People love to pick on chain restaurants. Like used car salesmen, the mass feeders are easy targets. Their uniformity and ubiquity seem to go against a culture increasingly bent on personal customization.
Indeed, it has been a rough past few years for casual chains, whose customer base has been dropping. But some of their presumed negatives are also part of their appeal. The promises of speed and sameness can be downright welcome when you're hungry and near a highway exit, on a business trip in a strange place or home for the holidays. Knowing that you can wake up to the same fluffy pancakes from Denny's whether you're in Miami or Minneapolis, or sit down to the identical warm breadsticks at Olive Garden, no matter which of its 800-plus branches you find yourself in, speaks to the chains' charm offensive: no-surprise comfort.
But not all chains are created equal. That's why I spent several months grazing through the menus of the 10 casual, full-service restaurant chains that have the highest sales, according to Nation's Restaurant News. (For the record, Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar is No. 1, with $4.4 billion in annual domestic sales, although its parent company's profits have been slipping.) Just as I would for a star-rated critique, I visited each chain multiple times.
I surprised myself at one restaurant when I took home leftovers - something I seldom do even from independent establishments. Other lessons: Mashed potatoes are almost always better than french fries, "lite" applied to a dish might as well be a stop sign, and when a picky friend calls something "entirely edible," it's the equivalent of a rave. Here's how I ranked the chains, in order from least favorite to most, along with letter grades.
10. Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar
The saddest meals of my entire year? Nothing can touch lunch and dinner at the sports bar that can't even get its signature dish right. I'm not sure which is more of a travesty, the scrawny wings (pick your poison: traditional or boneless) or the woody carrot sticks that accompany them. Sauces vary from fair (Caribbean jerk) to grim (Parmesan-garlic), and I can't help but think of them as masks rather than enhancements. Then again, the factory-issue fried boneless wings could use a lift; as is, they taste like KFC sans every single one of those secret 11 herbs and spices, save for salt. It gets worse. "Street tacos" - tasteless soft flour tortillas encasing bland grilled erasers (chicken, per the menu) splashed with ranch dressing - do a disservice to food trucks everywhere. There are a lot of bad black bean burgers out there, but this place takes the trophy - for worst - for the crusty black puck that bends when you bite. The dozens of TVs, most turned to sports, force you to look away from the food, a good thing given whatever glop - mostly beige, mostly fried, don't even think of ordering a salad - is on the table. The only moment that gave me any relief during the endurance contest is the time I walk past a guy wearing an all-too-familiar red cap whose message takes me aback: "Make racists afraid again." Bottom line: Better to miss a meal than to find yourself in this loud, garish and thoroughly soulless restaurant-in-name-only.
Cuisine: Wings and beer.
Claim to fame: Sauces and seasonings offering endless customization.
Slogan: "Wings. Beer. Sports."
Best of the bunch: Getting the check.
Steer clear of: Everything but the beer.
Tidbit: The number of TVs varies by the size of the branch. Most are equipped with 50 or so.
Defining moment: Figuring out where to go for a real meal afterward.
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Probably the best that can be said about the food in one of the most generic backdrops around is that the pancakes are fluffy (if a dash salty); the vegetable omelet is as green with fresh spinach as it is yellow from eggs; and marbled rye bread can turn even an unfortunate beef patty and barely melted cheese into a fair-enough sandwich.
Ultimately, the service leaves a better taste in my mouth, even though I once have to go outside to find my server to pay my check. (She was on a smoke break.) I salute the honesty, as on the night I ask about the day's soup and am told it is "potato, but we're at the end of it, and I wouldn't do that to you." And I admire a server who can read a table in a hurry, as the morning one pours "some nice hot coffee for you gentlemen. You look like you need to get back to the office." Two of us order enough for four, a cross-section of the plastic menu. "If you eat all that food," the server cracks, "I'm going to give you a hug." Ten minutes later, a companion and I are biting into a dry cheeseburger served in a cottony bun, hoisting a leathery soft tortilla crammed with fish that appeared to be fried in a straitjacket and trying to decide which was more of a salt bomb: the thin batter-fried steak or the cream gravy covering it. Our table, in other words, has turned into a minefield. No hugs for us!
