The first thing you need to know about Famous Dave's is that they don't take reservations. I'd heard stories about waiting times, and thought I'd be safe aiming at 4:15 one Saturday afternoon, but my heart sank at the sight of the already long lineups outside (what they'll do in January, I can't imagine). The little foyer inside was also crammed.
It was going to be almost an hour's wait, the hostess told us, but added that, if we stood in the adjoining bar, we could have any table that opened up. Which is what we did and, thanks be, were seated within minutes, and although we could see that the foyer remained packed throughout our meal, we never had a feeling of being rushed. Our server also informed us that they were far less busy at lunch, which I found out for myself on a return visit, when I arrived at 11:30 a.m. and had my pick of tables.
It's a vast hangar of a place, but nicely partitioned into a ramble of more intimate areas, with seating for 200 at either tables or booths. The wood-panelled walls are covered floor-to-ceiling with all kinds of paraphernalia -- hockey sticks and Jets' sweaters, old photographs (some local), and old advertising signs (Jim Beam bourbon). Kitch Americana, maybe, but fun. The noise level depends on where you sit -- in one room it was ear-splitting, but there's a serene space to the immediate right of the entrance, behind the fireplace, and it was bearable in the bar as well.
Franchise operations often don't live up to their hype. Famous Dave's does. All the little details seem to have been well thought out, from the separate door for take-out orders (where food can be bought by the pound as well), to the variety of barbecue sauces (from mild to blistering) and the roll of paper towels on every table, and the complimentary little bowl of barbecued chips that precede all meals. But more to the point, the food is delicious.
Ribs are what Famous Dave's is famous for, and they live up to their reputation -- dry-rubbed, pit-smoked for three to four hours, swabbed in a sweet and sassy sauce that doesn't taste like ketchup, and grilled over a hickory wood fire to a crusty, almost caramelized surface. The result is sweet, smoky, succulent, and just resilient enough. I doubt there are better ribs in the city.
You can have baby back ribs, or rib tips, but we chose the meatier St. Louis style spare ribs which, to my mind, have more character. Prices range from four bones for $15.99 to 12 bones for $26.99, and include a corn muffin plus two sides. The easiest way to sample the restaurant's best is on one of the massive combos. The $74.99 Barbecue Feast for four to six comprises an entire slab of St. Louis ribs, a whole roasted chicken, 1/2 pound of either beef brisket or chopped pork, coleslaw, fries, baked beans, four cobs of corn and four corn muffins. The $44.99 version offers half portions of the same dishes, and is said to serve two or three (three is more realistic).
Ribs may be the main specialty, but the other meats matched them. The great roast chicken, for instance, with a lemon-pepper glazed skin over juicy and remarkably flavourful flesh; or the dry-rubbed and unsauced beef brisket that was tamed to tenderness; or the slightly sweet with a bit of heat pork that was chopped instead of pulled (and better for it, in my opinion). The cornbread muffins were light and not too sweet, and I could have overdosed on the addictive beans. The corn tasted fresh and although creamy cole slaw isn't my favourite kind, it wasn't bad. But why -- given those good house-made chips -- did the fries have to be frozen!
Chicken wings are another top choice. They come boneless, breaded and fried, but we opted for the traditional and marvellously meaty bone-in wings, glazed with the two-pepper Buffalo sauce, which had enough heat for our palates. A basket, with celery and carrot sticks and a blue cheese dip, is $11.99; a double order goes for $19.99.
There are two-meat combos as well, from $19.99 to $27.99; the chopped pork is $14.99 a la carte, the brisket $15.99, the roast chicken $15.49, all with a muffin and two sides. Other possibilities include burgers and sandwiches at $10.99 to $13.99, with pickles and one side. Sides are $2.99 each, among them (as well as those noted above), good garlic mashed potatoes and nicely steamed broccoli. Also (unsampled) potato salad, firecracker green beans, mac & cheese and apples sautéed in cinnamon and amaretto.
Judging by the tough and tasteless citrus-grilled shrimp ($16.99) it's probably best to stick to the meats. The nachos were downright dreadful, composed mostly of chips with woefully little of the promised beans, chili and meat -- brisket, in our case, but in hard, tired slices that tasted like last night's leftovers ($8.99).
The velvety bread pudding in a pecan praline sauce with ice cream was delicious; a luscious key lime pie filling would have tasted even better if the graham cracker crust hadn't been so soggy ($7.99 each).
The young staff is friendly, knowledgeable and infectiously enthusiastic. It's a great place and I hope they open another in my end of town.
To see the location of these restaurants as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below or click here.