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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?

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  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
        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.'"


        "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 ..."


        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
                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
                    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
                        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
                            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
                                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
                                    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.

                                  1. Legal Sea Food is very good. I have to admit I usually feast on their oysters (usually at least 2-3 selectiions) but I also like their gazpacho, they do a good caesar and friends tell me their entrees are good as well. We have one in our local mall. Linda

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Linda VH
                                      Robert Lauriston

                                      Legal Sea Foods is still privately held, family run (the company's president is the son of the founder), and relatively small, with only 30 locations.

                                    2. I gotta say, the two points raised here that undercut my original mild "chains can be OK" assertion, are the factors of franchising, and of public ownership. Wendy's is a good example of the former; what started out as a IMHO very good small chain, became mutated by franchising, and now demonstrates wildly uneven quality of product from one location to the next. Only the packaging is consistent.

                                      On public ownership of anything, having worked for every type of business from family-run to global, I firmly believe that public ownership exerts an inexorable pull away from quality, away from the customer, and away from the employees, toward an environment where all decisions are made to serve the short-term financial interests of the majority shareholders. (I guess that's the point of being a majority shareholder.) Such business thinking almost by definition is antithetical to the requirements of a quality food service business on any scale or of any nature. So, I guess a publicly-owned chain can "not suck"; but I doubt it could ever be great, or even very good.

                                      11 Replies
                                      1. re: Shep
                                        Robert Lauriston

                                        Generally speaking, a publicly owned corporate chain can be a good business, so long as it's run by a dynamic leader who protects it from the constant Wall Street pressure to lower standards for short-term gains. See the article about Costco and Jim Sinegal in Sunday's NY Times for one example of such a CEO.

                                        But I don't think that model works for restaurants. After a certain number of branches, the founder's passion and commitment are spread too thin. The kind of chefs you need to execute the founder's vision are always going to be itching for more autonomy and looking for ways to go out on their own.

                                        Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/17/bus...

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          It doesn't matter.

                                          The question is not is it made by a chain, franchise, or out of some grandmother's kitchen.

                                          The question is "Does it taste great".

                                          A follow up is "Is it the best tasting food you can buy given circumstances ... hour of day, budget, location ... etc".

                                          A third question "Does it please YOUR palate".

                                          It doesn't matter if someone has super developed tastes and you just don't get it. If it is delicous to you, it is delicous.

                                          There are restaurants that I adore that would be wasted on some friends. Ultimate eats to them is the Empire Buffet.

                                          So if I am asking on the board for the best of that genre, I don't really care about the ownership. I want to please that group which I have made miserable in the past by dragging to better, to my palate, restaurants.

                                          Individual ownership doesn't mean much. Somewhere on Chowhound I read about falling into the "Granny trap". Just because the piroski's are lovingly made by some babushka's back kitchen with the meat from the chicken she personnally raised, doesn't mean it is good. I think too often, I fall into that trap. It is personally made, by someone who pours their heart into it, it must be good.

                                          This belongs on the SF board, but I am using it as an example. After many, many months I have decided Blue Bottle Coffee isn't all that. Yes, the coffee is roasted that morning and brewed by cup, but it is luke warm and the Hayes Valley blend just sucks. I would say the cold corporate McDonald's makes a better brew in that neighborhood.

                                          And if anyone wants to discuss BB, please put it on the SF board. I haven't done it because it IS a small business and I'm not into granny bashing.

                                          It is totally unfair to dismiss something as 'it's a chain', especially if you have not eaten at that chain.

                                          I am shocked to see the way people are caving to the 'it's a franchise', 'it's a chain' so it must be bad mentality in this thread.

                                          That evil corporate soul less monster may just have a shop where the manager takes pride in what they do and puts their heart into it and it may just be the best, damn say Subway sandwich in town.

                                          Yeah, I didn't eat Popeye's chicken for years because I remember the original location. But, I've eaten more fried chicken than past year than was wise. In my particular immediate neck of the woods, it happens to be the best fried chicken beating all the mom and pops.

