In a tall corporate building on a humble suburban street in South Carolina, you'll find the headquarters of Denny's, where Bacon is a god and breakfast is served 24/7. This past week, Denny's invited us to be among the first to taste some exclusive Hobbit movie menu items.
Yes, I may have sneak-peeked some pretty nifty footage of dwarves having a food fight in Bag End, but I was really there for the nine new menu items, each inspired by Tolkien's universe and specifically the gluttonous ways of the film's namesake creature.
Defining Hobbit Cuisine
If you're unfamiliar with hobbit culture, they are a portly and hairy bunch who enjoy food more than just about anything. For seven meals every day, hobbits feast like kings and never seem to get morbidly obese, but merely maintain a jolly paunch. And thus hobbits would really, really like Denny's, which is literally open all day every day and serves everything from breakfast plates to nachos to milkshakes at any hour.
Denny's head chef Scott Richard and his team set out to craft a menu that stayed true to both Denny's diner aesthetic and the type of food that might be found in the Tolkien's Old English-influenced Middle Earth. Fortunately, Scott and many in his team were avid Tolkien fans: "This was a dream for us...a big treat for the team to work on...We drew inspiration both from what we read in the books and saw in the movies, always remembering to keep [the food choices] really fun."
Richard and his team looked first to "Old English fare" and the more hearty dishes of the English culinary tradition. At the same time, this is a national chain and they couldn't deviate too far from established Denny's formats (skillets, melts, burgers etc.) Luckily for the Denny's team, skillet cooking and hearty breakfasts seem to be staples of Tolkien's world.
The menu will roll out on November 6 as a supplementary insert to the standard Denny's menu. Everything follows the Denny's unofficial mantra of loaded plates for under $10.
Full disclosure: we tried items that were prepared in a Denny's test kitchen using all the same ingredients, but also the skills of professional chefs. The plates undoubtedly look better than in-restaurant plates and may or may not taste better than the real thing.
There are nine items total: two blended drinks, three sweet breakfast items, two skillets, a burger and a melt—the extent to which each of these gets the Middle Earth treatment varies greatly.
The chain's bread and butter is its Grand Slam breakfast platter ($6.49), in which patrons can mix and match standard breakfast starches and proteins to their liking. For Hobbit-leaning Grand Slams, Denny's has introduced Seed Bread (Lemon Poppyseed) French Toast, and Pumpkin Pancakes, although they may as well call them sugar bread. Seed Bread French Toast comes off as little more than an ultra-sugary french toast, while the Pumpkin Pancakes (with a pumpkin creme topping) play like pumpkin pie mix fried on a flattop. These are more dessert than breakfast.
Skillets are another one of Denny's mainstays, and they've decided to Hobbit them up with Frodo's Pot Roast Skillet ($8.99). English breakfast sausages seem a bit boring to me, but this natural casing number from Chicago-based Fontanini had snap and bolder spicing than the ones you find in the freezer aisle. This Shire Sausage (Denny's language) may have been the single biggest surprise of the day—it felt like a quality product that also fit right in with the Hobbit culture; and you can add it to your grand slam for 50-cents more.
The sausage also shows up in a skillet ($7.49) that trumps Frodo's preferred beef stew-like version ($8.99). In the same vein, the Hobbit Hole Breakfast ($5.99) features a massive egg-in-a-basket using a cheddar bun, along with hash browns and, of course, bacon.
Denny's has quite a bit of pride in its burgers, which switched from traditional cooking techniques to the smash method about three years ago. The Ring Burger ($8.49) seems little more than a standard bacon cheeseburger with added mushrooms and three onion rings on the top, but my test kitchen sample wasn't terrible by fast casual standards. Smashing gives the burger a decent crust and locations apparently cook to order (although I don't think an 18-year-old fry cook could discern medium rare from medium). The meat comes frozen and is then thawed, but such is the way of a 1,700-location chain.
Strangely, or not so strangely, the item that I enjoyed most was Gandalf's Gobble Melt—a rebranding of Denny's seasonal turkey and dressing sandwich with the word Gandalf in front of it. Oversized grilled slices of bread sandwich thick slices of Butterball turkey (which comes prepackaged and precooked to all locations), generic stuffing and a cranberry-honey mustard sauce that tastes better than it sounds. The flavors are familiar, the turkey not too dry, the cranberry cloyingly sweet and the grilled bread crispy and buttery. Moreover, this monstrous sandwich comes with fries and a side of gravy for $7.49.
In the sweets department you'll find a fruit smoothie, a milkshake, and some cake hush puppies. The nondescript Berry Smoothie, which they attribute to being Frodo's for some reason, tastes like frozen berries and yogurt, which isn't necessarily bad or good considering its a lighter dessert option at a diner that prides itself on its shakes.
Speaking of shakes, Denny's felt it necessary to crush both Oreo cookies and s'mores cookies (read: Mallowmars) in a shake and top it with whipped cream. The result, called the Lone-Lands Campfire Cookie Milk Shake ($3.79) is an overpowering and chunky milkshake that will appeal to children and anybody who loves the taste of artificial marshmallows.
Finally, the Radagast's Red Velvet Pancake Puppies—essentially deep-fried pancake batter balls served with a side of cream cheese icing for dipping. I'm having a hard time imagining chowing down on these after a hearty dinner or breakfast plate, but they didn't taste half bad, if a bit cloying.
So, to recap: Denny's is rolling out a Hobbit menu on November 6. Fanboys will love the exclusive Hobbit swag and associated content. The food items aren't particularly new for Denny's fans, but the sausage deserves an upgrade to the regular menu.