In America, there is a time-honored, quasi- noble tradition of people who, through a combination of hard work, talent and a little bit of luck, become wealthy celebrities, and when they do, they decide to open restaurants and impose their wealthy celebrity awesomeness upon the masses.
Robert De Niro has a restaurant in New York City. Jon Bon Jovi opened Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, N.J. Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Justin Timberlake and Eva Longoria have all graced the world with restaurants. What I'm really hoping is that Eminem will open a chain of diners: Mom's Spaghetti.
Sometimes the results can be awesome, giving us a sense of the celebrity's genuine personality and approach to having a good time. But sometimes these places can feel too corporate, too contrived, too watered down to be anything but an Applebee's with dated moves borrowed from the glory days of Hard Rock Cafe.
This week, we're stepping away from fine dining, even taking a breather from serious eating, and pitting our region's two newest celebrity restaurants against each other. Toby Keith and his version of Midwestern man-food vs. Sammy Hagar's take on Hawaii's casual cuisine. Both joints are big and loud, and often feature live music.
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Keith has a restaurant in Folsom; Hagar's is in Roseville. We were looking for a good time with friendly, informal service and the appropriate level of glossy affectations like framed photos, concert costumes and other celebrity memorabilia. Yes, we'd like the food to be tasty, but it didn't have to be edgy or thrilling. We hoped for a sense of who these guys are and what they see as their ideal place to have a drink, grab a meal, enjoy some music and some laughs.
Here, they go toe to toe, in a no-holds-barred culinary cage fight featuring two celebrities who know how to have a good time.
We'll look at the great, the not-so-great and the outright lame.
Restaurant names: Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill and Sammy's Rockin' Island Bar & Grill.
Verdict: Toby Keith's substitutes a heart icon for "love" – not very cowboy.
Score: Sammy 1, Toby 0.
Uniforms: Oh boy, I'm glad there are glaring differences in the server dress codes between these two establishments. You see, our waiter at Sammy's was a guy, friendly as can be, big as a counter-depth Sub-Zero refrigerator. Thankfully, he wore jeans and a T-shirt, not short-shorts and a skimpy, low-cut tee. That's what they wear at Toby Keith's, a sort of Hooters-lite thing. Men apparently don't wait tables at Toby Keith's (at least not when I was there), but they do work the bar, where they are dressed in pants and T-shirts.
Verdict and score: Sammy 3, Toby 0. (Bonus point for Sammy's because some of Toby Keith's servers insisted on dancing during a lull in the action near the bar when they should, oh, I don't know, ask folks if they want another Bud Light. Were they dancing to look sexy? As comic relief? We were puzzled.)
Beer: When we get all gussied up to go out to a celebrity bar & grill, we like to have beer with our celebrity-inspired food and ponder important questions, like: "I wonder if Toby ever stops by and says hello?"
Toby Keith's had really obvious beer choices, mostly American, like Budweiser and Busch, which is exactly as it should be. I actually had a very tasty Sculpin India Pale Ale at Sammy's, which threw us for a loop and outdid the best beer at Toby Keith's, a Stella Artois.
Verdict and score: Sammy 4, Toby 0.
Service: Our server at Sammy's was terrific. He paid attention. He knew the menu. He was fully clothed. He took my credit card 20 seconds after I put it on the table.
We had a "trainee" server at Toby's, identified by her white short-shorts instead of the black short-shorts the trained servers wear. Untrained as she was, she was very good, and unlike her more seasoned colleagues, she didn't pretend she could dance.
Verdict: Draw. A point for each.
Score: Sammy 5, Toby 1.
Food: Yes, we brought our appetites, and who could resist the "Freedom fries" on Toby Keith's menu? We can't remember why Congress passed a constitutional amendment changing the name from french fries in congressional cafeterias, but we think it's perfectly cool, if not a tad ironic, for a good ol' boy celebrity bar & grill to take a swipe at a country known for its culinary greatness.
The Freedom fries were a little soggy, pasty and bland – but not as bad as the deep-fried and surprisingly tasteless and gummy mac 'n' cheese.
But our biggest challenge was my steak. It was about as tender as a buckin' bronco and seasoned with, I kid you not, something called "Toby's seasoning blend." My first bite was a mouthful of gristle. If Toby Keith actually showed up, maybe everyone would be distracted and I could dump it in my paper napkin. Mozzarella sticks? Cold in the middle and tasted mostly of preservatives.
