I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
December 1, 2021
“This tastes just like eating the best grilled cheese sandwich and the best cup of French onion soup at the exact same time,” I told my husband recently as I finished the last bite of yet another glorious sandwich from Bill’s Sandwich Palace. This time, I’d ordered their French Onion Shroom, an intoxicating mix of Char Siu BBQ mushrooms, caramelized onions, and Havarti and Gruyere cheeses, pressed between thick slabs of garlic buttered toast. I sighed and sat back in my seat. “It just makes me feel happy. I love it when food does that.”
Happiness is exactly what we’re chasing when we choose a new restaurant or recipe. We crave that deliciously warm and fuzzy joy that comes with consuming truly good food. It might be the nostalgic satisfaction of mac and cheese that tastes just like grandma’s, or delighted surprise upon tasting a perfectly spiced chicken molé for the very first time. Months and even years later, certain dishes still make me feel swoony just thinking about them — The creamy black tonkatsu ramen at Kohana in Clarksville. The deeply satisfying Mahnomen porridge at Hell’s Kitchen in Minneapolis. The paroxysm-producing sweet tea fried chicken sandwich at Saw’s BBQ in Birmingham. The exotic miso-marinated black cod at Nobu in London. Memories of truly great food can instantly transport us to some of our favorite places — vacations, family dinners, romantic date nights — and once we find it, we’ll pay any price to have it again.
That’s what Nashville-based celebrity chef Sean Brock was banking on when he came up with Joyland, ‘a fun new concept… designed to spread JOY,’ according to the Joyland website.
Unlike Brock’s pricier restaurant concepts, Joyland is intended as an homage to the fast food restaurants of yesteryear, with a Brockian twist of meticulously researched recipes and fancy ingredients that even the most expensively scarved food snob can endorse. Offering biscuits, fried chicken, burgers, fries, and milkshakes, Joyland’s menu seems simple enough at first glance. But according to Eater Nashville, an unbelievable amount of research and money went into each item on the list.
The beef for the burgers, for example, is a ‘customized blend’ from Bear Creek Farm. The buns are baked with ‘a device specifically designed to sense heat fluctuation.’ The biscuits are whipped up with Boonville flour and Cruze Farm buttermilk. The chicken seasonings were selected with the help of ‘flavor scientists in the snack food industry.’ And, Brock tells Eater, his team tested more than 100 different breading mixes to find just the right mix for Joyland’s fried chicken, which makes me picture him as some sort of culinary Willie Wonka, sipping from various brightly colored proprietary blends that bubble over in beakers in his top secret food laBORatory.
All this made me really eager to try Joyland. I mean, with so much effort, so much time, and so many dollars clearly spent, the food was scientifically guaranteed to bring joy, correct? I’m sure that 9 out of 10 flavor scientists would agree.
It was time to put my hypothesis to the test. My family and I went to Joyland on a recent Sunday.
After finding the very last parking space on the street outside, we entered Joyland and were met with a cavernous space consisting of concrete floors, industrial decor, and bright vinyl booths. It was vast and mostly empty. Behind the brightly lit counter just inside the door, a half-dozen employees toiled. None of them looked the least bit joyful.
As we, clearly first-timers, discussed what to order, the cashier stared at us with casual disinterest. Clearly, we wouldn’t be getting any helpful suggestions from him. But while the employee attitude seemed slightly off-brand, I really didn’t care. If the food was good enough, it didn’t matter to me whether the servers were joyful… I just hoped they had all washed their hands.
“Do we want to make the burger a double?” my husband asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “It’s a $9 burger, so the single must be plenty big enough.”
In the end, we settled on two chicken sandwiches ($11.00 each), two Joyburgers ($9 each), and three orders of fries ($3 each), two crinkle-cut, one curly, all split between the four of us. While my husband paid for our order, the kids and I sat in one of the booths.
