saga of bennigan’s

It all started when I was 7 or 8 years old.  One night my parents took me on a little car trip to Cincinnati, which was a thrill in and of itself.  As I sat in the back seat of the blue family Volvo, occupying myself with various books, toys, and counting the various state license plates that whizzed past me, the excitement of going to a new restaurant began to overwhelm me.  I don’t know why new things always excited me as they did, but for some reason, I was filled with great anticipation.  For what seemed like hours (though now know the drive takes only 40 minutes) we drove over the randomly-rough and pothole-filled pavement of I-75, passing endless cornfields (which are now home to massive developments of suburbia hell as Dayton & Cincinnati merge ever so closely together) and mile markers.  I didn’t care.  I was too excited about where we were going.

Finally we arrived at our destination: Bennigan’s.  I stared at it with utter amazement and anticipation as my parents got me out of the car, and we started walking towards the entrance.  The place seemed so huge and monumental to me, with the highway (I-275) sitting off not too far in the background.  To me, this looked like the holy grail of restaurants.  I had never been here before.  My excitement was un-containable.

I don’t remember too much else about the experience, except that I had my typical kid’s meal: grilled cheese, fries and a cup of milk.  I remember that the milk came out in a green plastic cup which I thought was the coolest thing ever.  In addition, the waitress brought me a green balloon with the Bennigan’s logo on it, which sealed the restaurant as the “bestest” (as I’d say as a child) place ever in my mind.  I cherished that balloon like it was my prized doll house that my father laboriously built for me as a child.  I remember being sad when the balloon finally met its maker, and withered away into nothingness.  Bennigan’s, in my mind, was the most fantastic place I’d ever been.  I didn’t think any other restaurant could ever compare.

Since that time, I wanted to go back to Bennigan’s.  Every now and then, I’d ask my parents if we could go to that “really neat Irish restaurant,” as I called it.  You see, Bennigan’s had an Irish theme to it – hence the green cup and balloon.  I so desperately wanted to drink out of a green cup again.  My parents always had an excuse: “Not tonight, sweetie.”  “It’s too far of a drive, sweetie.”  “Your daddy is tired, honey.”  And then the excuse evolved into “I’m sorry to tell you that Bennigan’s closed, sweetheart.”  My heart was broken.  My restaurant idol had faded away into oblivion, vanished from Earth (or so I thought.)  Often, I would wonder what had happened to that amazing place.  Sometimes, I wondered if it’d been a figment of my imagination.  Bennigan’s became an obsession of mine. I thought about it often.

Twelve years later, when I was driving to IU from Dayton (my home), I noticed something out of the corner of my eye while on 275.  What was that?  I almost swerved into the other 3 lanes of traffic.  Lo and behold, it was Bennigan’s!  And now come to think of it, this was right about where I’d remembered that magical evening taking place.  I knew it was north of Cincinnati, but I didn’t remember where.  I thought my parents had told me that they had closed!  I thought I’d never get to return to Bennigan’s again!  My parents would never lie to me!  The excitement of my childhood experience came racing back, along with the image of the cool green cups and the prized green balloon!  I couldn’t believe it was still there, after all these years!

Though I never went to that specific Bennigan’s in Cincinnati, I thought about it every time I’d pass by.  It was one of those childhood memories that’d bring happiness to me: it brought back memories of my life with my mom and dad, before my mom got sick.  Part of me wanted to go there to relive the experience on some level, but part of me wanted to leave the experience where it was: in my memory.  I was torn.

This past year, I bought a house and moved from Bloomington to Fishers.  The day of the actual move, as Dad and I were driving up 69, I happened to catch a glimpse of a Bennigan’s off the 96th Street exit.  I couldn’t believe it!  I was going to be living within 2 miles of the magical restaurant!  At the time, I didn’t say anything to my Dad, because we were talking about something much more important, such as how I must always remember to turn the burners off when I leave, or keep my garage door locked, etc., etc.  As excited as I was to be moving to Fishers and starting a new phase of my life, this attachment to my past experience started taking over.  I told my best friend about it, and she seemed to find it hilarious that I had basically worshiped this place for the past 16 years of my life.  She told me that when she came out to visit me from New York, we’d go there.

8 MONTHS LATER…
I felt like a kid on the first day of school: excited about the new experience, yet nervous that it wouldn’t live up to my grand expectations.  As we neared the place, Sara and I couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous this situation was, and that there had been a 16 year buildup to this moment.  She was highly entertained that she was getting to be a part of this experience.

