Welcome to Life in Chains, Eater's essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible. Here, Liam Lowery recalls the many family milestones that happened at Outback Steakhouse: joyful, awkward, and wistful.
fter being laid up in bed for weeks, recovering from an illness she caught in the hospital, my mom said the unthinkable: "Who wants to go to Outback tonight?" I was in the fourth grade, and I wanted nothing more. I looked at my dad. He raised his eyebrows, then winked at me. This was for real. "Okay," he said as he rose from his chair next to the bed, clapping his hands together, "everybody be ready in 30 minutes."
Growing up, my dad’s Navy job took my family from base to base while my mom fought her own war against an aggressive, Whack-A-Mole-style breast cancer. When my parents took us out for dinner, they wanted food we would actually eat, for a good value, served with a touch of can’t-get-that-at-home luxury. Less fussy than Cheesecake Factory, more substantial than Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse was my family's celebratory dinner destination.
A gust of air conditioning announced our arrival to a new plane of existence: Outback was like home, but better
On Outback nights, we would get a little dressed up — polo shirts instead of t-shirts — and my mom would call ahead to reserve a table under my dad’s name. We all loved the steak and the Bloomin’ Onion, and whether we were living in Florida or Nebraska or Connecticut, visiting family in Maryland, or taking college tours, there was always an Outback within an hour’s drive — far enough away to be special, but close enough to be attainable.
Outback’s distinct aesthetic made it stand out in strip malls or parking lots shared with hotels: white or yellow buttercream siding, a mint green aluminum roof the color of a Milk of Magnesia label, and a giant red block-letter sign, brash enough to be visible from the highway. The neon would cast a glow like a food-warming lamp as we passed through the chunky pecan-stained doors, and then a gust of air conditioning announced our arrival to a new plane of existence: Outback was like home, but better.
Each table was set with modern glassware and large black fabric napkins wrapped neatly around serrated steak knives with chunky wooden handles. The ceiling was pitch black to hide the lines and pores of the cheap drop-tile, but to me it looked like a the starless night sky stretched over the outback (I figured Australia was too low on the globe to have stars). The entire restaurant was covered in wood, from the paneling on the walls to the booths and tables, down to the blinds covering the windows; the standard wall decor included framed ads for Foster’s beer, an Australian flag or two, an illustration of Great Barrier Reef, hand-painted boomerangs in shadow boxes, and photos of alligators, kangaroos, and koalas. It was different, warm and quaint and kitschy enough to feel like another country, but with no shortage of creature comforts — a steakhouse eco-resort, complete with shrimp on the barbie.
There was always an Outback within an hour’s drive — far enough away to be special, but close enough to be attainable
Settled in the large booths, which could seat everyone in my tall family, we ordered the same thing every time: Diet Cokes, a Bloomin’ Onion, and five identical orders of the Outback Special, with a house salad (ranch dressing) and steamed vegetables as our sides. The Special consists of a larger-than-FDA-recommended serving of sirloin steak seasoned with a proprietary mix of spices, which included salt, pepper, cayenne, and garlic powder, but also something else. "Cumin," my mom would say, "No, tumeric." On her steak, my mom would always spread some of the leftover butter from the Bushman bread, a practice she claimed was French.
A silence would set over our table as soon as the plates were set down. My mom would point out that Bloomin' Onion was too large for smaller parties, but it was always demolished by our clan in less than five minutes. And when the steaks arrived, she would encourage us to cut the steak to make sure it was cooked correctly. It always was.
Down the line, even as my brothers got older and left for college and I got ready to do the same, Outback had staying power. It became the site of welcome home dinners for spring break and Thanksgiving, for any time the five of us could be together. The Special remained our uniform order, and even after my brothers and I were old enough to start ordering frosty mugs of Foster’s, we kept ordering Diet Cokes.
y mom knew I was gay. Instead of talking about it directly, she offered subtle support by putting on Ellen when we were home together after school. When I was seventeen, over a dinner of bagged Caesar salads on the couch, she said that, if I wanted to wear suits, I should dress like Ellen: with pops of color, and not too mannish. I blurted out that I was transgender — or, come to think of it, maybe I said I was transsexual. She said "okay," then looked away and turned off the television. I mumbled something about having to do homework. I went to the kitchen and threw the rest of my salad in the trash. The lettuce was browning, anyway.
About a month later, as I was the leaving for school, my mom called after me. "I was thinking we could go to Outback tonight," she said. "And, honey, you should wear whatever you want." We arrived at 4 o’clock, just as the doors opened. I’d just cut my hair short and I wore a Target men’s button-down. It was the first time I’d worn all men’s clothes out with my mom, and I fidgeted with the side pocket of my cargo shorts. The lobby was quiet; we were the first ones to arrive for dinner, and the hostess seated us immediately. She asked if we wanted anything to drink, and my mom ordered a Gold Coast ‘Rita (frozen, lots of salt) for herself and a Diet Coke for me.
After we sat down, she didn’t let a second pass before delivering her opening line: "Men like steak. You've always loved steak. I should have seen it coming, really." We both laughed a bit uneasily, and she cleared her throat. I saw our waitress coming with the drinks and willed my mom not to say anything else. This all felt like a mistake; I hadn’t come out the way I’d planned to, calmly, to both my parents, maybe in a letter. But my mom reached across the table and grabbed my hand all the same, a freight train of acceptance. "I’ve been doing some research on transgender, or, well — is it transgender or transsexual?"
