The Cincinnati List: Frisch’s

Frisch's“It’s comforting to know that even you eat a Big Boy from time to time.”

Fine. So I have a reputation for eating, well, not at Frisch’s– not at hybrid quick service/fast casual restaurants in general.  It’s okay– I’m aware of that reputation.  That’s a choice I’ve actively made for several years, but recently I had the opportunity to chat with the Research and Development chef and the VP of Marketing for Frisch’s, and what can I say?  My mind has been changed a bit.

Full disclosure: my dear friend, Kate the Great, just started doing some PR work for Frisch’s.  I knew she’d pitch me, and I resisted.  Frisch’s isn’t my schtick.  Sure, I ate it as a kid, but I certainly don’t eat it as an adult.  It’s a bunch of pre-cooked, processed, preservative-filled, terrible-for-you stuff I should avoid, right?  I told her: she could pitch me, but I won’t guarantee I’ll write about it.  Sure, it’s a local chain like Skyline or Gold Star, but it’s not my speed.

Then I talked with Greg Grisanti, the director of Research and Development for Frisch’s corporate.  We talked about the importance of homemade food, of whole food, of avoiding high fructose corn syrup and trans fats.  How preservatives had no place in “real food”.  We talked about Michael Pollan, and taste memories from childhood.  Grisanti has changed a few things since he started as their head of R&D: no more trans-fat shortening in the pie crust; a more natural-looking strawberry filling in the pie.  Real whipped cream. A few healthier options on the menu, like salmon and chicken.  Still, he apparently didn’t have to change much– almost everything that goes into Frisch’s is made either in-house or in Frisch’s commissary.  Their meat is ground fresh, they make the bread, and the onion rings come from some special onion and are breaded in-store.

I had no idea. I assumed that Frisch’s was buying pre-prepared from a national distributor like every other chain seems to.   I’m guessing most Cincinnatians don’t know that, either.

Frisch'sLike many Cincinnatians, I grew up with Frisch’s.  My grandma’s standard order: a Brawny Lad and vegetable soup.  My dad’s? A Big Boy and French fries.  We went there for breakfast after church, and my cousin worked there as a hostess.  Once I didn’t have to go there, I didn’t want to go there.  And I didn’t.  In fact, aside from buying a Big Boy to take to my dad on occasion, I haven’t purchased anything for myself there in ten years.  I think many of us just assume that Frisch’s is like most chains: prepackaged and preservative-filled. A pleasant memory from childhood, or perhaps an easy place to take kids, but otherwise? Not on our radar.

Let’s go back a couple of weeks.  The Better Half told me that since he’d lived in Cincinnati for nine years, he hadn’t done a lot of “Cincinnati” things.  He’d never been to the Symphony (done).  He’s never been to the Freedom Center or the CAC (on the list).  He’d never had a Big Boy, either.  We decided to remedy that.  I texted Katy: “Fine.  I think I have an idea. I can’t guarantee he’ll like it, but we’ll go.”  We were going to get The Better Half a Big Boy and cross this Cincinnati “thing” off of his list.

I decided, actually, that he needed to try not just the Big Boy, but also the Brawny Lad (in honor of Grandma), and the fish sandwich.  Our poor trainee at the Bellevue location probably thought we were nuts, ordering three sandwiches for two people.  Oh, well.

The fish sandwich has an interesting story– or really, a competitor does.  The Filet-O-Fish from McDonald’s was created by a franchisee here because McDonald’s had nothing to compete with Frisch’s fish sandwich during Lent and they were losing a ton of business.  Unlike McDonald’s, though, the fish sandwich is made of cod and you can tell it is a filet instead of a pressed fish patty. It was, of the three sandwiches, The Better Half’s favorite. He deemed it “a damn good fish sandwich”– high praise from a guy who grew up on Southern fried fish.

The Big Boy is, of course, a classic:  two patties, double decker bun, American cheese, lettuce, pickles and a ton of tartar sauce.  It’s a classic, though not exactly unique to Cincinnati, as Big Boy was haphazardly franchised across the country in the 50s and 60s.  Frisch’s Big Boy is the only one with tartar sauce, while the other prominent Big Boy remaining, Bob’s, does a Thousand Island dressing “special sauce”.  Who needs a Big Mac when you can have a freshly ground patty?

Frisch'sFinally, we got the Brawny Lad, both of our least favorite (sorry, grandma). I got it for nostalgia: I remember many, many afternoons with my grandma at Frisch’s, with her and her Brawny Lad: a burger on a rye bun with a thick slice of onion. That’s it.  It’s really German (rye bread, onion), and really not to Terry’s taste (and honestly, a bit bland for mine).  It’s somehow comforting that it’s still on the menu– just like there are still beets on the salad bar (VP of Marketing Karen Maier is as sentimental about her grandmother as I am about mine, it seems– and she liked beets on her salad).

Frisch'sWe finished with a very Southern peanut butter pie, and their crust is a lot better than it used to be– flakier, tastier– not the cold, shortening-filled version of the past.  It’s a nice change.

