My mother, as I am sure a number of other mothers out there, told me growing up that if I didn't have anything nice to say, then I shouldn't say anything at all. If I heeded this advice, this particular restaurant review would be short indeed! When I walk into a completely unknown restaurant, I try and do so with as open a mind as possible. While first impressions are often crucial, a bad first impression can often be turned around with stellar service or delicious food. In the case of Lula Bell's Old Fashioned Hamburgers and Ice Cream, the warning signs occurred early on and continued right on through the meal.
But before I get ahead of myself, let's get the technical details out of the way first. Lula Bell's was located on State Route 43, just south of Tallmadge Avenue in Kent, Ohio. Specifically they were located at 3958 SR 43, Kent, OH 44240 and can be reached at 330-677-3905. Parking was in the gravel lot in front of the restaurant. At the time of this writing, no website could be found that was directly associated with Lula Bell's. The actual entrance to Lula Bell's was back from the street a bit, so if you are looking for the location, pay attention for the roadside sign on the east side of State Route 43.
Here was a shot of the front entrance:
And a shot of their hours of operation:
Once inside, you can't help but notice the Fifties diner decor. With pictures of all the usual suspects on the walls, the diner stools at the counter and the monochromatic paint throughout the joint, clearly the owners were trying to take you back a few decades. What surprised me first wasn't actually the decorations; it was the fact that besides myself, on a Friday night, there was only one other table with patrons at it. In fact, during the entire hour that I was there, only one other couple came in for food.
Since there were no instructions inside the door telling me to wait, I seated myself at a small two-top table. While there was a paper menu on the table already, after opening it and reading it, I realized that it was a breakfast menu. My server finally approached my table and told me about the daily special, a fish fry with hush puppies and coleslaw. I considered it long enough to perplex her with a question about what kind of fish it was (her original answer was "Ummm ... fish?"), but decided in the end that the promise of an "old fashioned hamburger" was where I wanted to go tonight gastronomically.
Once she retrieved a copy of the menu from the front counter, she left me to look over the quite lengthy menu. Because the pages were so large, I ended up taking a top/bottom photograph of each page:
What surprised me were the sheer number of burger combinations available. When I saw the bacon and egg burger, my mind raced back to the Lola burger I had eaten at Michael Symon's B Spot restaurant months prior and my mouth began to water. When my server finally returned to take my order, I asked her if the burgers were cooked to order. "No," she replied, "They are cooked all the way through." Fair enough, though that seemed like overkill for a 1/3 pound burger patty. The only additional topping for which I asked was a slice of American cheese.
Since all of the burgers are a la carte, I also ordered a side of onion rings. Apparently, they were out of this made in-house and frozen fried side item, so I went with a small order of the French Fries instead. The menu didn't say "fresh cut" and it didn't occur to me to ask if they were given that the onion rings were homemade, too. Bad mistake on my part.
After what seemed to be an inordinately long period of time (considering that the other table had already gotten their food and I was the only other person in the restaurant), the line cook actually ran the food to my table:
Here was a close-up of my bacon, egg, and cheese burger:
And a shot of the toppings with the crown of the bun removed:
Of course, the ketchup I had asked my server to bring with my meal was nowhere to be found, so I asked the line cook for it, which he was happy to get. As you can see from the pictures above, the egg portion of the burger that the menu described wasn't the fried sunnyside up egg that comes on the Lola burger, but essentially a thin, folded over omelet that reminded me of a McDonald's Bacon, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit. I guess it didn't occur to me to ask how the egg was cooked. That being said, this wasn't the deal breaker for me.
The first of three deal breakers, however, was the woefully undercooked, flabby bacon:
Oddly enough, the bacon was actually one very long strip and had been cooked and then twirled in concentric circles so that it fit neatly on the burger patty. Unfortunately, because it hadn't been cooked to crispy, nearly every bite of my burger involved me having to bite down on the stretchy bacon and using my fingers to sever the bacon in my mouth from the bacon remaining on my burger. After two bites, I simply removed the remaining bacon and put it in my basket.
The second deal breaker was the burger patty itself. While a nice sized burger patty at 5-6 ounces, the reason my dinner had taken so long to come out of the kitchen was because the line cook had managed to cook the burger meat to beyond well done. I had originally asked for the ketchup for my French Fries, but after seeing how dried out the patty was, I applied the tangy condiment not so much for its flavor, but more as a way to get moisture in my mouth while chewing.
The third, and final deal breaker were the French Fries:
As soon as the line cook set the burger basket down in front of me, my heart (and stomach) sank because I was pretty convinced that these were of the fresh cut variety. When my server stopped in to check on me, I asked her about the provenance of the fries and she cheerfully smiled and replied that they were indeed cut fresh every day. Having been wrong about fresh cut fries in the past, I went ahead and grabbed the end of a single fry. As I suspected, the fry was extra greasy and limp, the other end of the fry easily falling wherever gravity dictated. I took a bite and discovered that at least to Lula Bell's credit, they had been seasoned with salt after being fried. And while I don't think they were undercooked, the interior of the fry definitely wasn't that soft, fluffy texture that I look for in a properly fried potato.
As I sat there, thinking how unsatisfied I had been with my meal, a couple walked into the restaurant and sat at the stools by the front counter. Immediately recognized by my server, greetings and pleasantries were exchanged. As they turned around and stared out the plate glass window at the front of the restaurant, they must have seen someone lingering outside because one of them said in a quiet, sort of sing-song way, "Come on in, the food's great!" I didn't actually say anything, but my inside voice was pretty emphatic: "NO, IT'S NOT!"
I paid my check at the cash register, left a tip for my server, and walked back out into the cool Friday air. I certainly can't condemn Lula Bell for their entire menu since I only tried a single burger and one side item. That being said, at least 50% of the menu space (not to mention the restaurant's banner hanging out front) was dedicated to that very thing. Additionally, if this was what an old-fashioned hamburger was supposed to be, then I'm entirely content with all manner of nouveau burger creations. Between my burger and fries, I was definitely not impressed with my meal tonight. Given the out of the way location of the restaurant, I'm confident that it won't be hard for me to simply forget about it.