HOME > Chowhound > Not About Food >

Discussion

Chain vs. non-chain (from SF board)

  • s

Working in a chow-challenged area, I sometimes have no good option but to eat at a chain. That said, I'll turn to Chowhound to see if there is a chain that's worth my time and money. I'm not the only one. There are people on here who love Del Taco, Pasta Pomodoro, In-n-Out, and Trader Joe's. Tell me to avoid a place because it's crappy, but don't tell me it's crappy by definition just because it's a chain.

Your thoughts?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
Delete
  1. r
    Robert Lauriston

    Small local restaurant chains can be good, even great.

    Larger family-owned chains can be (but rarely are) good.

    Larger chains owned by publicly traded corporations can be (but rarely are) good so long as passionate founders are in charge. After that person quits or dies, the chain inevitably succumbs to marketplace pressure and becomes mediocre or worse.

    Case in point, Popeye's. Started off as a great local New Orleans chain. Went national, went downhill. Still has a few good dishes (red beans and rice, dirty rice, spicy fried chicken provided it's hot from the fryer), but the menu's been padded with a bunch of stupid crap.

    From all reports, the same thing's starting to happen to Pasta Pomodoro, which from 1995 to 2002 went from three restaurants in San Francisco to 25 all over California and Arizona, and in the past three years, with the help of $12 million from Wendy's, has doubled that number.

    22 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      It always depends. Some examples:

      Ding Tai Fung's a large international chain with franchises all over the world, but their xlb (at least at the LA branch) beats out many non-chain versions I've had.

      Pierre Marcolini's a chocolate shop with branches in a whole bunch of major cities. Their Fleur de Cacao bar is exceptional, with a clean, smooth and non-acidic finish that is quite rare even among the fancier chocolate makers. I suppose ditto for La Maison de Chocolat, even though I prefer the former.

      1. re: Limster
        r
        Robert Lauriston

        Pierre Marcolini is still an artisan. He and his staff make all the chocolate at his atelier in Brussels, and he's only got 15 shops.

        "For many locals, growth has changed the restaurant. 'Ding Tai Fung isn't what it used to be,' said a woman who works in the area identifying herself as Ms. Huang. '... I think the food is better and cheaper at Kao Chi or Chinchiyuan.'"

        http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/...

        "I finally got to try the XLB at Ding Tai Fung in Arcadia (LA) after many many repeat visits to branches in Tokyo (Takashimaya & Shiodome) and Taipei (Hsin Yi Rd only) . Have to say it was a disappointment. Perhaps because of the metal steamers they use, the skins dried out too quickly, and the fillings tasted strongly of inferior pork and too much sesame oil. The over-salty pai-gu skirted dangerously close to greasiness ..."

        http://www.liaoyusheng.com/archives/f...

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          I'm not sure how fair it is to pull random reviews off the Internet to discount Limster's point. I could probably do that for every restaurant in San Francisco. I personally would take Limster's POV over most of the Internet, having been to restaurants that he recommends.

          1. re: jen maiser

            To be sure, it's not fair to characterize Yusheng Liao as a random source from the Internet. He's as knowledgeable a xiaolong bao maven as there is out there, with plenty of Shanghai XLB eating creds as well as being a dedicated food blogger.

            Link: http://eatingchinese.org

          2. re: Robert Lauriston

            Exactly, Marcolini has 15 shops but still produces quality chocolate.

            as for DTF, the Taipei branch is Liao YuSheng's favourite, even though it's a chain.

            "My favorite xiao long baos are from the famous Taiwanese restaurant Ding Tai Feng (鼎泰豐)."

            (same link)

            1. re: Limster

              The SoCal branch of DTF made a marketing decision to use metal steamers in order to get a higher health rating score. Because of it, many believe that it can never be as good as Taipei. The pork in the US does not compare to what is used in Asia. That's the sacrifice for doing business in the US. But all in all, it would be hard to argue against ranking xlb from DTF among the top in the US.

              1. re: Limster
                r
                Robert Lauriston

                Marcolini makes chocolate in only one place. That's not comparable to a chain restaurant.

                Is DTF privately held and still run by the founder?

                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                  re: Marcolini, as I said, it depends. It also depends on how you choose to define a chain.

                  Not sure about DTF, I think it's a franchise.

                  1. re: Limster
                    r
                    Robert Lauriston

                    The inconsistency in corporate chain restaurants comes from the impossibility of commodifying the vision, passion, and commitment required to cook great food.

                    All of Marcolini's chocolates are made in his atelier in Brussels. Very different situation.

                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                      Good point, which is why I'd prefer not to dismiss a place just because it's a chain.

                    2. re: Limster

                      There are a total of 25 DTFs worldwide.

              2. re: Limster

                I think you are exaggerating a bit on DTF. They have a total of about 15 outlets, all in Asia except for the LA one. I've heard that the xlb at the San Gabriel branch is not up to par with the other branches.

                Link: http://eatingchinese.org

                1. re: Gary Soup

                  I hear that the branch in Singapore is quite poor, but I've never been myself.

