What is it about fried onion that I associate with high class dining? When I was a kid, fancy dinner meant one of two places: early on it was Tony Roma’s in North Olmsted, and later it became Outback Steakhouse in Westlake. Tony Roma’s was, of course, the place for ribs, and also I’m pretty sure the only place I ever ate ribs during childhood. The North Olmsted branch also happened to be partially owned by 1980s member of the Cleveland Browns secondary and coiner of the name “Dawg Pound” Hanford Dixon. This was one reason that my dad liked going there, as a Cleveland Browns fan and personal fan of Dixon, who he once met while doing home remodeling.
The ribs at Tony Roma’s were fine, I guess. I knew nothing of ribs at the time, and given my move from Ohio to the East Coast, where I’ve been for the last 20 years, I’m sure that southerners would say I know nothing of ribs now. I do know now that Tony Roma’s doesn’t smoke anything on site, which would be a red flag for John at 39.
Two memories of Tony Roma’s endure: the first is at that age, North Olmsted felt like it was a million miles away from my childhood home. I just looked it up; it’s 19 miles. Would it shock you to find out we didn’t take family trips when we were kids? We didn’t go east of Avon too often for the first 8 or 9 years of my life, so traveling SO FAR to go to Tony Roma’s made it feel even more special.
The second memory features the real star of the Tony Roma’s experience for me: the onion loaf. Even if you’ve never been to Tony Roma’s, the mention of “fried onion” in the first sentence of this article, combined with the word “loaf” probably painted a pretty vivid picture of what we were dealing with here. It was a mass of battered, fried onions shaped into a loaf. It came with a shallow metal condiment dish filled with barbecue sauce for dipping, and it was delicious. I’m not sure if I ever finished one alone, but my childhood friend CJ and I could put one away easily between the two of us. That was Tony Roma’s my first fancy food restaurant, so fancy that the fried onion came in loaf form.
Outback arrived in northern Ohio just in time to serve the fancy dinner needs of my early teen years. It opened in Westlake, in what should have been known as the chain restaurant district. The Bloomin’ Onion wasted no time in winning my heart. I’m sure I’ve had steak at Outback, but I cannot remember a single experience of doing so. I remember the onion, though. It also introduced me to the concept of zesty dipping sauce to pair with fried onion dishes. The dipping sauce was a godsend when Burger King switched its fries to horrible garbage fries and I subsequently switched from their fries to their onion rings, and again when Arby’s introduced onion petals, a brilliant concept wherein they provided you with a miniaturized helping of Bloomin’ Onion. Arby’s removal of onion petals from the menu is a minor war crime.
Outback was a worthy successor to Tony Roma’s as our fancy dinner destination, providing a clear upgrade in fried onion dipping condiment, and a solid spot for both family get togethers and dates, had I gone on more dates. You could tell it would have been good for them, though. Like, you can imagine it, right? Oh shut up. It’s because I was shy, I swear.
What were your childhood fancy dinner spots? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.