Claim to fame: Open 24/7.
Slogan: "Eat up every moment."
Best of the bunch: Patty melt, spinach-mushroom omelet (hold the flat hollandaise).
Steer clear of: Burgers, fried fish tacos, country-fried steak.
Tidbit: Four syrups (typically old-fashioned, butter pecan, blueberry and strawberry) are always offered. Franchisees can opt to swap in real maple syrup and boysenberry.
Defining moment: Eating pancakes and wishing I were enjoying them at Denny's.
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Let me just get it out of the way: The piece de resistance here is one of the most vulgar creations any chain has ever whipped up. The Bloomin' Onion packs in more fat, more salt, more guilt than just about any single signature I can think of. So why is my party denuding the baseball-size vegetable of its greasy petals as if we're in a race, even though we know we're going to feel like beached whales afterward? Because Americans can't resist over-the-top fair food, even in their restaurants. Also because strips of hot onions dunked in something cool and creamy (imagine ketchup-tinted mayonnaise with a slight bite) is a pretty addictive combination.
People come here for steak. They shouldn't. While the beef looks the part of steak you want to slice in to, the cuts I try taste tame. The alternatives to beef here - bready crab cakes, arid pork ribs - are almost as sad. An exception to the rule is chicken, specifically the moist grilled chicken with an herbed Parmesan crust and a garnish of tomatoes and basil - everything fresher-tasting than the woody carrots riding shotgun. Don't let the menu or the outdoorsy decor fool you. Outback has as much in common with Australia as Olive Garden has with Italy. The single-best dish turns out to be dessert: spiced carrot cake with actual threads of carrot in each big slice and a veneer of icing.
Cuisine: Steak, and a pretend notion of what's cooking Down Under.
Claim to fame: The 1,950-calorie, enough-for-six Bloomin' Onion.
Slogan: "Done Right."
Best of the bunch: Wine by the glass poured from individual carafes, garlicky mashed potatoes, Parmesan-herbed chicken, spiced carrot cake.
Steer clear of: Crab cakes, fish tacos in leathery tortillas, pork ribs, not-so-hot and batter-heavy "volcano" shrimp.
Tidbit: The free-spirited Australian theme was chosen in part based on the success of the 1986 Hollywood splash "Crocodile Dundee."
Defining moment: Gratis brown bread shows up with a steak knife plunged into the vaguely caramelly loaf.
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7. Red Lobster
Red lobster makes for blue diners, at least here, where the headliner can be found scattered on a thin but doughy pizza with a binder of mozzarella, and steamed and split to reveal seafood that tastes like... not much without melted butter, lots of it. Clams make a poor impression, too, be they the few in a bowl of pasty chowder with mealy potatoes or offered as chewy fried strips. Salmon might just as well have swum in from a banquet. Sometimes, the most nautical part of my visits are the garnishes on the walls: paintings of lighthouses and framed signal flags. Maybe I'd feel differently in the company of Beyoncé, who shouted out to the chain in "Formation."
Exceptions give me hope. If snow crab claws require some work to tackle, at least their yield is sweet. And Yucatan shrimp, among the chain's new "tasting" plates, benefit from diced caramelized pineapple and the heat of jalapeños. In the end, though, the choice parts of a meal are apt to be the warm and fluffy biscuits that launch every meal and the freshly creamy coleslaw you can request as a side. Anyone for a salad sandwich?
Claim to fame: Biscuits so popular their mix is for sale in supermarkets.
Slogan: "Now this is seafood."
Best of the bunch: Cheese biscuits, Yucatan shrimp, coconut shrimp, crab legs.