                  1. re: Limster

                    I've eaten at the Singapore DTF (in the basement of the Paragon) a couple of times and thought their XLB inferior in taste to - believe it or not - Crystal Jade's La Mian branches (now, that's another chain). What I do love at that DTF, however, is watching the dozens of chefs, dressed in sparkling white, in their glass 'cage' painstakingly foldling the pleats on the XLB (18 per bun, I believe).

                    1. re: ju

                      I've also heard that Crystal Jade has the best xiaolong bao in SG, but have never been there to try them.

                      Link: http://eatingchinese.org

                      1. re: Gary Soup

                        I though they were good at Crystal Jade, but not the best I've ever had.

                        Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                    2. re: Limster

                      Otoh, the branch in Shanghai allegedly beats out much of the local competition.

                2. re: Robert Lauriston

                  In his autobiography, Jacques Pepin writes in some detail about exactly this point, when discussing the demise of Howard Johnson's after owner/founder Howard Deering Johnson died in 1972. (Pepin worked for Howard Johnson's for many years.) Mr. Johnson's son took over with business-school-educated management who gradually but eventually drastically lowered the food quality in order to cut costs, rather than change other aspects of the operation in order to compete with the growing fast food market.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    How do you know that the same thing has happened to Pasta Pomodoro if you haven't tried it? (I am assuming you haven't tried it since you asked about the food at PP in a post within the last few days on the SF Board. Unless of course you've tried it in the last few days).

                    Shep's original post was "Tell me to avoid a place because it's crappy, but don't tell me it's crappy by definition just because it's a chain". Sounds like you are saying, "it can be ok or even good, but only until it gets to be a chain of a certain size, and then it has to be crap". '

                    In that regard, on the SF Board you said that Scott's (a chain) had been crap since the original opened. Does that mean you have tried it in the last however many years (my recollection is that the first one opened quite some time ago)? Or is it crap by definition because it is part of a large chain? Personally, I don't think it is that good, but it really isn't crap either. I've enjoyed drinks there, and actually attended a large group dinner at the Scott's in JLS in the past two years that I thought was much better than average for a catered event. I had a simple salad, not overdressed, and my main was salmon, grilled simply and not overcooked. Nor were the vegetables overcooked. Ice cream for dessert. My employer chose it because they were able to provide those three courses and coffee and tea for under $30 per person, tax and tip included. With a nice view to boot. What is crap about that?

                    I will admit that I would be very unlikely to eat my words and try someplace like Cheesecake Factory or Olive Garden, but that is because I *refuse* to wait long times to eat unless I know for sure that a place is fabulous (even then I am reluctant). Example: I was recently at a local shopping center (Serramonte in SF) and we noticed that there was a huge line waiting for dinner at the mall's sit down place (I think it is a Chevy's). To me, it is totally baffling why folks would wait an hour to eat at Chevy's when there are so many great places so close by. In our case, we got in our car and drove to Ming's, which is at most a mile or two away. However, that doesn't mean I haven't tried Chevy's, not does it mean that I would assume it is crap (it isn't great, but it can be fine or even pretty good if one orders with thought. Most importantly, as Shep refers to, it may be the best choice in some areas. There are parts of say, Western Pennsylvania, where I would have been *thrilled* to find a Chevy's on my travels.)(sorry, PA board, not to pick on Western PA, but it is definitely chain-heavier than the bay area).

                    1. re: susancinsf

                      Here, here! Talk about monopolizing a thread!

                      1. re: susancinsf
                        r
                        Robert Lauriston

                        San Francisco's not a culinary wasteland.

                        If a big chain restaurant had better food than a local SF independent restaurant, then I'd have no quibble with people recommending it on Chowhound.

                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                          We have no quibbles with anyone recommending any place, chain or otherwise on chowhound, provided that it's done on the appropriate board.

                          We expect hounds to decide for themselves on what's delicious and what's not. And we expect that hounds will have a diverse set of opinions.

                          We also expect that hounds disagree politely and respectfully and not try to browbeat others whenever they encounter a different opinion.

                    2. j
                      janet of reno

                      Of course there are chowhounds who love certain chains. I am very sad that there is no longer a Popeye's in my town: I miss their spicy fried chicken. And of course, in some areas and on certain road trips, a chain restaurant may be your best bet. I'd rather eat In-and-out in Barstow than other alternatives the place may offer.....Another thing to consider is that chain quality *DOES* vary from location to location....another reason to discuss them here on chowhound (and possibly even discuss specific locations on specific regional boards, IMHO).

                      1. m
                        Morton the Mousse

                        It's important to note the difference between a chain and a franchise. There are plenty of examples of wonderful, regional chains of two or three establishments. If the same people who started the original restaurant run the chain they can supervise quality control and make sure that things don't go downhill. Of course, quality control becomes more difficult as the chain gets larger and more spread out.
                        Franchises are the AntiChow. Anyone is able to open a franchise as long as they pay the head corporation. Quality control is near impossible and the restaurant founders are usually either dead or retired. Although there are some notable exceptions, few franchises are passable.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Morton the Mousse

                          still, sometimes (about twice a year for me) a mcdonald's burger and fries are just necessary.

