Walking into the newly remodeled Kerbey Lane Cafe feels a little bit like walking into the waiting room of a hip pediatric dentist’s office — that bright and that sterile. Gone is the reassuring grime of the brown tile floors and the glass cases full of chintzy UT memorabilia. Though the restaurant’s interior may be brand new, gone also is the feeling of newness Kerbey Lane used to hold for the wide-eyed freshman version of myself.
My first real memory of the restaurant, which famously serves hordes of drunken patrons 24 hours a day, is eating there with my family the day I first moved into the dorms. I’d gone once before during orientation and had immediately bought into the idea of Kerbey Lane as my new favorite place to eat. It was an easy decision: the menu uses words like “local” and “vegan” — something I’d yet to see in my hometown of San Antonio. Taking in the artwork on the walls and the tattooed wait staff, I developed the distinct feeling that eating at Kerbey Lane was something I could only do in college, like wearing Chacos with sundresses or talking to boys I didn’t know. Desperate for my family to see and appreciate this symbol of my soon-to-begin new life, I dragged them there for lunch. Sitting at a back table with my parents and younger sister, I still remember my disappointment when my father put down his sandwich without finishing and responded to my desperate “Isn’t it just the best?” with a non-committal and unexcited “Sure.”
Over the course of the next year, my freshman year, I found myself at Kerbey Lane time and time again, each meal eaten with the cast of for-now friends that populates your early-college confusion. A highly informal poll of my current friends confirms that Kerbey Lane plays this role for many a UT student: a sort of young-people driven Olive Garden, a place you never plan to go to and yet always seem to end up at. Like the Olive Garden, the food isn’t stellar, but it is convenient. Unlike the Olive Garden, the experience is better when you’re dining drunk — on lack of sleep, a night spent dancing or any beverage served in a red cup.
This time, when I visit the newly re-modeled Kerbey Lane, more than just the interior is different about the experience — it’s only 11:30 P.M, I’m a rising junior, I’m with old friends instead of new ones and I’ve just finished a physics test, not attending a party. But the menu, the waitress reassures us, hasn’t changed.
Unfortunately, what’s true about the restaurant as a whole is particularly true about it’s food: it’s best enjoyed when drunk. The famous Kerbey queso is not the treat I remembered: it’s an average-tasting ball of guacamole plopped in an average-tasting bowl of queso. And the first bite of the exalted pancakes causes my friend to pucker her lips and remark dryly, “starchy.” My turkey-avocado sandwich consists of two limp pieces of bread lined with suspicious-tasting avocado cradling the main, disheartening event: three or so slices of turkey that miraculously manage to be both desiccated and congealed, giving them the overall taste of a cellulose-based turkey substitute. The sweet potato fries on the side taste straight out of the freezer aisle, and a few hours later a loud stomachache pays me back for eating all of them (unlike the sandwich, which I only took a few bites from).
The one standout dish is the Tomato Pie, part of the restaurant’s seasonal menu. Tangy chopped tomato pieces outfitted in a natty miniature piecrust adorn themselves with a dressing of feta cheese and olives. Unlike the rest of the meal, it’s hard to find something to complain about with this Kerbey stand-by.
OK, I think as we split the bill, maybe my father’s lack of enthusiasm for the food was founded. As we stand up to leave, the light is more forgiving, and the restaurant in its new clothes finally looks smart and modern — what I imagine they were going for all along. About half of the booths are full, and it seems like everyone’s enjoying the classics: Tomato Pie, queso, Lemon Poppy Seed Pancakes. The summer, our waitress told us, brings in a different crowd, but to really get the feel of Kerbey Lane, you’ve got to come “when the bars close” on a Friday or Saturday night during the school year. Subpar food aside, I don’t think I’d mind ending up here again at 4 a.m., which, considering that horrendous sandwich, I take as proof of Kerbey Lane’s hard-to-shake appeal.