If you want to know what is good at a restaurant, ask its regulars.
And when it comes to regulars, the Don Hall's chain has probably more than anyone in Fort Wayne.
So during my visits to Don Hall's Prime Rib on East State Boulevard near Parkview Hospital, a couple of regulars gave me some good advice. One of them wasn't even joining me for dinner, it was a co-worker who lives near the restaurant. I ran into him one night as he was waiting to carry out a fried chicken dinner, which he said was his favorite.
And it was easy to see why, because I got to sample some fried chicken in the form of tenders in the Prime Rib's appetizer sampler platter. I normally bypass these because they are usually a smattering of frozen, prepared appetizers. But Hall's version had not only some of the best, crispest, juiciest, hand-breaded chicken tenders I have had in a while, it also featured a taste of one of the chain's signature snacks – onion rings, which are some of the best around.
The sampler also included fried mozzarella sticks and jalapeno poppers. And they were also pretty good. The poppers had a lot of cream cheese, and the cheese sticks were very crisp.
Another regular spoke highly of the smoked sausage sandwich and it, too, was probably something I would bypass because, honestly, I don't see how any restaurant can make smoked sausage any better than I can at home. But this sandwich was perfect.
The split sausage had beautiful grill marks on it, and it was way bigger than the nicely toasted hoagie roll. It was also smothered in sauerkraut and gooey melted Swiss cheese. And the kraut was drained well so the bun stayed pristine. It came with french fries, but next time I will pay extra for onion rings because the from-the-freezer fries were limp and boring.
The side salad at the Prime Rib looked boring with just mixed greens, a few red onions and a small pile of shredded cheddar, but it was actually very good thanks to the house-made Thousand Island dressing – Hall's makes nearly all of its dressings from scratch, which is always a great idea. It was also lifted by some croutons I MacGyvered from another Hall's house-made staple – the garlic toast.
Baskets of decent little hot rolls are brought gratis to each table, and in those baskets are a few slices of simple sliced bread soaked in garlic butter and toasted until completely crunchy. This old-school garlic toast is a throwback and is nearly impossible to stop munching on. And as a salad addition, they were magnificent.
Given the place is called the Prime Rib, one would expect it to be magnificent, too. It wasn't magnificent, but it was solid. Most of the Hall's restaurants offer prime rib and it is usually OK – cooked to the right temperature, a little fatty and swimming in a pool of well-seasoned au jus. But I really think the restaurant named after the dish should do something more, something special to separate it from the Hall's norm.
The New York strip was about the same – not fantastic, but a steak you would not complain about, especially given the price. It was nicely marked on the grill and cooked to the perfect temperature, had a nice edge of fat – which I love – and had good flavor.
Two entrées that were recommended highly by employees – note, not regulars – were not up to snuff.
When I inquired about the featured lemon-pepper salmon, my server raved about it, saying she doesn't even care for salmon but loved this Hall's Prime Rib version. The salmon was so overcooked it was crunchy on the outside and its flesh was almost completely white instead of pink. It was, of course, dry, and I couldn't even detect any of the lemon or pepper.
Another server, who actually proved to be a fantastic server and who said he spent many years at the Prime Rib as a cook, called the Chicken Herb the best thing on the menu. Described as a mildly seasoned, char-broiled chicken breast, the name led me to believe it was seasoned with herbs. But it wasn't. Salt and pepper was it. Now it was grilled just right and plenty juicy, but it was just a boring old chicken breast in the end.
I paid a little extra to have grilled vegetables with it and they proved to be the star. Zucchini, squash, onions and big button mushrooms arrived in a crock coated with a little butter and oil. The veggies were bright, still a little crisp and delicious.
As good as that sauerkraut-loaded sausage sandwich was and as much as I loved the homemade Thousand Island dressing on my salad, I had high hopes for the Reuben at Hall's Prime Rib. But it also fell flat. It was served open faced with melted Swiss cheese covering everything. The kraut and cheese were fine, and the buttery toasted marble rye was OK, but the corned beef was thinly sliced deli-style meat, there was too little of it and what there was offered little in terms of flavor or texture.
When it comes to dessert, there is usually never a worry at a Hall's restaurant. The German chocolate cake and pineapple upside down cake cannot be topped, but I didn't like the way my strawberry pie was topped.
The same former-cook-turned-server literally covered my entire plate in whipped cream – not the good kind either, the airy stuff from a can – so you could not even see the pie. My party had been having a good time chatting with him and exchanging barbs, so I guess he thought this would be a funny ending for us.
We did laugh when we saw it and we loved having him as a server, don't get me wrong. It just wasn't as funny as I tried to eat the pie. There was too much cream, and I struggled to scrape it off and even find the pie.
There was just the right amount of whipped cream on the chocolate-banana cream pie. This layered delight had chocolate pudding filling on the bottom topped with a light yellow banana pudding and pretty little peaks of whipped cream dotting the top. It was creamy, very sweet and had just the right balance of the two flavors.
And, overall, there was a pretty good balance at the Prime Rib. It isn't flashy or pretty – paneling, wallpaper and dated furniture that simply need to go – but the service was great and the food was fine if you ordered the right thing.
But knowing what the right thing is might be a little tough … unless you ask a regular.
Restaurant: Hall's Prime Rib
Address: 2005 E. State Blvd.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Appetizer sampler ($8.49), prime rib ($13.95 for 12-ounce cut; $11.95 8-ounce), New York strip ($11.95), Chicken Herb ($8.50), Reuben ($5.59), smoked sausage sandwich ($5.95), strawberry pie ($2.95), cream pie ($2.69)
Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 0 (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).