Steer clear of: Doughy lobster pizza, fried clams, maple-glazed chicken that tastes like an airline issue, steamed lobster, achingly sweet and dense Key lime pie.
Tidbit: The chain sells 395 million cheddar biscuits a year.
Defining moment: "Do you ever get tired of the biscuits?" I asked a veteran waiter who told me he danced on the side. "I don't," he replied, turning his hips. "Because I have to watch out for this!" he said, playfully slapping his backside.
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If all you were to eat were the ribs that spawned one of the most popular restaurant jingles of all time (don't start singing it!), you would wonder what all the fuss is about. No amount of barbecue sauce hides the fact that the flesh is dry. (Like french fries, ribs are a dish that chains seem to have a hard time nailing.) As is true of a lot of restaurants higher up on the food chain, your best bet is to front-load, or focus on appetizers. Chili's makes it easy with its Triple Dipper, your choice of three snacks. Zero in on the tasty mini-burgers, the spiced onion rings and the kicky Southwestern egg rolls filled with corn and black beans.
Elsewhere on the menu, Chili's tries and fails to deliver on a few food fashions. The mushy ear of corn slathered with mayo and pops of harsh spices is a poor way to replicate the Mexican street food staple elote loco (crazy corn), and a cloying salted caramel molten cake in the shape of a volcano appears to use pancake batter in its base. As for the Cajun pasta, penne with chicken or shrimp in cream sauce is salty with Parmesan - a gummy bore. Simple is better. Rib-eye comes with a nice beefiness and a scoop of mashed potatoes loaded with bacon, cheese and scallions. Trying to eat healthfully lands you disappointments, including a "Caribbean" salad strewn with Mandarin oranges, pineapple and red bell peppers, along with a honey-lime dressing that tastes more like a dessert topping. I have to say, though, that the stinging citrus-chile sauce on the overcooked salmon, from the "Guiltless Grill" section of the menu, keeps the dish from being served DOA.
Cuisine: American with a Southwest touch.
Claim to fame: The earworm to promote Chili's baby back ribs.
Slogan: "Like no place else."
Best of the bunch: Southwestern egg rolls, mini-burgers, panko onion rings, rib-eye.
Steer clear of: Caribbean salad, Cajun pasta, salted caramel cake.
Tidbit: The creative director behind the chain's song (brought back this year) says he's never eaten Chili's ribs.
Defining moment: Ice-cold "tableside" guacamole is simply dropped off at, well, the side of our table.
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5. Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar
Eat out in enough full-service chains, and the similarities become clear: None of them can cook broccoli right. Salmon is almost always overdone. Napkins are doled out like club passes on the Strip in Vegas. Bigger is often perceived as better. (When a friend's sangria, a ringer for spiked apple juice, shows up in a glass the size of a bird bath, I hear Miss Piggy in my head: Never eat anything bigger than your head, a rule that could also apply to drinks.) Also, if you don't feel like talking, you can often play games on the tabletop tablets, a distraction that also allows you to pay, even split bills, without interacting with your server.
All of the above is true at Applebee's, which nevertheless offers sufficient choices on its multiple plastic menus in its rec-room-dressed dining rooms to keep the brand interesting for discerning eaters. Skeptics can warm up to the mildly zesty Sriracha shrimp presented on tortilla strips and agreeable chicken tacos, the filling tucked into its wonton shells with a light slaw. Forget the arid ribs with their vaguely sweet glaze and the whiskey-bacon burger, best for its fried onion ringlets. Better than you might expect are the juicy-enough steak on the surf-and-turf combo and slices of lemony grilled chicken arranged on quinoa jazzed up with dried cranberries. The latter is a rarity among the chains: something relatively healthful that you could imagine actually finishing.
Claim to fame: $1 margaritas (Dollaritas) and Long Island Iced Teas.
Slogan: "Eatin' good in the neighborhood."
Best of the bunch: Sriracha shrimp, crunchy-spicy chicken wings, steak quesadillas, skin-on mashed potatoes, grilled chicken with quinoa and cranberries.
