For one afternoon each year, Lettuce Entertain You transforms one of its famed eateries into a mecca for brides-to-be, collecting the wares of both local and national retailers. Ladies linger over tables laden with dresses and invitations—categorized into vignettes such as elegant and vintage—as gown experts divulge their wisdom. To avoid being cut out of wedding photos, male counterparts sequester themselves in the Groom's Room, where man-friendly vendors toss out wardrobe and preening tips. Lettuce Entertain You disperses appetizers and drinks from a handful of their own top-rated eateries to prevent patrons from drooling over the dossiers of custom cake.
Few foods are as surrounded by controversy as barbecue. Disputes over the styles prominent in Texas, the Carolinas, and Kansas City can get serious. That's why it is for the best to let professionals handle the delicate art of smoking meats and mixing sauces. At Ribshack BBQ, all of the staples are accounted for, from racks of ribs to pulled pork. These are all accompanied by the requisite greens, coleslaw, and mac 'n' and cheese that one might expect to find in a road-side barbecue joint or lazily written country song. Thanks to a new liquor license, cold beers fuel the chatter that drifts up between bites of food.
An award-winning country-and-western hotspot, Handlebar-J serves up an invigorating menu of steaks, ribs, burgers, and more. Drooping dancers and wilting wallflowers can get perked up by protein thanks to dishes such as the Cattleman Cut, a 16 oz. porterhouse ($29), or full slabs of baby-back ribs ($19) (both served with various sides). Free country dance lessons every Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday night (at 7 p.m.) fill the air with rotating fringe, cooling off crisp chef salads ($12) and fanning piping-hot plates of fried chicken, served alongside corn on the cob, french fries, and biscuits with honey ($14). Finish dinner with a piece of chocolate cake ($4) or another round of homemade chili and beans ($10) depending on your dinner's chocolate-to-chili ratio.
With more than 6,000 square feet of grilling goodness, BBQ Island is a 'cuers paradise stocked with award-winning rubs and savory spices. Lovers of slow-cooked treats can spend a meaty summer debating the merits of Kansas City versus East Texas after packing their pantries with regional blends from across the nation. Many of BBQ Island's specialty seasonings can't be found at local grocery stores, giving browsers an opportunity to stock up on premium flavor-boosters such as Bad Byron's Butt Rub ($14.99, 24 oz.) and John Henry's Texas Brisket Rub ($9.99). BBQ Island also carries an ample supply of MSG-free, gluten-free blends for the health-conscious seasoner, including the award-winning Dizzy Pig's Dizzy Dust ($9.95), as well as offerings from locally owned Fast Eddie’s ($7.99) and Anthony's Spices.
The owners of Pork on a Fork BBQ Grill, Wes Hansen and Justin Erickson, share a love of barbecue, but their mutual dedication to quality runs further than that. Both were born around Nebraska hog farms—Wes to a restaurateur father, Justin an award-winning competitive barbecuer. In fact, the Erickson family still owns a farm in Central City. That's why the duo gets all their meat from Midwestern farms before they smoke it competition-style, each cut sizzled over pecan wood and charcoal—never a gas grill.
This pared-down approach results in a simple selection of quality midwestern barbecue, including pulled pork, smoked chicken, and the “menu showstopper,” according to 10Best: the “perfectly cooked” brisket. To accompany each succulent entree, cooks whip up traditional sides such as macaroni salad, slaw, and cornbread hand-plucked from Nebraska’s plentiful fields of cornbread.
For the location of the first Dillon's, Rich Dillon and George Valverde chose a 1940s Thunderbird Road structure that a writer for the Phoenix New Times described as "a cute, converted old house that looks like grandma's parlor." Since then, they've opened four more eateries in locations that are as appealing as the signature flame-kissed and slow-smoked meats served inside. Wildlife World Zoo & Aquarium's shark tank flanks the dining room of Dillon's at the Zoo, and the boat-accessible Scorpion Bay location opens onto the waters of Lake Pleasant so that diners can chortle as fish attempt to develop democracy. Live music and karaoke lend additional social vibes to the smokehouses.