Bennigan’s Grill & Tavern’s new menu, unveiled this week, isn’t all that new. Most of its burgers and other entrees are carryovers from back in the day before the chain’s company locations went belly up and closed, and franchisees were left to carry on parentless. But the back-from-the-brink-of-extinction rebirth this menu represents was Bennigan’s chance to jettison the final vestiges of its pretend Irish heritage and it just couldn’t do it. It shortened its name from the unwieldy and unnecessary Bennigan’s Irish American Grill & Tavern a few years ago, but this encore was its opportunity to assert a new brand personality.
So the Guinness-Glazed Bacon Cheeseburger is still featured in its Tavern Burgers section, and the Kilkenny’s Country Chicken Salad and Turkey O’Toole sandwich survived as well. A few bit-o-blarney selections–such as the Kilkenny’s Country Chicken Wrap and The Big Irish 1 lb. Burger–didn’t make it to the post-bankruptcy menu, and that’s OK. Pasta dishes, too, are gone and all entrees are packed into two pages.
The biggest difference is Bennigan’s more purposeful embrace of the “Tavern” in its name through creation of a separate Bar Menu. Starters and desserts move here, giving the main menu it’s pared-down feel. The previously omnipresent Guinness glaze appears here only as an option with its Tanked Wings or Bar Tenders chicken strips (I can’t believe no one’s used that name before. Brilliant). Other bar foods include three styles of mini burgers (cheeseburgers, pot roast or Buffalo chicken) under the B-Bites name and a new category that Bennigan’s calls Stogies. These are fried egg-roll-style bites wrapped with cigar bands and sporting fillings that range from Philly cheesesteak or Southwestern-style chicken to Buffalo-wing chicken. There’s also Kettle-Cooked Ribs (really, in a kettle?) and a selection of fried veggies that includes Zesty Zucchini Planks, which is a self-parody casual-dining-menu name.
It’s not a bad menu, it’s just familiar when something truly distinctive seemed to be called for. Wouldn’t a brand that filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, as Bennigan’s parent Metromedia Restaurant Group did for it in July 2008, want to bounce back with something fresh? Perhaps Dave Goronkin, the former Famous Dave’s of America CEO who recently was named Bennigan’s president and CEO, can bring some innovation to the mix.
At the time of last year’s bankruptcy filing, there were 138 franchised Bennigan’s that vowed to keep their doors open. Apparently some that did are operating under different brand names. The chain’s site lists 109 locations, 52 of which are overseas (including 29 in South Korea). And although the site lists the Bennigan’s busy location on Chicago’s Michigan Ave., that restaurant reportedly is leaving the fold and will become Sweetwater Tavern & Grille.