Cracker Barrel service is known for being speedy but nothing about the experience feels like fast food. On the contrary, the vibe meant to be laid-back, comforting: all rocking chairs, sweet tea, and country-fied geniality like a Sunday afternoon fish fry. The place was covered floor-to-ceiling in antiques -- wooden washboards, straw brooms, tin signs advertising Dr. Pepper or some long gone soap brand. Two decorative shotguns hung above a massive stone fireplace crowned by a pair of black-and-white portraits of an elderly man and woman. It felt familial, like you were eating in someone’s beloved multi-generational home (albeit one that happened to keep their cleaning tools affixed to the walls).
“He’s a picker, got a big warehouse down in Tennessee. I think his parents were pickers. Everything’s numbered,” Francine said of Dan Evins, Cracker Barrel founder and the man behind the iconic decor. “I gotta be honest with you, though,” she said with a slight giggle. “I’ve only been to one other Cracker Barrel ever. Can you believe it? I just know this because I saw a program on Channel 4.”
Four unsuccessful attempts at beating that impossible peg board game with the golf tees later and dinner was served. The biscuits were fluffy and plump, melt-in-your-mouth without being greasy. The cornbread stuffing was perfectly textured, the small dab of tangy cranberry sauce refreshing and bright. Mac and cheese was creamy, salty and satisfying, the carrots indeed soft and sweet and the mash was whipped and airy. Gravy covered two slabs of white meat turkey and, while I’m usually dark meat ride-or-die, the breast was hearty and flavorful. We cleaned our plates. And then inquired about dessert.
“You don't have the pumpkin pie yet, right?” I asked.
“Nope, that’s only for Thanksgiving,” said Francine.
“You guys are open for Thanksgiving?” I asked, feeling like a turkey-stuffed moron. Of course they were open on Thanksgiving. Of all the nights to feature a Turkey n’ Dressing special, the fourth Thursday of November seemed like a pretty crucial one.
“Is that really popular?” Emily chimed in.
“YES. Yes, yes. We do all the trimmings. You get a drink with it, and you get a piece of pie. It's a good deal,” Francine explained. “Yeah, we're swamped. Lots of families, couples, and they love it, they just love it. And then it dies out at like 8 o'clock.”
“I work it every year, except one year I got off because it was my birthday -- my birthday falls on Thanksgiving every seven years or something like that, November 27th,” she continued. “That year, to my manager, he does the schedule, I'm like ‘Listen, it's my birthday, I cannot work. I'm going to be so depressed and so cranky to the guests, you know? It's not going to be what they want.’ And they gave me off,” She chuckled. “But yeah, Thanksgiving, it's good, it's good here. When I’m working I just celebrate my Thanksgiving early because I don't come to work until 4 o'clock. I can watch the parade and do all that.”
We settled on the peach cobbler, paid our bill (under $35 for an enormous dinner for two), and thanked Francine for her hospitality. On its website, Cracker barrel lists its mission as such: “Cracker Barrel provides a friendly home-away-from-home in our old country store and restaurant. Our guests are cared for like family while relaxing and enjoying real homestyle food and shopping that’s surprisingly unique, genuinely fun and reminiscent of America’s country heritage… all at a fair price.” Nailed it.
OK, so maybe a random Thursday night in New Jersey doesn’t exactly qualify as an all-out Thanksgiving holiday. But, and hear me out on this: It might just be even better. Instead of having to deal with the odd overindulgent uncle or make small talk with your second cousin’s fifth husband’s door-to-door knife salesman son or even maintain the lie that your famous apple pie came from your own two hands and not the Whole Foods by the train, you get to mosey on in any Thursday of the week at your leisure and be welcomed with a wide grin, syrupy glass of sweet tea, and a seat at the table. It’s like the Disneyworld version of Thanksgiving -- it looks and feels like the real thing but exists in its own self-contained bubble. The holiday starts when you amble through that heavy swinging double door and ends the moment you step off that rocking chair-strewn front porch on the way to your ZipCar Subaru. It’s magic, served with a side of soft and sweet carrots. And between the family vibes, lovable Francine, and that famous Thursday Turkey n’ Dressing, we were left feeling pretty damn thankful. Also, just plain full.