Is Famous Dave’s in danger of becoming the next Elephant Bar? 

The barbecue chain founded by Wisconsin native Dave Anderson was once a darling of the restaurant industry, and, after a humble start, plans were made to open 500 of them across the country. Anderson’s brilliant idea was to combine what has largely been a regional American specialty — barbecue in Texas is hardly the same as barbecue in Kansas City or Carolina — all under one roof. He opened the first restaurant in Hayward in 1994, expanded in the Midwest and even into California and the company went public on the stock market in 2012.

But after the last financial storm hit more than 10 years ago, restaurant chains such as Famous Dave’s, Chili’s and Applebee’s were hit hard. In the process, Anderson was pushed out of his own company. Sales tumbled, the company had to close stores. Hedge fund managers who owned the stock (which also tumbled) made suggestions to attract millennials, calling for using the meats on items like flatbreads and eventually even leading to fried chicken, a special we never got a chance to sample before it went away. The company closed six stores this summer and hired their fourth CEO since 2012.

On the local level, Famous Dave’s opened in a barbecue vacuum back in 2008 before places like Brooklyn’s BBQ, Salty’s and Lucille’s Smokehouse BBQ (a small chain based in Long Beach) set up shop. Used to be you had to wait for a table at Dave’s, sometimes even on a weekday. On recent visits we strolled right in. Though the restaurant is best known for these crazy large “feasts” that cost up to $80 (depending on size) and are an economical way to feed a family, they have been making some changes that might help the place survive.

For one, they’ve ramped up happy hour big time, expanding the hours on weekdays from 3 p.m. until closing, and beefing up the food deals. They’re added new items (salmon and tri-tip) over the years with mixed results, and the lunch menu has some solid values. Other new offerings include burnt ends of beef and house-made potato chips.

We have to start with the burger, which reader Craig Holland first recommended to us a number of years ago and it’s still one of the best in town. If anything, it’s better now. There are five different choices on the dinner menu, and our absolute favorite that we sampled recently is the Jacked ‘N Stacked ($12.99), made with an eight-ounce patty (quite substantial, smoky tasting and so juicy when cooked to medium) made with crispy onion strings and jack cheese. The classic cheeseburger ($10.49) is decent too, and you can choose either house-smoked cheddar or sharp American (does such a thing really exist?). If spicy is your game, the Devil’s Spit ($12.99) has hell-fire pickles, spicy barbecue sauce, jalapeno bacon and pepper jack cheese. The best values on the burger portion of the menu are found at lunch, where you can get one for $8.99-$9.49.

On a recent visit we tried two of the newer items, salmon smoked on a cedar plank ($16.99) and smoked sirloin tri-tip ($17.99). Each came with two sides and we selected garlic red skin mashed potatoes (always solid), Dave’s spicy mac and cheese (they added chopped jalapenos before it was cool), smoky green beans (with bacon and onion) and steamed broccoli (not thrilling but healthy enough to balance all the other stuff we were eating). Loved the salmon, but the tri-tip is as dull as can be, and I missed the brisket they offer which is an outstanding Texas style smoked over hickory with black pepper and brown sugar on the outside. Always juicy, hard not to order that. The tri-tip, like many of their meats, is presented on a bland slice of white bread to soak up the fat that might otherwise go unconsumed. We can’t have that.

The salmon had grilled marks and a nice caramelized glaze, really impressive even if it didn’t pick up much from the cedar. Other than some salmon I once sampled in Alaska that had a pronounced cedar taste, I think that style is more show than go. It was a better option than the catfish fingers ($14.99) which are coated in cornmeal but are merely ordinary and less exciting. The potato chips when we’ve sampled them are overcooked and a tad greasy.

While it’s tempting to make changes to lure in more customers, they’ve been smart enough not to ditch the amazing bread pudding dessert ($6.99) made in house with a pecan praline sauce capable of destroying any diet (the ice cream served with it doesn’t help). But please consider the hot fudge Kahlua brownie ($6.99) if you like the famous coffee liqueur because they soaked the brownie in it and, with the addition of hot fudge, it's a great way to end a meal. I’m also glad that our favorite dining choice, the Feasts, are still there. We usually like to get the Feast for Two ($44.99) but in recent years have come to prefer the Founder’s Feast ($22.99), supposedly Anderson’s favorite meal, consisting of pulled pork, one-quarter roasted or barbecued chicken, three spareribs and an assortment of sides — call it a mini-feast).

Service was OK, though one of our favorite things about Famous Dave’s has been the five different sauces available to customize your meal and we didn’t see the carriers on any of the tables until we asked our waiter to bring them. Seems like they keep them stacked up in the bar and bring them out when the customer requests them.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com.

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