The waitress set down our drinks without looking at us and walked away quickly. I blushed, but my mom paid no mind. I noticed then that she’d worn eyeliner in small, delicate wings, and her favorite eye shadow, Clinique’s A Different Grape — a purple-gray shade, like a healing bruise. She loved the color but used it very sparingly, only on special occasions and holidays, since it had been discontinued.
On her steak, my mom would always spread some of the leftover butter from the Bushman bread, a practice she claimed was French
I started to tear up, and realized we were in the booth next to the one we sat in before my brother left for college. She wore A Different Grape that night, too. "Transgender people," I said, smiling weakly, "is the plural."
"Well, I went to the library to look at some books about transgender people, and I’m going to keep researching," she said, sounding like she was at an interview for a job she wanted but was unsure she was qualified for.
I laughed, surprised to hear my mom say the word "transgender" at Outback. She was already a quick study on parenting a transgender kid. I squeezed her hand. "I love you."
She exhaled and relaxed her shoulders, which fell away from her ears. "I love you too. And I’m sorry I don’t know more about all this yet, I have a lot to learn." I tensed, guilt rising like warm bile in my throat. I didn’t want being transgender to harm my relationship with my mom. I realized then how in coming out, I gave her an ultimatum: Love and accept me, or don’t. Her choice was obvious, but I regretted how I went about it.
She sensed my unease and raised her glass, "We are celebrating our first mother-son dinner," she said as we clinked glasses, "the first of many." The waiter came back to the table. Because it was just the two of us, we skipped the Bloomin’ Onion, and ordered our Outback Specials. Perfectly medium-rare, the same as ever.
bout a month before my mom died, my wife and I got married. Two days later, we all sat surrounding her bed — my dad, brothers, my new wife Marisa, and me. Our stomachs growled. "How about Outback?" My mom asked ruefully.
She wasn’t feeling well enough to head out, so courtesy of Outback Curbside To-Go, we ordered six Specials online (something I’d never imagined back when we had to look up the number in the phonebook). Within half an hour, we were sawing away at our Specials while Independence Day played on FX. It was six years since our first mother-son dinner, and we’d had countless Outback Specials since. Her appetite wasn’t much these days, so seeing her eat the same steak we’d shared for decades made me feel safe, like she was going to bounce back despite her prognosis. We all chewed away, watching Will Smith save the world.
My last meal with my mom before she started drifting in and out of consciousness ended with me taking away her empty Styrofoam container to toss in the garbage. I shook it, surprised to feel it was empty. "I wasn’t that hungry," she joked. That she felt well enough to eat a piece of medium-rare beef was a good sign: We were going to have dozens more Outback Specials together as a family, maybe even at an Outback restaurant.
Less than a month later, my mom died in that last slice of early morning before dawn broke, the five of us again surrounding her in the bedroom.
After the people from the funeral home took her away, I slumped onto the bed and closed my eyes, trying to remember what my mom thought the secret ingredient was in the Outback spice rub. Coriander? Paprika? Turmeric? It was too late to ask.
arisa and I received an Outback gift card for Christmas that year. It was a thoughtful gift from my grandparents, but for a long time I didn't feel like using it. I surprised myself recently when I asked Marisa if she wanted to go to Outback on a Saturday afternoon. The red neon sign didn’t shine as brightly inside a Queens shopping mall as it did along a suburban highway, and the mint green awning couldn’t match the traditional shingled roof. But when we walked through the doors and the chill from air conditioning hit me, I let out a long, slow breath.
Over our decades-long relationship, Outback has rebranded. Instead of folksy framed boomerangs, the walls now feature shadowboxes of herbs and spices. But even toned down, the vibe remains the same: Every surface is made of wood, it is dark even in early afternoon, and it is freezing.
My lasting memory is her sitting in bed like a queen, taking away her empty Styrofoam container. "I wasn’t that hungry," she joked.
I can now make a better steak at home, for less, in my well-seasoned cast iron pan, and I have met at least a dozen real Australians, none of whom have said, "G’day, mate!" But there aren’t many places where I feel close to my mom. Walking around the corner and past the bar, I feel like I could look over and see her sitting in a booth, waiting for us.
The hostess sat Marisa and I near two families with young kids struggling to maintain order during their meal. Since the last time we’d been inside an Outback, the menu had changed to be more modern — the typeset is cleaned up and the references to preparing meat and seafood "on the barbie" are fewer, though kookaburra wings have gone nowhere. I saw children eating burgers and wondered if they were members of Outback families like mine, lamenting that they will never know an Outback whose Joey Menu features lots of kangaroos.
"Look," Marisa said, pointing to a new menu item called Bloom Petals. Our waiter came over, and I asked what the petals were. "Oh," he said, surprised we needed further explanation, "It’s just like, basically a half-serving of Bloomin' Onion. It’s a small Bloomin’ Onion."
I felt like my mom was speaking to me through an aging chain restaurant’s health-conscious makeover. I laughed and shook my head. "Well, we have to one order of those," I said.
Marisa smiled at me. "And two Outback Specials, please. Medium-rare."
Liam Lowery is a writer living in Queens. He is a columnist at Everyone Is Gay whose essays have appeared in Newsweek, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere.
Photos by Mike Mozart/Flickr, David Pashley/Flickr, Roger W/Flickr, and cmorran123/Flickr, respectively
Edited by Matt Buchanan