On Sunday morning Katie and I went out to breakfast with family, just as we do every Sunday morning we spend in the Bay Area. Usually we eat at Paul's at the Villa, located in San Mateo at the former Villa Hotel. I usually order a burger or a sandwich of some kind; my dislike of eggs, as well as the inclusion of eggs in virtually every breakfast dish served at most restaurants, necessitates my avoidance of breakfast most of the time. The food at Paul's is always great, but the main reason we eat there is that there is usually fifteen or twenty of us. On Sunday mornings few restaurants beyond Paul's can accommodate our party in a timely manner without a reservation. Today, however, there were only eight of us, and we decided to try Hobee's in nearby Belmont. I knew of the restaurant, having seen their sign many times while driving on Highway 101 near the Ralston Avenue exit, but had never eaten there. Always in the mood to try something new, I looked forward to exploring their menu and having a delicious meal.
Some background: Hobee's is a small chain of restaurants in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. There are currently nine locations between Belmont and the greater San Jose area. The chain was founded by Paul Taber, who opened the first location in Mountain View in 1974. Their website promises "fast and friendly service in a casual, homey atmosphere", as well as "generous portions at modest prices." The menu is full of standard American restaurant fare, as well as pasta, a salad bar, and some alternate choices including tofu.
Before going any further, I should cite my well-known hatred of Denny's. For me, the late-night tile-and-formica sameness of that establishment invariably translates to mediocrity on the plate. Denny's is the bottom rung on the restaurant ladder, and given the choice between Denny's and Lyon's, Carrow's, Hobee's, or anywhere else, I will undoubtedly choose the restaurant that is not Denny's. On Sunday morning, Hobee's made a better impression on me than Denny's ever did, and though I somehow knew that it wasn't where I wanted to eat, at first glance I didn't exactly find Hobee's monotonous. It's a very child-friendly restaurant, as evidenced by the smiley-face fruit platters brought out to my two nieces at no charge. The children's menu, which served double-duty as a placemat and a coloring page, kept them busy during the wait for the food, not too long in spite of a sizable Sunday morning crowd. Were I seven years old, I could see myself talking my parents into taking me to eat there. I'm not seven years old, however, and on a strictly personal level, I can't see myself returning to Hobee's anytime soon.
To be fair, I will start with the positive. The menu was full of interesting options, the most promising of which for me was their "special hashbrowns." Like the "scrambles" served in many breakfast establishments, the special hashbrowns consisted of diced potatoes accompanied by such ingredients as crumbled sausage, spinach, tomatoes and mushrooms, all smothered with melted cheese. These dishes have catchy names like "Blissful Browns" and "Mama's Papas", and unlike scrambles, they are served with nary a trace of egg. This caught my attention quickly because (a) I don't like eggs, and (b) many of Hobee's non-breakfast entrees - other than sandwiches - are not served before 11:00 AM. I'd ordered a sandwich for dinner the previous night and wasn't in the mood for another. Therefore, my choices were limited. As I said before, I tend not to order breakfast because it seems that most restaurant breakfast dishes are centered around eggs, be they scrambled, hard boiled, or served as an omelette. However, the prospect of a hearty meal with no eggs was certainly compelling, and I ended up ordering the Patriotic Hashbrowns: Potatoes with turkey sausage, tomatoes, and cheese. Though I'm not certain how these ingredients translate to love for and loyalty to one's country, I was quite happy with it, and indeed everything ordered by our party looked great.
However, there is a reason why I chose not to title this entry "A Stupendous Breakfast." In fact, there are a few reasons. First, and most important, are the prices. Don't get me wrong; I don't expect a bargain when I go out to eat. I understand that ingredients and preparation cost money. I don't mind paying for the convenience of having someone else cook for me, and because of this I am not the type to haggle over the price of my French dip. However, to me - and to everyone else at our table over the age of three years old - the prices at Hobee's seemed unusually high for the quality and the amount of the food. For example, the menu features a "No-Frills Burger", apparently just a regular burger patty on a bun with typical fixins, served with tortilla chips, for $7.75. Other burgers, including a bacon cheeseburger, a teriyaki burger, and a guacamole burger - are $8.95. We're not talking about Kobe beef served with fries at a trendy nightspot with valet parking and live music. Does that seem pricey to anyone else, or is it just me?
Additionally, and perhaps most frustrating, our bill came to more than $100 for seven entrees (our nieces shared an order of pancakes) and a few beverages including coffee that the coffee-drinkers in our party found undrinkable. I'm guessing that a very healthy gratuity was added to our bill because of the size of our party, and this brought Katie's and my portion of the bill up to approximately $35. (Katie did have coffee and orange juice, though I only had water. While I'm on the subject, I'm used to restaurants putting a lemon wedge in my water, but I was disappointed to find a yellow-green piece of what looked like rind floating in my glass. If all you've got on hand is the peel, why bother?) While there are restaurants where I would consider $35 for Katie’s and my breakfast money well-spent, Hobee's will never be one of them.
After returning home, I was surprised to find many positive reviews of Hobee’s on Yelp, and a host of accolades and awards proudly referenced on Hobee’s website. Obviously the chain has a loyal following, and I admit that I am hardly the ideal person to enthusiastically review a breakfast spot. But I got the impression that had I gone for lunch or dinner I would have been just as underwhelmed. Case in point: In the mood for ice cream, my sister-in-law ordered a milkshake. They were out of ice cream and told her that they could make a shake with frozen yogurt. According to the kids’ menu they carry vanilla frozen yogurt, which did sound good.
When the milkshake was delivered to the table, it was very impressive-looking. However, after the first taste – in which we all partook – it became apparent that some sort of orange syrup had been mixed in with the yogurt. No, said the manager when asked; that was the vanilla yogurt, which tastes very tart. Well, I’ve had tart frozen yogurt at Sacramento-area establishments like The Big Spoon and Top it Off Frozen Yogurt, and I know what it should taste like. This was simply orange-flavored yogurt, which clashed with the rich flavor of the chocolate syrup. To his credit, the manager removed the offending shake – which went untouched beyond the cursory taste – from our bill.
Perhaps “An Underwhelming Breakfast” was a poor title. Denny’s is underwhelming. Hobee’s was overpriced. Paul, we’ll see you next Sunday.