess with not a lot of flavor, along with a serving of tortilla chips. But the coconut shrimp was the worst appetizer we had at Claim Jumper, $9.49 worth of pale, panko-battered, bland and rubbery shrimp with two dipping sauces.
The shrimp didn’t enliven the taste buds later in the dinner, either. The Shrimp Fresca Pasta ($16.29) in a lemon butter sauce with spinach and tomatoes was a big bore – nothing about the textures, the flavors or the melding of ingredients to distinguish it.
On the second night, our server was equally engaging. When he greeted us near the front door, stepping up to assist the host who was busy showing customers to their table, we told him we were there for dinner and he replied, “Awesome.”
We all zeroed in on the rotisserie section of the laminated, multipage, unwieldy menu.
Up first, however, were a couple of appetizers. The pretzel sticks ($5.49) are served in a novel way in a white paper bag that gave the dish a sort of food-truck feel. But the pretzels themselves, glistening with butter and sprinkled with coarse salt, had little flavor beyond the salt, and the texture was tough and somewhat stale. They were a challenge to eat.
The “Buffalo Chicken Bites” sounded like something named in a committee and touched up in a focus group. Be that as it may, they were very good, these bite-sized pieces of boneless chicken tossed in what the menu describes as a signature sauce – cringe – and served with celery, carrots and ranch dressing. The sauce was surprisingly hot and spicy, and the overall dish worked perfectly for what it was, a warm-up bite or two shared with friends who had devoted at least part of the day to drinking beer.
Then there were the main dishes, all from the rotisserie. We hit it from different angles. We went big and all-inclusive, safe and secure. And we took a bit of a risk on something that comes as close as Claim Jumper will ever come to being edgy and avant garde.
Let’s start there. It’s called “Drunk Chicken.” Sounded mysterious, if not enticing. It was more the former. The large boneless, tender chicken breasts, perfectly cooked, were smothered in a vodka tomato-cream sauce littered with bacon bits. It was a big, unsightly platter of messy food that filled us up, and, upon reflection, is something we would never consider ordering again.
The rotisserie chicken is a good choice, if you’re looking for something safe and healthful. It had a nice skin and, while ever so slightly dry, was still fine for what it was supposed to be. It comes with several options for side dishes, which is common at chains, and I went with grilled vegetables and mashed potatoes, both of which were fine. But the vegetable soup was a big miss. It was cold, or at least significantly less than hot.
Then there was the “Ore Cart” with a half-chicken, beef back ribs and (pork) baby back ribs. In other words, this is what you get when you’re ready to pig out, all for just ($28.99) including soup and sides.
The chicken was the same as the rotisserie chicken dish. The “beef back ribs” were actually long, thick slabs of beef with no bone, so it looked and ate like very tender and tasty brisket. To us, it was the highlight of the menu – unless you saved room for dessert.
Yes, dessert at Claim Jumper is for those who somehow remained hungry after ample amounts of appetizers and main dishes. The chocolate cake is a gooey, gluttonous tour de force. It is also the largest piece of cake we have ever seen at any restaurant. It’s $10.99 and it took three of us to tackle it. The menu lets us know that the Food Network listed it as one of the “Top 5 Most Decadent Desserts.”
I’m not quite sure decadent is the right word. This is a photo-op cake. It’s Instagram-able, Twitter-ific and, if you post it on Facebook, your friends will at once be impressed and think you eat too much.
Surprisingly, the same restaurant that serves this dessert and touts a burger called the “Widow Maker” (a patty of ground beef topped with battered onion rings, slices of avocado, extra-thick cheddar cheese, mayo and relish), is also in tune with those who want gluten-free and vegetarian options.
The vegetarian will at least be satisfied here, with options that include a veggie burger, a pizza loaded with mushrooms, peppers, zucchini and more, and a “California Quesadilla” with two cheeses, pico de gallo and black beans. There’s a kids menu, too, with many of the options you’d expect, including mini burgers, grilled cheese and mac & cheese.
What’s the secret to Claim Jumper’s success? There is no secret. It does all the things the reliable chains do and tries to make almost everyone in its target market happy. It hires carefully, trains well, does its best to make the experience fun and personable and, at the center of it all, serves food that leaves you full and reasonably satisfied – that is, if you’re not a foodie, a hipster or the kind of urban dweller who wouldn’t be caught dead inside a big chain eatery.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. On Twitter, @Blarob.