Center stage at NASCAR Cafe’s video game area stands the Virtual Reality Simulator race car. A sign warns against taking a ride in cases of heart trouble, high blood pressure, pregnancy, recent surgery, and neck, back, and bone injuries.
The sign also requests that riders finish eating, drinking, and smoking (many NASCAR Cafe patrons do all three, often simultaneously), before their rides. None of the children who accompanied me to the theme restaurant was in any of the five danger categories, so we allowed themfor $5 eachto climb into the capsule. As the door closed, mommies and daddies waved bye-bye. Then, for the next five minutes, the VRS bucked and roiled like a wild bronco, causing great consternation among the waiting parents, who worried that 6-year-olds, and not just infants, can suffer from shaken-child syndrome. When the hatch finally swung open again, though, the children were grinning from ear to ear, their eyes lit up like headlights, their bodies none the worse for the wear. Two days later, they were still talking about it.
Days after our visit to the NASCAR Cafe, the grown-ups were still talking about it too, but not with quite the same wonder as the kids. The warning posted outside the VRS probably wouldn’t be out of place on the front door of the restaurant, with a few other caveats added.
Do not enter the NASCAR Cafe if you:
♦ are sensitive to relentless noise, product advertising, checkerboard patterns, chrome, and a red/black/yellow/white color scheme.
♦ regard food as anything other than fuel.
♦ are not amused by helmet-encased lighting fixtures, servers who are referred to as “drivers,” a mixture of Absolut Citron and lemonade that’s called “Battery Acid,” and a genuine race car that ascends and descends over the bar when a lucky customer intones the magic words “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
What you do find hanging at the entrance to the cafe are the “NASCAR Cafe Mission Statement” and its “10 Foundational Beliefs.” Here’s the Mission Statement:
“Our team is fully committed to providing an outstanding entertainment experience celebrating the excitement of NASCAR racing while accepting only the highest quality and value in food, service, and race wear. Our crew will consist of honest, energetic, and proud members who continually challenge themselves yet never forget to reward their victories. Our goal is to be the leader in the ‘entertainment’ industry and set unprecedented standards others will want to follow. Remembering we’ve only accomplished this goal when the guest says, ‘I can’t wait to come back!’ Life’s a Race, The Best Times Win!”
I am a tremendous sports fan, at least when it comes to the big fourbasketball, baseball, football, and hockeyand I’ve recently started following golf. Still, I have never really understood the allure of auto racing. The noise, the smell, the sickening crashes, its puzzling association with Mountain Dew.
In fact, I never thought much about NASCAR until I moved to Nashville, and I’m still surprised to see it receive so much ink on our daily sports pages. Yet I am obviously in the minority. NASCAR racing is one of the fastest-growing sports in America.
Although Nashville hosted only one NASCAR race this season at Nashville Speedway, NASCAR Cafe president Mark Dyer must think we’re on the fast track. He opened his first NASCAR Cafe in Myrtle Beach, and he’s chosen Nashville as the site of the second in what promises to be a chain of restaurants.
Dyer has certainly succeeded in replicating the distinctive aura of NASCAR racing, thus fulfilling the first half of the first sentence in his mission statement. NASCAR Cafe is located on Broadway in the former Service Merchandise building, which was essentially gutted to make room for 30,000 square feet of NASCAR racing excitement. The Cafe is easily identified by its huge flashing sign and the race car parked outside the entrance. Inside, the first floor features huge glass cases of NASCAR memorabilia, paying tribute to the legendary “Alabama Gang/Talledega Superspeedway” and “Nashville and NASCAR.” Everywhere you look, there are cars: suspended overhead, parked up against walls, at the bar. (There are 11 of them in all.) In the NASCAR Garage, you’ll find the Goodwrench Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt and the DuPont Chevrolet driven by Jeff Gordon. Customers can actually sit in the cars, but only if they pay to have a photo taken. And the customers seem only too happy to pay the money. (That also explains the bumper-to-bumper, wall-to-wall NASCAR logos; these fans spend money and exhibit incomparable product loyalty.)
After having your picture taken in a Winston Cup Car, you can cruise on over to Bill France Boulevard and put your tokens (three for $1, 18 for $5, 40 for $10) into one of the dozens of racing arcade games (almost all of which require four tokensclever, eh?). Or you can cough up $5 for a bone-rattling ride in the VRS, or you can visit one of four merchandise areas, which offer plenty of chances to buy NASCAR Cafe souvenirs or NASCAR-related apparel. (A cap is $15, a T-shirt is $18, a checkerboard polo shirt is $45, and a Jeff Hamilton NASCAR Cafe leather jacket is an astounding $999.)
The NASCAR Cafe also features huge, six-by-eight-foot projection screens that show continuous racing footage and 132 speakers that pump out more than 17,000 watts of noise “to give guests that unmistakable NASCAR sound.” And, yes indeedy, they do.
Upstairs is the 300-seat grandstand dining area, where NASCAR fans can say “Fill me up.” And filled up you will be if you make your selections from what the press packet describes as “an All-American menu of sumptuous steaks, chicken, ribs, and seafood, complemented by a strong lineup of sandwiches.”
So I guess I have to say it again: Theme restaurant dining has about as much to do with food as paint-by-number kits have to do with art. With one exceptionthe grilled swordfishthe “food” we sampled at NASCAR was pretty much tasteless. At least that goes for the popcorn shrimp, the chicken fingers, the children’s burgers, the mashed potatoes, and the broccoli. Otherwise, it was overcooked (the baked beans and the green beans), greasy (the french fries and the roasted chicken), or had a peculiar flavor that made me feel I was tasting the aroma of auto fuel (the barbecue ribs and the pizza). In her entire eight-year history of pizza-eating, I’d never seen my daughter refuse to eat a slice, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with this version.
Often, one dish suffered from a combination of two or even three offenses. The popcorn shrimp, for instance, weren’t just tasteless; they were also inutterably greasy, leaving on the plate a pool of oil that looked like it belonged on the floor of a garage. Everything was oversalted, which meant a long night of rehydration. Not since my unfortunate dining experience at another theme restaurant in town have I suffered through such a consistently bad meal, all in the line of duty.
Here’s my advice: Tourist season is bearing down on us with all the speed of a Winston Cup Chevrolet. Friends and family will no doubt want to visit Second Avenue. Check out the entertaining displays at Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock, and, by all means, make a pit stop at NASCAR Cafe. You might even want to take a spin on the Virtual Reality Simulator (before eating). But I’d apply the brakes before sampling the food; you might be in for a nasty case of car sickness.
NASCAR Cafe is located at 305 Broadway (313-7233). Doors open at 10 a.m. daily; food served Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m-11 p.m.