A Writer In Residence: Chili's Grill & Bar

Expounding on the virtues of narrative while pounding bottomless chips and salsa.

Image: aaronisnotcool

February 10, 2017

My residence began at the Chili’s at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, New Jersey. But really, it began in Dallas Texas in 1975. It’s hard to imagine this vast casual dining empire is what Larry Lavine envisioned for himself when he founded a Tex-Mex restaurant serving chili, burgers, and tacos, but here we are, uncomfortably close to an On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina in a parking lot outside of a mall in Paramus, but not the one you’re thinking of.

Why is it called Chili’s Grill & Bar, not Bar & Grill? I tried asking Joey, my waiter, but he just laughed shyly and asked if I’d like a refill on my chips. I did, but I didn’t want to admit it to him, so I just gave him a pained look, and he responded, “Would you like me to wait until your food order is ready?” Yes, I nodded silently. Save me from myself, Joey. It’s only 11:15am.

Joey and I have gotten quite close this past week. He works the lunch shift and then goes to beauty school at night. He wants to be the next next Coverboy, and I told him I think he has what it takes (though he could stand to let his eyebrows grow in a bit more, for that “feathered” look that’s so popular these days). I’ve been coming in at eleven a.m. on the dot every day, because I’m not a night owl, and I prefer the solitude of the slightly too-early lunch crowd. Today I’m starting off slow, with some Crispy Cheddar Bites, as I watch the people come in for their lunch specials.

The thing about eating alone at a Chili’s is it’s impossible. Joey, who doesn’t eat food, only Haribo sour s’ghetti and vitamin water, knows this and sneaks me bites from the kitchen. He makes me a combo plate, if you will: two fried pickles, one Southwestern egg roll, one Crispy Honey-Chipotle Chicken Crisper, and a small cup of Southwest Chicken soup. I’ve still never seen anyone order Baby Back Ribs at this location, but I do hope to try them someday.

February 16, 2017

I don’t know what I expected from the Chili’s Too at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Terminal 3 on Valentine’s Day at 3 p.m.? It turns out that Chili’s, along with the entirety of the terminal, closed back in 2013. No thanks to Yelp for the lack of heads up. But not to worry, I took a Lyft over to Glendale, or what I like to call “Middle Queens” to check out another mall-based Chili’s location.

Happy Hour begins at most locations at 3 and lasts until 7 p.m., and then starts again at 9 p.m. and lasts until close (usually 11 or midnight). What are we to deduce from this except that, compared to the joyous revelry and cheap liquor shared with coworkers, dinner is a time for sadness and loneliness? It is certainly a time for reflection, whereas Happy Hour is a time for forgetting.

This past week, my server was Shelley, a mother of three grown children and a hand-painted ceramics enthusiast. Every day I came, she would bring me a new mug or tchotchke she had made at the Plaster Party Place in Forest Hills. She didn’t work there or anything, she just lived above it, and spent most of her free time there.

Shelley also had this habit of bringing me food I did not order, saying “Oops, looks like we just have this extra Chicken Bacon Ranch Quesadilla!” or “I accidentally put in an order for Texas Cheese Fries even though you ordered zero!” But whenever I asked, “Hey Shelley, could you accidentally order me a half rack of Baby Back Ribs?” she looked at me as though I’d spoken Voldemort’s name, silent-t at the end and everything. Then she’d cackle and nervously yell towards the kitchen, all while maintaining eye contact with me, “What’s that Jorge? Order’s up? Be right there!!!”

February 22, 2017

The Associated Press tells us today is National Margarita Day. Normally, Chili’s offers a 2-for-1 drink special, so today, it’s 3-for-1. I’m too drunk to look at the menu but I’ve memorized it, because Shelley and I ran out of things to talk about so she taught me her mnemonic for memorizing everything on the menu. It’s actually a song, set to the iconic Chili’s “Baby Back Ribs” jingle, except the words are more like, “Sah-LAAAAADS, soups and chill-LEE (soups and chil-LEE)!” Shelley has an amazing range and likes to hit the bass notes on “Lighter Choices.” I miss Shelley.

Here in Jersey City, my waiter is nineteen-year-old Stef—like Steph Curry, but with an “F.” He even sports a pair of Steph Curry 2 Lows, and also the Under Armour Training Mask 2.0 to reduce his air flow and get him in a “winded” state of mind, as though he were training at altitude, and not downtown Jersey-City under-sea-level. I appreciate his incredibly fast service. I still don’t understand how he brought me three margaritas in two hands, twice in a row without traveling.

I asked Stef for ribs, literally just any flavor or size of ribs, and he brought me a ribeye steak instead. When I tried to complain, he reminded me that I’d had just finished my fourth margarita, and which of us did he think was more likely to be slurring her order?


“I’m sorry, we don’t carry bibs for babies, just high chairs. Maybe I can look in the closet in the staff room to see if there are any extra polo shirts?”

This is how I ended up wearing nothing but an XXL Chili’s shirt with the nametag “Jolanta” on the ferry to Liberty Island while eating a grocery-store, imitation McRib sandwich—still half frozen because I couldn’t find a gas station that would let me use their microwave, which I know they must have back there—the true picture freedom.

Should You Feel Moved to Wax Rhapsodic at the Mall …