I think the first sign of things to come was that the light-up Bennigan’s sign only read “gans.”  For some reason, we found this highly amusing as we parked and walked inside.  We were greeted by an overwhelming chlorine smell that I associate with cheap hotels (this was attached to a hotel of some sort.) and two hostesses that reminded me of Stepford’s wives – way too perky, pretty & happy to be a real human being.  As they led us through the maze of tables back to our little corner, I couldn’t help but notice how ordinary the place was inside.  The decor was very Max & Erma’s meets Applebee’s meets Fridays, but without the fun ambiance.  It truly was dull inside; colorless and somewhat dark.  Much to my delight, though, as we passed through the other tables, the green cups jumped out to me.  The memories were flooding back to me now!  It’s like I was experiencing my childhood through adult eyes.  What a strange and peculiar experience.

Our waiter was ridiculously perky – much like the waiter Jennifer Anniston despises in the classic movie “Office Space.”  It was like no matter what terrible news you could possibly throw at him, he’d smile broadly and laugh.  His name was Peter.  He talked with a Muppetish-inflection in his voice that was grating on the ears, not to mention the nerves.  As we sent him on his merry way to retrieve our drinks, Sara and I could not stop laughing about the whole situation.  This was only a precursor of the laughter to come.

I ordered a Monte Cristo with fries, and Sara ordered a simple bacon cheeseburger.  Of course, given it’s an Irish-themed place, they named these menu items something cheesy and Irish.  My heart lept with great excitement as he brought us our beverages – in green cups!  Maybe this place wasn’t so bad after all…

We were seated next to the kitchen, so we had the pleasure (or shall I say “torture”) of watching the happenings behind the scenes.  Their manager was so uptight, running about, barking out orders at her servants, as she seemed to treat them.  Her pants were so tight and pulled up so high, that we thought she was going to burst.  For the incredibly long time it took us to get our food (25+ minutes, and it wasn’t that busy,) we occupied ourselves with watching her yell at her workers, drop a salad all over the floor, and almost cry on occasion.  It was like watching a train wreck: you wanted to look away, but couldn’t.

Finally our meal came out – mine in a huge pool of grease, and Sara’s burger, which was twice the size of any normal cheeseburger, with a gigantic steak knife sticking out of the middle.  We immediately started laughing – they’d given Sara the “Big John” burger, which was 2/3 lbs of meat!  She told the waiter that this wasn’t what she ordered, and Peter sighed, placed his hand on his hip, and said with great inflection (and I can’t do the voice justice) “THAT could be a problem!” followed by the biggest, toothiest, most blinding grin I’ve ever seen.  As he walked away, Sara and I burst into fits of laughter, over the whole situation. She reminded me that I’d waited over 16 years for this moment, which only caused us to laugh harder and harder.

I took a bite of the Monte Cristo.  In all honesty, I do not know how I survived that meal, physically.  The grease quotient made a McDonald’s hamburger look like a Healthy Choice meal.  There was no way I could ever finish this meal.  Usually I’m not that picky about a restaurant, but this one I couldn’t take.  I found the irony humorous in that the one restaurant I where I actually hated the food was the restaurant I’d idolized for 16 years of my life.  At this time, my laughter was uncontrollable.  Between the screaming, uptight manager pacing the kitchen, the smiley waiter never ceasing to smile, and the entire atmosphere of the place, I couldn’t stop laughing.  Sara was laughing too, and it was pretty obvious to those around us.  People would occasionally turn to look at us, but we couldn’t stop.

At this point, Peter brought Sara the same burger, knife and all, back to the table, only this time it had some limp bacon slapped on it.  She took one bite of it and nearly threw up.  She’d never had a burger she truly hated before.  I took a bite of it, and almost lost my greasy dinner as well.  The humor of this situation overwhelmed us.  We couldn’t take it, so we paid the bill, thanked smiley Peter, and left.  We laughed so hard we cried during the drive home.

Later that evening, as we were sitting in my room, not doing much of anything, Sara quietly whispered the word “Bennigan’s.”  We both laughed so hard, that tears were streaming down our faces, neither of us could breathe, and she had to run to the bathroom to rid herself of “Bennigan’s.”  Neither of us had ever laughed that hard in our entire lives.  We literally laughed ourselves sick for at least a half an hour.  My boyfriend called during this time, and he thought something was wrong with me because I was sobbing hysterically into the phone.  I tried to tell him of our adventure, but the words were too muffled by my laughing/crying.  Every time since then that we have told someone this story, we have burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter.  The fact that I’d worshiped this place for 16 years was too much for me to handle.  The dream that was Bennigan’s had quickly turned into a nightmare, one that I’ll never forget.  No wonder my parents had told me it’d closed.  I wish this had been the case.  The luster that was once Bennigan’s has definitely tarnished for good.

(Written for a graduate media storytelling course where we had to tell a meaningful story from our life through various forms of media)