Country-fried Steak and Grannies
That's one of the reasons senior citizens and I both frequent my favorite chain eatery. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, the quaint Southern gift shop and restaurant, specializes in serving up hearty portions of sentimentality. Founded in 1969 in Tennessee, Cracker Barrel doesn't skimp on American comfort food or comfort period. The whole chain's about comfort.
Each location boasts a sprawling porch teeming with rocking chairs worthy of seating Mother Goose herself. While the chairs are for sale, you'll likely enjoy plopping down in one more than you will flipping over the price tag. The best part is that there's no obligation to buy a chair—only to relax in one. As you and your chair fall into a soothing rhythm, the likes of Nat King Cole and Patsy Cline on the radio will further calm you before or after your meal.
As you wait for your party to be called, Cracker Barrel's cute retail space will eventually demand your time. The store's hardwood floors, country music, and rustic shelves will transport you to a time and place where the town general store is the only store. Welcome to Mayberry, Andy Griffith fans. You're surrounded by nostalgic gifts that look handcrafted--despite being machine-made--ranging from old-fashioned candy to collectible figurines to cozy home décor to ladies' apparel to coffee table books and more. That means everything from boxes of buttermilk pancake mix to quilts to music boxes to the store's famous “peg game.” Shopping at Cracker Barrel is like taking a trip to Grandma's attic, learning what she played, read, and wore back in the day.
In the dining area, a fireplace and game of checkers beckon even the most resistant of board game players. After all, the checkerboard sits on an actual barrel. Again, how Mayberry. You can play before or after your meal, or even in between courses. It may be hard to leap up from your table after all that home cookin', though. Everything from meatloaf to haddock to pancakes graces the vintage-style menu. You'd be foolish not to try their chicken and dumplings, macaroni and cheese, or seasonal pies. If you don't leave stuffed, you probably stumbled into the wrong restaurant.
Visiting Cracker Barrel is like visiting a well-to-do home in a Tennessee Williams play, minus the weird family drama. Everything feels, tastes, smells, and looks like a relic. Is it any surprise that grannies flock to Cracker Barrel?
From its charming, mid-20th-century American ambiance, you would never guess that Cracker Barrel is yet another example of a U.S. corporate amoeba. As of May 2011, there are 588 of their stores spread across 42 states. You'll find many of their locations right off the highway, nestled between gas stations and motels. Cracker Barrel has largely thrived because of that combination of traditional Southern magnetism and consumer society convenience. Their parking lots overflow with senior citizens' vans and Rvs—often retired couples taking leisurely road trips.
So, while I cannot say that Cracker Barrels are unique in and of themselves, I can say that, as a chain, their level of olden-day enchantment is hard-pressed for competition. May the grannies agree with me.