Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Damon's Wanes



I was raised with a strong sense of familial obligation. My parents attempted to instill in me a belief that I should spend time with my various relatives whether I liked it or not. This caused quite a bit of conflict over the first couple decades of my life, because most of the time, I preferred to be alone.

When my maternal grandparents retired in the early 1990s, they moved to Central Kentucky from Eastern Ohio for the expressed purpose of being near my brother and myself, their only grandchildren. As a result they expected my parents to drop everything, and show up at their house with me and my brother every Sunday for a large midday meal followed by endless hours of requisite socializing. It was not unlike the Friday night dinners that Rory and Lorelai had to endure on Gilmore Girls, except there was no alcohol and the menu was always the same pot roast and mashed potatoes.

Naturally, as I grew into my tween and teen years I began to dread this weekly ritual, as it took up a sizable chunk of the weekend in which I’d rather be playing video games or being alone with my thoughts. (I was a weird kid.) Regardless of my protests, however, I was always dragged along, week after week, by my parents who themselves were harassed and guilted into the same Sunday visit by my overbearing grandparents. This went on nearly every Sunday for a solid 12 years.

I thought I had escaped my ancestral obligation when I moved to Illinois for college, but by then, my grandparents had aged to the point that they were becoming incapable of doing the things that they had come to enjoy in their retirement. It was around that time that, out of a strong sense of familial obligation, my mother assumed the role of their assistant and wrangler for the various road trips they’d take regularly throughout the year, shepherding them to and from Florida in the winter and to the annual car show in Hershey, Pennsylvania in the fall.

Coincidentally, I was roped into assisting on a few of these trips when I was home for the summer, and rather than going anywhere fun, I always wound up being my grandparents' chauffeur and de facto butler on trips to Steubenville, Ohio. Situated in Ohio’s eastern edge where it meets the vertical skinny part of West Virginia, Steubenville and the surrounding communities had been where my grandparents spent their entire lives up until their retirement. It had been a steel town in its heyday with mills running day and night and polluting the air and nearby Ohio River, but as the steel industry declined, so did Steubenville, whose air and watershed became cleaner, but whose skyline was permanently scarred by the rusted and crumbling hulks of derelict mills.

It was against this backdrop of the decline of both my grandparents’ abilities and American industry that I first discovered Damon’s Grill. Whether I was dragged along to Steubenville for a family reunion or funeral, we’d always end up having a meal at the Damon’s attached to the Holdiay Inn on University Boulevard. While I was indifferent at best to the sports bar atmosphere, the food was good and the service was quick. A meal At Damon’s always provided a welcome respite from a weekend of driving my grandparents around in their Cadillac while arguing with them over directions and speed limits while gently reminding my increasing combative grandfather that he could not have two large McDonald’s milkshakes not only because it was a generally bad idea to consume half a gallon of milkshake, but also because he was diabetic.

Damon’s was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1979 and, thanks to franchising, grew to a nearly 140 unit chain across the American Midwest and Southeast as well as the UK. In 2009, amid recession and increased competition, the company declared bankruptcy and all company owned, and most franchised, locations closed as a result. Today, there seem to be a total of five Damon’s locations still open. In the US, there's one in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, another in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and a third in Wilmington, Ohio. There are an additional two still operating in the UK in Lincoln and Sheffield. All five are formerly franchised locations that operate essentially independently.

More than ten years after my last Damon’s meal, I found myself on the way from my home in Michigan back to Central Kentucky for another family gathering. (Despite my tumultuous adolescence, I suppose that I too, have a strong sense of familial obligation as an adult.) Bored of my usual route down I-75, I opted to follow US 68 from its northwestern terminus in Findlay, Ohio to Lexington, Kentucky, a route which took me through Wilmington, home to Ohio’s last Damon’s, and my lunch stop that day. 



It was midday on a weekday when I navigated past the seedy looking motel that shares a parking lot with the Wilmington Damon’s. It was around noon on a weekday, and the place seemed about half full of mostly elderly clientele, including one of those groups of old ladies who wear funny red hats. I was shown to a well-worn U-shaped booth facing a quartet of projection screens showing sports and news. A pair of dials on an odd apparatus that also held a speaker allowed me to switch between the audio of each broadcast and control the volume. It’s a shame that I’m bored by sports and depressed by news, because I thought the setup was pretty neat. 