                                          And please don't lecture me that I should save my fried chicken cravings for better places or that I should drive through traffic to get to Nellie's or that I should make it at home (which WOULD suck). If my question is what is the finest fried chicken in my immediate world, that's the answer I want. If it is a chain, franchies or whatever, it doesn't matter. If it isn't best of it's class, it doesn't matter.

                                          What matters is it the best, most delicious bite for my circumstances be it location or finances.

                                          I have fond memories of the $1.99 Denny's Grand Slam when I was in college and did not have beaucoup bucks to spend. It was the greatest tasting thing I could afford at that time. I have fonder memories of that breakfast than I have of the French Laundry.

                                          So again, the question is "does it taste great". Everything else is pointless.

                                          Link: http://chowhound.safeshopper.com/23/c...

                                          1. re: rworange

                                            Yes, it does matter.

                                            I agree that once food is set in front of me, once I'm in a restaurant--chain or otherwise--, it all boils down to how the food tastes.

                                            But whether or not a restaurant or food outlet is part of a chain, and its ownership structure, is relevant information for discussions on this board.

                                            Robert and others have done a good job of explaining the economic pressures, organizational behavior, and business realities that occur under different chains. It's not a matter of "evil" or "soul less," but the simple fact that larger companies experience different pressures and have different goals than smaller outfits. Often, though not necessarily, those pressures will negatively affect the quality of the food. I believe, and my experiences have proven to me, that I have better chances of finding deliciousness at a mom-and-pop than at a chain.

                                            So when I am deciding upon where to eat, I will automatically discount (although never eliminate) chains because of these facts. It will take more convincing to get me to spend money and time at a chain than at a non-chain. I'll need to hear more powerful testimony from sources I trust before I eat at a chain. For example, I have not yet heard enough positive comments from sources I trust that Pasta Pomodoro in Noe Valley is worth my dime, because it is part of a chain that I have failed to be impressed by yet. I could someday be convinced but it will take stronger recommendations that I have yet read.

                                            And that is why I think such facts matter, and why they are relevant for this board. These boards are a tool for deciding where we should spend the precious time and money we have. It is a piece of information that is useful when deciding what to eat.

                                            But once the decision is made and the food is in front of me, then these business facts are put out of my mind and I judge the food for what it is.


                                            1. re: nja


                                              That isn't the point.

                                              There isn't anything wrong with someone pointing out an establishment is a chain. And yes, in reality the chain experience probably isn't going to be the ultimate food deal.

                                              But all the careful explanation of the economic pressures, organizational behavior, and business realities behind what is put in front of you doesn't override the issue of taste ... personal taste.

                                              So while you may not like Pasta Pomodoro, there are positive posts about it on the board. While it wouldn't be my first choice, given circumstances, if my only choice was PP or what I know is a medicore mom and pop ... well, no contest.

                                              There might be times I'd choose reliable food from PP to an unknown mom and pop just because I don't want to play food roulette.

                                              It is fine to point out an establishment is a chain. However, once pointed out, it is not fine to continue to belabor that point within the same thread.

                                              Recently, I think it was Yimster, posted about eating at a restaurant he liked. The Chowhound team pointed out it was a chain and to repost on General Topics. So he reposts and people start yapping about how it is a chain and serves drek. I'm not sure if Yimster retracted the fact that he liked the place or not. But the point was, he liked the place originally. He liked his meal.

                                              Why do we have to appoligize on the boards every time we like something that comes from chain kitchens. Most of these places don't exists because they put out inedible food.

                                              On the other end of the spectrum, something I hate even more, is the chef's pedigree. The fact that he/she worked at Chez Fancy or owns some other top eatery or grew up in some obscure European / Asian area.

                                              Like learning that a place is a chain, yes, this is nice to know. It doesn't guarantee greatness. It is why I eat so infrequently at upscale restuarants. So many of those places rely on the cache behind the chef rather than the food itself.

                                              As to getting a better meal at a mom and pop, well, I've eaten at practically every one in the greater San Pablo area. There was ALOT of mediocre and outright horrid food that I've eaten. It didn't get reported because, as I said, I'm not into granny bashing. In the unlikely event someone from the board went in, well, they'd lose a buck or two.

