Yard House is a restaurant chain purchased last year by Darden Restaurants, the publicly traded corporation that brought us Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Seasons 52. The chain’s 44th location overlooks the Roebling Bridge, a baseball toss from the homegrown and similarly themed Moerlein Lager House. It enjoys a vast beer selection, sweeping river views, a thick bible of a menu and an expensive sound system piping out mostly Classic Rock.
Selecting Yard House for the long-awaited Banks Project is a real estate developer’s no-brainer. With more than 40 locations, the chain’s built-in customer base virtually guarantees its success. Its “all things to all people” approach to American fusion cuisine is designed to be bulletproof. If you like The Cheesecake Factory, you’ll dig this place. If you love beer, you’ll swoon in a pool of sudsy froth.
Inside Yard House it is both sleek and cavernous, with exposed steel pipes, glossy aluminum and an abundance of large LCDs around a bar brandishing a jaw-dropping 160 beer taps at its central core. The place feels like it belongs in a J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek film; it’s expansive, shiny and black, lacking only the film’s signature lens flares.
Yard House’s dizzying menu is arranged such that every popular genre or ethnicity is represented. The truffle fries are here. The street tacos are here. Want a couple sliders? They’ve got six different versions. How about nachos? You bet. Burgers? Check. Lettuce wraps? Of course. They’ve also thrown in chicken wings, flatbreads, crab cakes and their own trademarked, vegetarian-friendly meat substitute. And we haven’t even gotten to the entrees yet.
Nearly every conceivable variation on a hamburger is represented — there are more than a dozen.
Struggling with heavy, unwieldy menu albums, our waitress answered a popular question: Does Yard House still serve beer in the thin-necked, 3-foot-tall glasses that are its namesake? No, but they do sell 32-ounce “half-yards,” which are still as impressive as they are absurd. Cincinnati reportedly smashed Yard House’s single-day national sales record on Reds’ Opening Day, which is hard to believe. On that same day, they also broke the record for most half-yard glasses destroyed, which is very easy to believe.
Yard House offers four beer sizes: the 5-ounce “Shorty,” 12-ounce “Goblet,” 16-ounce Pint, and the Half-Yard. Local breweries like Rivertown, Christian Moerlein and Mt. Carmel make the long list. Beer flights are available in “Six Pack” variations.
Scanning the exhaustive menu, we chose what would become the highlight of our meal, the pear and gorgonzola flatbread appetizer ($6.65). Unlike most doughy flatbreads we’ve endured, this one was pleasingly thin and crispy, almost cracker-like, topped with just the right ratio of gorgonzola sauce, thinly-shaved pear, drizzles of balsamic syrup, caramelized onions and wispy leeks.
Our Chicken Enchilada Stack ($16.35) and Hongos Y Rajas Street Taco Plate ($11.35) arrived soon after. The Stack was a lukewarm, four-inch-high layered tier of small corn tortillas, chicken, pinto beans, smoky pasilla peppers, garlic and sour cream topped in a colorful yin-yang presentation of green tomatillo and red chili sauces. The chicken, tortilla and tomatillo flavors shone through, while other flavors remained stubbornly muted.
The Hongos Y Rajas were two tiny “street tacos” of shiitake mushrooms, grilled peppers and onions, feta and avocado slices, served with a small ramekin of pinto beans and a large mound of Asian-style, soy sauce-heavy rice. Larger tacos at authentic taquerias around town, served by people whose culture sings through in their food, offer the fruit of their labor for less than $3 apiece. Yard House filters all the chunky culture from their version, leaving a smooth, highly refined product costing up to $2 more. Their tacos lacked mushroom flavor, overwhelmed by peppers and onions. The rice was both salty and cloyingly sweet.
Our desserts, the salted caramel butterscotch pudding ($5.45) and the mini lemon soufflé cake ($3.95), were appropriately diminutive. I enjoyed the warm, subtle lemon cake coupled with the remaining swigs of my fruity beer, and the salted caramel pudding made good textural use of its cookie crumble topping.
But overall, something was missing from our dining experience. The food, while overpriced, wasn’t terrible, the views are stellar, the service competent.
Like many homogenized restaurant chains, Yard House lacks just a bit of soul.
Go: 95 E. Freedom Way, Downtown
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-1:20 a.m. Friday-Saturday