Steer clear of: Ribs, salmon, apple chimicheesecake (caramel apples and cheesecake wrapped in a tortilla and fried).
Tidbit: The original 1980 menu included quiche and quail.
Defining moment: A server says he won't charge us for playing games on our table screen, but then adds the cost ($1.99) to our bill.
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4. Olive Garden
Unlike some of its competition, Olive Garden smells as if actual cooking is going on: The scents of Parmesan and garlic hang in the air when I walk in. I'm further charmed by the honesty of the bartender when I ask her for the best white wine, and she says, "I'm supposed to say Porto Vita, our house white," then suggests an unoaked chardonnay, Seven Suns, is superior. Of all the chain restaurants I surveyed, this one aspires to a modicum of sophistication; servers are more than happy to proffer tastes of wines.
Brick arches and sepia photographs play up an Italian theme, but the popular breadsticks - pillowy wands seasoned with garlic salt, brushed with margarine and palatable only when warm - are wholly American, as is the kitchen's tendency to overcook its pastas. Steer clear of the three-dishes-on-one-platter Tour of Italy, whose chicken parmigiana and gloppy fettuccine Alfredo taste like nothing I've encountered in the Old World. (The herbed lasagna on the plate makes a better port of call.) A new item, citrus-glazed salmon served on "creamy citrus" Alfredo sauce, is by turns sweet and dull. You don't have to be a vegetarian to appreciate the fresh-tasting minestrone, thick with beans and tomato, and serious comfort can be found on a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, a "create your own pasta" selection. "More salad? More soup?" the friendly severs repeatedly ask. What the restaurant lacks in finesse it makes up with generosity.
Claim to fame: Unlimited breadsticks and bottomless salad bowls.
Slogan: "We're all family here."
Best of the bunch: Gratis wine tastes, minestrone, spaghetti with meatballs, tiramisu.
Steer clear of: Sangria that tastes like Kool-Aid for adults, Tour of Italy (not!).
Tidbit: The first restaurant was opened in 1982 by General Mills.
Defining moment: The menu suggests you wash back fried lasagna bites with Blue Moon on draft.
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3. Texas Roadhouse
Talk about a howdy! Country music welcomes customers even from the outside. En route to a table, diners pass a scarlet display of raw meat that primes carnivores for lunch or dinner. Buckets of in-their-shell peanuts help stave off hunger while you peruse the menu. Like a number of chains, this one makes some noise for birthday celebrants, but this pine-walled roadhouse is the only brand I know that invites them to sit on a saddle-on-wheels while they're being feted with staff-led cheering and clapping. Beef is your friend here, be it in a bowl of zippy chili, chopped steak under a cover of cheese and caramelized onions or an agreeable rib-eye cooked the color you ask and best paired with mashed potatoes cratered with cream gravy.
The initial bear hug of hospitality, which includes a drop-off of fresh-baked, butter-brushed, slightly sweet rolls, can't mask some flaws, among them stiff catfish and dry pulled pork, the mass humiliated with a sweet barbecue sauce. (And my sticky plastic menu makes me wish more chains wiped their lists down, along with booths, after every use. No one wants to feel a stranger's fingerprints.) But this establishment does enough well to become your choice between like brands. Indeed, the most pleasant surprise is the Cactus Blossom, a whole deep-fried onion, each bronzed slice crunchy, peppery - and far less greasy - than the bloomin' draw at the place that pretends to take you Down Under.
Cuisine: Steaks with a Western theme.
Claim to fame: Steaks cut by hand and fresh-baked bread.
Slogan: "Legendary food, legendary service."
Best of the bunch: Most anything starring beef, mashed potatoes, Cactus Blossom.
Steer clear of: Pulled pork (dry) and catfish (stiff).
Tidbit: Each branch employs a butcher and a baker.
Defining moment: Looking for the restroom, I'm pointed to the "outhouse" sign.