“It feels like we’re on a movie set for a fast food diner,” I told my daughter, looking around. I paused, then added, “If the movie set were designed by an alien who’d read a book about ’50s diners, but had never actually seen any pictures of them. Or visited planet earth.” She laughed, but I was serious. That’s what it looked like. It was very clean. Very streamlined. Very antiseptic. Very echo-y. But it lacked the warmth and cozy charm of ‘fast food restaurants of yesteryear,’ plenty of which still exist across the south. I thought of Johnnie’s Drive-In in Tupelo. Jiffy Burger in Manchester. Pizza Palace in Knoxville. Johnny’s Big Burger in Clarksville — All are actual classic fast food restaurants. Honestly, Waffle House came a lot closer to that vibe than Joyland.
But again. Who cares as long as the food is amazing? And it was, I knew, going to be amazing! Because science! And scientists! Bun-making machines! And a James Beard award-winning chef!
The food came out fairly quickly, in Krystal-esque cardboard sleeves. Eagerly, I slid one of the burgers out onto a napkin and used a plastic knife to slice it in half. And then I stared at it for a moment, feeling deflated.
“Wow,” I said. “It’s small. Like really, really small.” It was so small, in fact, that a half of a Joyland burger could easily be consumed in two or three bites.
This did not bring me joy.
“This was nine dollars,” I whispered. “Nine. Dollars.” I took a hopeful bite, chewed and swallowed. “It’s just… okay,” I said.
And now it’s time for a burger aside, because it was difficult in that moment to articulate why this burger brought me not joy, but disappointment and maybe even a tiny bit of rage. I have paid more than $9 for a burger. I have paid more than $20 for a burger. I did not feel cheated. In some cases, the burger was served at a nice restaurant like Sperry’s and it was 1. delicious and 2. served in a fine dining environment. In other cases, the burger was massive and big enough for two, like the mouthwatering $17 double cheeseburger at Mother’s Ruin, or really special, like Kapu Haole’s Hawaiian burger at Bar Sovereign.
Joyland’s burger was good, but not great. I’d say it was exactly half as good and ¼ as filling as The Pharmacy’s delicious and widely revered $11 cheeseburger. And considering that the Joyland burger was created by Sean Brock and, well, scientists, that’s a disappointment. And when I think about the fact that if Sean Brock is charging $9 for a tiny fast food burger, then other restaurants around town are going to think they should be charging $9 for their tiny, just-okay burgers… yes. I feel a little bit of rage. Just a little. But still.
Joyland’s fried chicken sandwich, at $11, was far more substantial and it was very good, but lately I’ve been putting all fried chicken sandwiches to the Zaxby’s test and y’all, I’m sorry to say that Joyland’s fried chicken sandwich did not pass. It was not as good as Zaxby’s $7 Signature Chicken Sandwich. I know. I really wanted Joyland to beat Zaxby’s, but it did not.
You’d think I wouldn’t come back to Joyland after this experience, but you would be wrong. Because I haven’t told you yet about the fries.
The fries were a marvel of engineering. The fries were divinely inspired. And the fries were only $3, which is a totally fair price for what we got.
Sure, they look like a simple box of crinkle cut fries, but you know how when you order even really good crinkle-cut fries, some of them come out perfect and crisp while others are limp and kind of disgusting, and you end up rooting around in the box for the crispy ones and leaving the floppy ones to slowly get cold and nasty? Every single one of our Joyland french fries was uniformly crisp, perfectly salty, and wholly delicious. My children argued that the curly fries were even better, but I have always considered curly fries to be the bastards of the french fry family. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… they just have to deal with some side eye at the reunions, if you know what I mean.
Either way, Joyland’s french fries sparked joy in the Ferrier family, and if Sean Brock’s Wikipedia entry 40 years from now starts with Sean Brock is best known for perfecting the crinkle-cut french fry, let’s be clear here and now that I was the one who called it first.
I will go back to Joyland (assuming I’m not permanently barred due to this review) for the fries. I might even try a milkshake, although a milkshake is a milkshake is a milkshake, in my experience. Have you ever had a really bad milkshake? I didn’t think so.
I’m left with some deep and disturbing thoughts after our Joyland visit. Joy, I’ve decided, cannot be manufactured by scientists or expensive machines or fancy-sounding names for perfectly ordinary ingredients. Joy is possible only when food is made with love or passion or creative energy that has less to do with dollars and more to do with an all-consuming devotion to the art of cooking. This I believe.
And that’s my review.