                                              Even some of the better places I reported on were just holding their own against chain food. Just like Popeye's makes the best fried chicken in my immediate area, so does Ralph's make the best rotissarie chicken. Doesn't matter to me all the background stuff. From what I hear, Costco makes a pretty fine chicken as well.

                                              So nice to know the background. It is a factor. But it should not be the only factor.

                                              And if someone's tastes don't agree with your own, the polite thing to do is to say, that that isn't to your own personal taste and not that the poster doesn't know what they are talking about. And when you say it isn't to your liking, it should be said once.

                                              There is almost an implied suggestion that posters are stupid. I didn't need the detailed background to know that the reasons behind the largly mediocre food put out by the big boys. Having the last word, just means you have the last word. You've worn out other people. And with even the people I respect most, whose ideas and posts I look forward to and miss when then are not there. Well, after a while it is a turn off.

                                              I, of course, can't speak for what Chowhound should or shouldn't be. In my three years on the board, I am so mystified that I can only post what I think is valuable and people might enjoy because I enjoyed it. Some people's taste match mine and some don't. I can't make anyone like the same food I do no matter how well or how frequently I post.

                                              And if someone loves Pasta Pomodoro and wants to share that experience, IMO, that should be ok. That doesn't mean I have to eat there.

                                              1. re: rworange
                                                Robert Lauriston

                                                The way Pasta Pomodoro is growing (with millions from Wendy's and 100% growth in the past three years), it's just a matter of time before it goes downhill, and from reports in the original thread, that's well along.

                                                If you live in a neighborhood full of unique local establishments, like San Francisco's Noe Valley, patronizing a chain is a good way to help strip your neighborhood of the differences that made you want to live there in the first place.

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    Thank you for pointing that out. I had never considered it.

                                                    1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                      Ah, but the wheel of Karma turns. The yuppification of Noe Valley drove out the old neighborhood charm in the first place. You can't edge out someone else's way of life and expect your way of life to be granted immunity from the forces of change.

                                                      1. re: Gary Soup

                                                        AWWW! You guys are bringing back such memories! I used to work at the Starbucks on 24th and Sanchez in high school...which, incidently is another piece of evidence that the neigborhood is definitely yuppified!

                                                        1. re: Gary Soup
                                                          Robert Lauriston

                                                          The yuppie influx to Noe Valley in the late 70s and early 80s drove out some hippies living in low-rent flats (others remain thanks to rent control), resulting in positive additions like the 24th Street Cheese Company, Little Italy, and wine shops.

                                                          The later influx of chains drove out good things such as the butcher and the best local pizzeria.

                                                      2. re: rworange

                                                        So your point is that it should be okay to point out that an establishment is a chain, but not to belabor that point? No argument from me there. These discussions do often go on too long on the regional boards when a chain comes up (though I think discussions like this one here at NAF are useful). I just reread some of the recent posts with this is mind and found it interesting that much of the belaboring was done by the chain's fans. But anyway, doesn't matter "who started it," it is tiresome and probably drives people away.

                                                        I also agree that people shouldn't have to preface their opinions with apologies. I wish people didn't have to feel that way. I started writing more about expressing different opinions and how best to disagree in a forum like this, but it's a long tangent that I don't have time for. I need to get back to work. Maybe another day.

                                                        So, just to make it clear, my point is: knowing that a restaurant is part of a chain, or who owns it, or its corporate structure, or who the chef is for that matter, is extremely useful information for me that I combine with other pieces of information, such as other posters' opinions, to decide where and what to eat.


                                              2. First of all TJ's are not restaurants. Second yes there are some chains I would not hesitate to go into. Piatti's is a small chain that I like, so is Scott's Seafood. If the choice is between Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill, I'd always pick the latter. In N Outs has its appeals although not to me.

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: Peter
                                                  Robert Lauriston

                                                  Piatti Restaurant Company is privately held, owned and run by its founders, and small (12 locations).