The boneless pork chop was just OK, though the sweet-and-spicy glaze was about as cloying as cotton candy. Our salmon, marinated in bourbon sauce for 24 hours so it smelled like a honky-tonk at its best, was our favorite dish. Comes with rice and vegetables.
Sammy's starts you off with a bowl of plain potato chips whether you like them or not. They're free. Loved it. I wolfed them down faster than you could say "I can't drive 55!"
The food at this massive, multilevel Roseville restaurant is actually pretty good. Raw bar. Ceviche. Burgers, sandwiches, steaks, seafood. Even Spam wrapped in a seaweed called nori. Was Hagar attending CIA Greystone when he wasn't touring with Van Halen? (OK, that's a stretch.)
The best thing about the menu is that it's focused, has a theme and doesn't overreach. Take a burger and make it a "beach burger." A ho-hum salad becomes a "beach salad." Even the rice with our crispy, tender and tasty panko-battered chicken had that Hawaiian sensibility with a sprinkling of coconut. My N.Y. strip steak, gristle-free and all, was rather ordinary and a little overcooked, though the dollop of "beach bar rum butter" made it better. It comes with blistered tomatoes, an unusual choice that works, and french fries that we wish had been called Freedom fries.
Sammy's also represents island tradition with its "loco moco" – a grilled burger with white rice, fried egg and house-made gravy. The lobster mac 'n' cheese was seriously more ambitious than what we had in Folsom. Quirky, tasty, fun.
Verdict: Toby Keith's lacked focus and flavor – dishes that don't really say much about the country star or what he's into when it comes to food. We know he likes beer, the U.S.A. and anthemic music, but that's not distinct or interesting enough to make a connection. Sammy's is serious enough about cooking and its menu, and has a unified sense of purpose. It's laid back, too. It feels somewhat like what the real Sammy Hagar might be all about.
Score: Sammy 6, Toby 1.
Ambience: Go big or go home. Toby Keith's is huge. From our booth, we were a long par-5 from the stage, thankfully so, because it was open-mike night. The setting is new and crisp and polished, and did we mention massive? It's located at the Palladio, which has emerged from its ghost-town beginnings and is beginning to thrive.
Sammy's is in downtown Roseville, and if you didn't know such a thing existed in the land of big-box, spread-out-chain retail, it's because Roseville is banking on Sammy's to rejuvenate downtown. So far, so good.
Inside, it's 10,000 square feet on two levels in what used to be a very old J.C. Penney. Oddly, you can't see the stage from several of the dining tables, but the room is filled with music and positive energy.
Verdict: A draw.
Score: Sammy 7, Toby 2.
Vanity: To be a celebrity bar and grill at the highest level, you have to be full of yourself. That's not necessarily bad. That's what we're here for – photos, mementos, a guitar or two hanging here and there.
Near the front of Toby Keith's there is a glassed- encased plaid shirt with the sleeves torn off, along with a picture of Keith workin' it onstage in said shirt. Why do guys who don't go to the gym insist on going sleeveless? Because they're pretty happy with themselves. Why deprive the ladies of all that Toby goodness?
Sammy's has a giant mural on one wall of the Red Rocker in full preening glory. We sat near some of his platinum records on another wall. But he'll have to work much harder to keep up with Keith in this department.
Verdict: Toby Keith, unimpressive biceps and all.
Final score: Sammy 7, Toby 3.
While Sammy's is indeed rockin' the food and service in Roseville, there's not enough to love at Toby Keith's in Folsom for it to stand up to the competition. It needs significantly better food and a clearer idea of how it connects to the celebrity whose name draws the crowds.
SAMMY'S ROCKIN' ISLAND BAR & GRILL
238 Vernon St., Roseville
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, and Sunday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Overall ★ ★ 1/2 (out of four stars)
Sure, expectations aren't always the highest for celebrity-themed restaurants, but Sammy's is pretty serious about the food. There are plenty of dishes with dashes of creativity, plenty of flavor and good portion sizes. The restaurant is run professionally. A good bet for a meal, often with live music.
TOBY KEITH'S I LOVE THIS BAR & GRILL
440 Palladio Parkway, Folsom
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily.
Overall ★ 1/2 (out of four stars)
Other than the music and bar scene, it's hard to figure out what this place is supposed to be all about when it comes to the food. Being a tough-talking, pro-American celebrity who puts Freedom fries on the menu is not enough for us to connect with Toby Keith or his country-boy, good-times persona. It feels contrived and watered down. Admiring Keith and his music might not be enough to keep folks coming back.