If you listen to the radio, you might have heard the jingle for The Shack restaurants. Like plenty of other ads, it sounds rather corny, annoying even, but that’s probably the point since it gets stuck in your head. Lord knows I’ve heard echoes of the refrain — “…now you’re having a Shack attack!” — during certain mindless moments, like when I’m shaving before work on a groggy Monday morning.
One day I’d finally had enough. I resolved to see for myself if the food at The Shack is as catchy as its jingle. With restaurants in East Lyme (opened in 1989), Waterford (2003), and Groton (2010), The Shack is most appreciated for serving up ample portions of diner-style breakfasts all day long, but my friend and I toured the lunch and dinner menu.
At the Waterford location, known as JR’s Shack, we ate four entrées, three sides, and a soup, and we kept repeating one word the entire time, a word you don’t hear in their radio ads — "mediocre."
Two bright spots salvaged what otherwise would have been a shutout. First, our waitress provided excellent service, getting every one of our many orders right, clearing our table of many dishes along the way, and handling my friend’s good-natured teasing with patience and a bounteous sense of humor. She was a natural.
Second, amid the disappointments , the Philly wrap ($7.99) stood out as the best dish of the evening. Bulging with thinly shaved Philly cheesesteak, grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, and ranch dressing, the wrap was juicy, drippy, and full of flavor, and my friend and I immediately remarked on how much better it tasted than everything else.
"Everything else" included a cup of New England clam chowder, which cost $2.99 and tasted more or less like the kind you can get in a can at Stop & Shop for considerably less than $2.99. A basket of onion rings ($4.99) wasn’t bad; the batter was clean and light, but overall, these items made for a mediocre start.
We shared a Texas burger ($8.49) and a clam strips dinner ($9.99) next. The burger arrived average-sized, overcooked and dry, with a ho-hum topping of tomato-sauce-flavored chili, shredded cheddar cheese, and scallions. Lettuce, tomato, and red onion and a dill pickle spear sat on the side. Mediocre again.
The clam strips seemed at first more satisfying — a generous pile of them, good-looking blonde batter, a side of slaw and crispy fries. But as we dug deeper into the pile, we found a few of the clams were undercooked with wet batter. A promising dish turned out to be mediocre at best.
Pacing ourselves, we ordered a plate of sausage and peppers off the specials menu. Disks of hot and sweet Italian sausage, attractively browned, lay on a bed of rice with sliced red and green bell peppers and onions. Chopped scallions topped the pile, another impressive portion for around $10.
Unfortunately, charred flecks scattered throughout the dish made some bites taste burned and gritty, as if the kitchen had used the same pan one time too many. As with the clams, what might have been a really good dish settled for mediocrity.
Many of The Shack’s dishes come with a choice of side orders, ranging from steamed veggies or cottage cheese to rice pilaf, onion rings, or pasta. We sampled macaroni and cheese, which was OK, and mashed potatoes and gravy, which turned out to be the instant, Durkee-style variety.
We ate a lot of food at JR’s Shack, and we could stomach all of it. But other than the Philly wrap, none of it would induce cravings comparable to what the radio jingle calls a “Shack attack.”
The good news, though, is that a few small improvements — getting rid of shortcuts like instant potatoes or taking more care in frying the clam strips, for example — could make more of the lunch and dinner dishes, like the already popular breakfast menu, worth singing about.