I also, at a separate lunch, got a tasting of two new, Lenten items (available starting today, Ash Wednesday, through Easter): po boys made with either clam strips or shrimp, topped with lettuce and a surprisingly good remoulade.  The clam strips are breaded in cornmeal, like the onion rings are, and the shrimp are beer battered.  The clam strip version is the better of the two, reminiscent of clam strips I’ve had in New England (though the shrimp aren’t shabby).  If you’re observing lent and want an alternative to a fish sandwich, either are a good choice.

Frisch'sSo, will I add a Big Boy to my regular diet?  Probably not (though they are tasty).  I’ll feel better, certainly, when I get a craving, knowing that their food is locally produced (and not full of weird fillers like most fast food).  If I’m craving a childhood memory, I won’t hesitate to stop in for a bite of childhood that actually holds up. And maybe a bite of strawberry pie, too.

(Disclosure: the Po Boys were provided to me by Frisch’s as promotional items, but we paid for the other meal ourselves at a different location.)

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23 thoughts on “The Cincinnati List: Frisch’s”

  • A friend lives in California, and they have a Bob’s Big Boy nearby.  Her husband ordered a Big Boy and was dismayed that it came with Thousand Island dressing.  He told the waitress, and she said, “Oh, you want a Cincinnati Big Boy” and replaced it with a tartar-sauce laden version.  They now know to order a “Cincinnati Big Boy” when they go there.

  • Good to know that Frishe’s gets a thumbs up from you.   Still one of my favorite comfort food places.   And I’m with your grandmother.   Brawny Lad for me.

  • Great news that for Frisch’s, actual food is important.  Now I don’t feel so bad about the brick of Halloween and Valentine’s Day coupons the kids get.  Awesome post all the way around!

  • Always been a favourite of mine! Soup and salad bar was my go to, their vegetable soup is the best.

    When I was a child I always chose Frisch’s as my special birthday dinner each year.

    So many fond memories of having ice straw races with my brothers…ya know…crushing the straw into the ice repeatedly to see who could get the straw to fill up with the crushed ice first…

  • The Big Boy; truly a craving I hope to never be tired of. I really enjoy their Peanut Butter pie as well….when I’m not eating a Hot Fudge Sunday!  Frisch’s fills a niche, that’s for sure. I love that I can go there with a book in tow and not have some flat screen tv’s blaring sports or other nonsense.

  • I was in there for my fish sandwich on rye Lenten tradition yesterday.  YUM!  Makes me feel better to know that it isn’t as bad as I assumed it was.  Thanks!

  • As a vegetarian, I was glad to see that Frisch’s has added a portobello sandwich to its menu.  The sandwich was okay, but kind of bland and I probably wouldn’t order it again (they have a  grilled cheese on the menu that’s better).  My husband and I get the jar Frisch’s tarter sauce and make our own veggie Big Boys at home a couple times a month. 

  • I loved this article so much that I too decided to try Frisch’s again. I had swore off of frisch’s 3 years ago, but this article had intrigued me so much I thought I would try Frisch’s again. BIG MISTAKE. I have never had food so disgusting, (except for my last trip to Frisch’s).

     I’ve went to Seven HIlls, Colerain, North Side and finally tonight I tried Frisch’s in Price Hill. Yes, we had the infamous Frisch’s coupons, but, this was nasty for even free food. My kids pancakes were so cold and hard that the butter just sat on top, and cutting them was not an option. I ordered the Cod Fish sandwhich, which was also cold and flavorless and over cooked.

    As if that wasn’t bad enough. The salad bar had soups that resembled spoiled milk, and , cottage cheese droppings all over the lettuce. I wasn”t looking for 5 star food, I mean, I did go to Frisch’s. I was looking for edible food, and an enjoyable experience for my kids to relic in.

    To my server, she was excellent. The manager on the other hand was as bad as the food. She took all the food off ( still took the Valentines day coupons though), as if that would make everything better. What I would have liked, is a sincere apology and possibly the mention of better training to her kitchen staff.

    As for the valentines day coupons, I had six of them, and 4 kids. I gave her all six coupons, and told her she could dispose of the extra, because I will NEVER eat at frischs again, Free or not, I’ve had truck stop food thats tasted better than my last few experiences to Frischs.  

  • I never would have guessed a national chain’s food counts as “local” due to tartar sauce…  Went there last night with kids’ Valentine coupons.  The chicken fingers were awful and the pizza sticks nearly inedible.  Sure, I guess a burger is okay, but Price Hill Chili’s Big Sam is a huge improvement on a “Big Boy,” as just one example.

    • Actually, the only thing national is the Big Boy brand.  All of the restaurants are under independent ownership with very different menus and aren’t affiliated (something about franchising laws being different in the 50s when the chain started out– now they’re not affiliated with each other)– so Frisch’s is truly local (I looked into it before I wrote).

      However, thanks for reminding me about Price Hill Chili.  I’ll need to try a Big Sam.

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