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The cheeseburger? It's a whopper. Bite down on the construction, built with a bun that's freckled with sesame seeds, and the crusty patty might squirt juices - you know, like a decent hamburger might. The piping-hot fries are memorable more for their churro-like ridges than any potato flavor, but that means you might have room for the brownielike chocolate lava cake, a knockoff of the molten chocolate cake made famous decades ago by the esteemed Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York. (Chains are good at identifying fancy food trends and rethinking them for the masses.)
Breakfast is a 'round-the-clock option. I'm partial to the fluffy pancakes with their lacy edges, and I'd like the "loaded" breakfast sandwich more if its shaved ham was less salty and the swollen package was easier to tackle; my scrambled eggs slipped out when I chomped down. My go-to entree is spaghetti and meatballs, offered with a sauce that bridges sweetness and tang, and a buttery cushion of garlic toast. Lighter options include a pleasing chicken soup, sweet with carrots, and a dish of fresh fruit that brought together strawberries, apples and grapes. "Lemon for your water?" a server asks, just as waiters do in more upscale settings. My Uber driver asks for my review when he picks me up at what he said was his favorite location in Washington. Turns out he likes to go on Sundays, when gospel music is part of the mix. Then and there, he tells me, "It feels like my grandfather's." Proof, in other words, that chains can be personal.
Claim to fame: The Grand Slam, starring pancakes, eggs, bacon strips and sausage links.
Slogan: "America's diner is always open."
Best of the bunch: Pancakes, hash browns, spaghetti and meatballs, warm chocolate lava cake.
Steer clear of: Seasonal specials such as pancakes smothered in what tastes like white chocolate with orange zest.
Tidbit: The chain made a special menu for several Hobbit movies.
Defining moment: Getting a Value Menu, with meals for as little as $4.
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Especially after eating a lot of food that tasted as if it came from a factory rather than a kitchen, it was clear: No other chain restaurant in my months-long survey comes as close to home cooking as this operation. If the chicken dumplings are a little doughy and the corn bread muffins prove a tad salty, just about everything else that crossed my lips in this barn-size dining room dressed with lanterns and license plates is something I'd be happy to try again. Seconds, please, of the tasty meatloaf streaked with vegetables, tender roast beef with peppery brown gravy, and lemony, skin-on trout fillets, a weekly special. You don't have to eat rich here; a side of fruit brims with fresh pineapple, blackberries and blueberries, although the not-too-sweet pecan pie is worth the detour from any diet.
The all-American food is only part of Cracker Barrel's charm. To reach the restaurant proper, you cross a porch set with rocking chairs (they're for sale) and pass through a folksy retail store peddling candy, regional sodas, clothing, toys and Gwen Stefani's Christmas release. Country music and a crackling fire - you read that right, the restaurant comes with a hearth - right any wrong you may have suffered that day, and the service couldn't be more personable. Is the welcome mat out for everyone? An unfortunate history of corporate racism and discrimination has been addressed in recent years with inclusive declarations on the company's website. An imbiber's regret: no wine or beer to enjoy with my meals. Soda glasses are refilled without your having to ask, requests are met with "yes, sir" or "ma'am," and should staff members see you struggling with a bag of leftovers, they rush over to help. Yes, I take what I can't finish home with me. And every bite of those thin, well-seasoned pork chops, part of a "country boy" platter with fried apples and cheesy hash browns, makes me think of my grandmother - a feat matched by no other chain in my survey.
Cuisine: Southern-focused comfort food.
Claim to fame: Shopping and dining under one roof, and firing Brad's wife that time.
Slogan: "Pleasing People" reads the company's mission statement.
Best of the bunch: Meatloaf, pork chops, trout, macaroni and cheese, pecan pie.
Steer clear of: Pasty chicken and dumplings.
Tidbit: Every branch has an ox yoke and a horseshoe over the door and a traffic light over the restrooms.
Defining moment: Watching kids play checkers on the porch after dinner.