                          1. re: kristen
                            r
                            Robert Lauriston

                            McDonald's fries just aren't the same since the factories stopped adding beef extract to the hydrogenated fat in the par-frying machine.

                        2. Chains can be good; they can even be acceptable; even the ones that are nearly universally-panned by chowhounds often have dishes that (forgive me for damning with faint praise) don't suck.

                          Cases in point:

                          Every chowhound I've ever met has panned Olive Garden... but I do like their soup, salad and breadsticks.

                          In-N-Out is beloved by pretty much all Socalis, who miss it terribly when they leave. Is it the best hamburger in the world? Not by me, it's not, but it's good enough, it's cheap, and it's consistent.

                          P.F. Chang's has its ravers and its ranters, but there are some very good dishes there, which I always try to order. (I dislike ordering family-style at P.F. Chang's, because most of the food is heavily over-salted.)

                          Great chow is not always possible, despite the moaning of the absolutists ("you would never catch me alive at a Chili's").

                          I'll try anything twice. If it's terrible, I don't go back. There are only a few chains at which I will not eat because I've had repeated bad experiences -- Jack in the Box, Schlotzsky's Deli, and Chi Chi's, for example.

                          8 Replies
                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                            oh, but Jack in the Box is my favorite fast food chain. Love those tacos late at night :-)

                            of course, it could be the power of advertising since their ads are without peer in the industry (imo)

                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                              Our local Jack-in-the-Box has very tasty, crunchy fried-to-order tacos. Very cheap, too. One of my favorite midafternoon snacks.

                              1. re: Sharuf

                                AND you can get them at 5:30 AM, at least in El Cerrito.

                              2. re: Das Ubergeek
                                r
                                Robert Lauriston

                                I agree that In-n-Out's burgers are good enough to eat. If there's nothing better around I'll eat one rather than go hungry, which puts them a big step above corporate burger chains.

                                But they're still privately held and family-run.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Even the corporate burger chains have their custom from me on the very rare basis -- for example, there are times when all I want is an Egg McMuffin. I don't want a free-range egg on a sourdough tea-cake made from wheat that was sung to by Ojibwa elders with fancy cheese and Niman Ranch ham, I want an Egg McMuffin and all the disgusting trans fats and chemicals that go into it.

                                  Also, there is this to say about chains : you know exactly what it is you're going to get. When I'm driving up and down the 5 between Silicon Valley and Silicone Valley, with three screaming nieces and nephews in the car who want food NOW, I know that despite my dislike of it, McDonalds is a recognisable thing and they know that the menu will be the same and they don't need to say things like "I don't WANT to go to the Manteca McDonalds, I want to go to the Lebec McDonalds!"

                                  Finally, your point is mostly valid about privately-held and family-run, but I need to point out that there are privately-held and family-run chains that are absolutely terrible.

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek
                                    r
                                    Robert Lauriston

                                    My third problem (after the smell and flavor) with Egg McMuffin and the like is precisely that I have NO IDEA what I'm going to get. A lot of the ingredients are processed crap made from ingredients that one would not find in a grocery store or the kitchen of a decent diner.

                                    If consenting adults want to eat that stuff, that's their business, but you don't need Chowhound to find out about it.

                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      I don't need Chowhound to find out about Spago, French Laundry, Babbo, Din Tai Fung, et al. either; these are very commonly-known restaurants that many, many people (including those who "collect" fancy restaurants).

                                      Borrowing your opinion, you know EXACTLY what you're going to get with an Egg McMuffin from any McDonalds in any state -- a bunch of genetically-modified, processed crap. It's going to be the same GM, processed crap whether you're in Pocatello or Port St Lucie.

                                      Also, you'd be surprised what kind of overprocessed crap you find in the kitchens of restaurants. It's unbelievable.

                                      Some people don't eat at chain restaurants; this is their choice. I try not to, for the same reason that I paid full price for Harry Potter 6 at a small bookstore in Berkeley rather than $16.99 at BN.com; my money is appreciated more by small, local businesses.

                                      That said, sometimes a chain is the best option at hand, particularly when dealing with a larger or less chowhoundly group.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Ingredients linked below.

                                        Which is why I, personally, stick with the Sausage McGriddle.

                                        Link: http://home.fuse.net/mllwyd/egg.html

                                2. j
                                  Janet from Richmond

                                  I agree that by definition a "chain" is not bad and depending on circumstance, preferable over what non-chain restaurants can provide in that particular area. I live in an area with no decent Chinese food available. I can get good (not great) Vietnamese and very good Thai, but Chinese alludes me. P.F. Changs is the best that is offered in my area. We most often get it carry out because of the wait involved or eat at the bar. I realize for many here they have great Chinese food at their convenience, I do not.