I found myself wishing that they showed Gilmore Girls or Dukes of Hazzard reruns on any of the screens, as either of those shows would have enhanced my dining experience more than college baseball or the 24 hour news cycle. (Incidentally, outdoor shots for both shows were filmed on the same set, which is why downtown Hazzard County and downtown Stars Hollow look so much alike.)




I ordered a Diet Coke when my waitress arrived, and browsed the menu, whose back cover showed multiple 7.99 lunch specials. I don't remember even bothering to open the menu after seeing the bratwurst sliders, which is what I ended up ordering. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a good bratwurst. While I waited for my food, I looked around at the interior of the place. While the outside of the building was visually striking with its gray siding with red and white accents and prominent cupola, the inside felt pretty standard with medium tone wood paneling adorned with prominent Ohio State memorabilia. I realize that many people from both Ohio and Michigan have strong opinions about Ohio State University athletics, but I am not among them. I was busy trying to get my mind's transmission to engage any gear other than neutral regarding Ohio State when my food showed up. 



The miniature bratwursts on my plate sat on similarly diminutive hot dog buns, and were served without garnishes or condiments. The menu showed grilled onions on top of them, and I was slightly let down by their absence. Regardless, the sausages were perfectly edible, and a nice change of pace from my normal burger and taco-based lunchtime proteins. The fries were the lightly battered variety, about which I have mixed feelings. (Battered fries seems like a combination of too many starches, and feel akin to cheating one's way to making fries crispy on the outside.) There was a creamy, stringy coleslaw as well. It was a perfectly decent lunch for 10 bucks with a tip. I have no idea if anything I ate was authentic to pre-bankruptcy Damon's, but it's almost not worth thinking about. 



Aside from the novel controls for the audio matching the larger than life video projections on the wall, not much about Damon's felt distinctive or exciting, which seems to be part of the reason for Damon's bankruptcy in the first place. Their food, atmosphere, and overall experience simply didn't stand out in a crowded field. However, we've established that a place like Damon's isn't really my scene anyway. I have similar feelings about both Bennigan's and Fricker's. They're places designed to cater to people who enjoy sports and socializing, two of my least favorite things, so I'm anything but objective when it comes to evaluating such a place. The fact that this Damon's and four others are still in business ten years after their corporate parent gave up on them tells a different story. The towns that still have a Damon's location obviously hold them in high enough regard that they've been able to keep their doors open despite all odds, and I'm glad they have. It's love and support from the local community, coupled, perhaps with a distinct lack of nearby competition that keeps the surviving locations of broken chains going. Even if I don't always have a memorably positive or negative experience, my own passion for documenting broken chains, coupled perhaps with a smattering of personality quirks, will keep me on the road seeking them out and telling you fine folks all about them here. 







5 comments:

  1. You forgot peas. There were always peas with the roast beef and mashed potatoes. <3 Judy.

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  2. We used to eat here all the time growing up. I remember the channel switcher being a nice gimmick, but the real phone was the trivia they always had going on one screen. You could ask your waiter/waitress for a little device to play along with. Kept us entertained as kids at least.

    I remember the ribs being their signature dish. I always thought they were pretty good, and in a city with not much in the way of fine dining I'm sure they were good enough.

    Coincidentally, after college I moved into a condo very near their "headquarters". It was a very pedestrian looking building tucked in between a retirement home and college housing.

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    1. I remember that trivia game going at the one in Steubenville. I didn't see it at the one in Wilmington, though I have seen a very similar game, if not the exact same one playing on screens at Buffalo Wild Wings and similar places in the past couple of years. I think you can play along with a smartphone app these days.

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  3. I have a Damon's location near me in Indy, I think. At least the sign is up. I've never eaten there (attached to a hotel, not the best of neighborhoods) but now I feel obliged to check it out, for the sake of the blog.

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    1. On East 21st Street, just off I-70? Sadly, Google shows that location is closed, though the Street View photo shows that it still has a Damon's sign on its awning.

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