Recently, I was on a short road trip with a friend and I saw a sign for a restaurant that I adore from back home in Arkansas, Cracker Barrel.
I know, it’s a chain restaurant, but so what? I generally stay away from chain restaurants, but Cracker Barrel is very consistent all across the country and, in the end, I’m a Southern boy far way from home without anything close to Southern food nearby.
As we were driving by Sacramento, California, I did a quick search for where this Cracker Barrel was located in the city. Unfortunately, it turned out that the restaurant was on the opposite side of the city and I wasn’t willing to turn around on this leg of thew trip. I figured we would just have to make plans to stop by on the way back.
Just when our hopes were dashed for the day, and stomachs grumbling, there was a new hope. The skies parted, the sun shown through, and I spotted the divine brown and golden sign of Cracker Barrel a mere 30 minutes away in Rocklin, California.
Could it be? Yes, it was a second location in the Southern food desert of West Coast. I had already missed the interstate exit for that restaurant because there was no warning ahead of time that this glorious establishment resided there in Rocklin. This time, I wasn’t going to resist turning around. It was going to happen. We had been in lockdown far too long to pass up the chance to go to Cracker Barrel.
I took the next exit, turned around, and sped back to the previous exit, cautiously making sure to take the correct part of the exit to ensure that we had no more barriers between us and that simple comfort food housed behind that humble exterior lined with rocking chairs.
We pulled into the parking lot and I wanted to make sure to set our expectations low and told my friend that we may just have to get a to-go order and eat in the car. However, as we got closer to the door, I saw the magnificent message on an outdoor banner saying “The Dining Room In Now Open.” Yes, you read that correctly, it was a restaurant where you could eat inside of the establishment in the state of California.
After we walked through the door — with masks on — we felt like kids in a candy store, but I guess we were literally in a candy store too. We were seated promptly, walking through the dining area with walls adorned with the typical antique kitsch. We found a dining area with every other table closed off in order to give diners space between each other. Aside from the spacing, cutting capacity down by half, the dining experience was the same. We both had to order our obvious choice, Chicken Fried Steak with gravy. What else would you order at Cracker Barrel after having not had that luxury for so long? It was a no-brainer.
What struck me as odd, after the fact, was our absolute elation of being able to do something that used to be normal and mundane. Eating at chain restaurants were just a given and a way to end being hungry while driving across a state during a trip. Now, it feels like a luxury or a event to simply go sit inside of a restaurant and have some sort of semblance of normal life which we have had stripped away from us after six months of a virus changing everyday life across the globe.
I look forward to the time, hopefully soon, where we can go back to doing the things that were just normal, assumed, uneventful, and taken for granted. We don’t know what we have until it’s gone. Don’t take your Chicken Fried Steak & Dumplings for granted.
We all deserve to be able to enjoy time with our friends and family eating in America’s restaurant, Cracker Barrel.