                                                  Restaurants Unlimited (Scott's) is privately held, owned by its founder (now chairman of the board), and small (31 restaurants).

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    Do you have a point in mentioning that?. It would help if you explained why you are providing us with easily googled information about Scott's organizational structure, rather than just stating a fact as if somehow it proves or disproves Peter's point, but with no explanation as to how it relates to the discussion at hand. Most people make such statements to support opinions, so.....It sounds as though you are saying that it makes a difference whether the 'group' or chain or whatever is privately held with the founder still in charge? Since you have said on the SF board unequivocably that 'Scott's has been crap since the first one opened', I am sure you didn't mean to imply that the reason that these restaurants are good enough for Peter to like is that they are privately held, not big, nasty corporate chains, but that is certainly a plausible implication of your post.

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

                                                    1. re: susancinsf
                                                      Robert Lauriston

                                                      I explained my views at length in my first post in this thread:

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

                                                2. Back to the original question:

                                                  I live alternatively in Minneapolis and Atlanta, so don't know what's available SF-wise, but here are some chains/franchises that seem to be consistently adequate or even good:

                                                  Cuervo Tequileria (best chain airport food going)
                                                  Chipotle (owned but obviously not run by McDo)
                                                  Au Bon Pain

                                                  Chains I always have a horrible experience at (usually ending in violent illness):

                                                  any drive-thru burger or chicken megafranchise

                                                  1. I like Panera because it's somewhat cheap, a block from my apartment, consistent, and pretty good... I also feel a little bit healthier when I eat there... I may not be, but hey, I like to live in my delusional world!
                                                    I also do really like the Cheesecake Factory... the food has always been good; the cheesecake, however, is awful!

                                                    1. When judging chains, consider too whether they are formula based or not. Formula restaurants are tightly controlled to assure profitability. Portion, recipe, dress & behavior control (see Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory, Outback, Panera, Red Lobster & virtually every fast food chain) provide ownership (corp or pvt) reasonable return on investment & enhanced value for the shareholder, but a guaranteed less-than-soaring dining experience for the customer.

                                                      There are, however, chains (of commonly owned restos) that permit individual stores great latitude in satisfying their customers. In the LA area, for instance, the King group owns the premier -- & way upscale -- seafood restaurant in the region, the Water Grill, & several terrific moderately priced family fish houses. The Patina Group owns almost 30 restaurants, yet each has its own focus from le nec plus ultra Patina at Disney Hall to sandwich service at cultural venues. These restos are worthy of any hound.

                                                      Having said all that, Mr GrubÂ’s hint #13 to help in choosing a resto still applies:
                                                      Avoid chain restaurants, if the chain is longer than 3 members or 30 miles.

                                                      3 Replies
                                                      1. re: Mr Grub

                                                        ....in two countries, literally from sea to shining sea.

                                                        By your estimation, they are to be avoided, right?


                                                        1. re: peg

                                                          Well, I suppose...

                                                          If you call C (as in Cabo) & discover that C (as in Charlie) was actually going to be trotting thru the kitchen on the nite you want to dine there, I'd go ahead & reserve.

                                                          Sometimes, you just gotta make an exception.

                                                          1. re: peg

                                                            mmmmm.... I'm just seeing Chicago and Trotters to Go, thought the London thing fell through.


                                                        2. I know you don't have a Mitchell's Fish Market near you, they are a small chain out of Cleveland but boy is their food great. There are just 14 restautants right now in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania and one opening in florida. The menu is printed daily, the fish is fresh daily it is a bit expensive but worth every penny. I just wish that they would not put sugar in their hush puppies!

                                                          1. I've got a surprising amount of fondness for the Destin, FL, La Paz- smallish Southeastern Mexican chain. They're the only Mexican or Tex/Mex place down here that really realizes the importance of good fresh produce, and an irrational love for their made to order black bean soup.

                                                            I think they've got maybe ten restaurants total. Not sure if it's family-owned or franchise, but they're good eats in my book.

                                                            So I'm now living in an area that's overrun with good local seafood. What was funny was that when we moved down here in the late 90s, the Ft. Walton Beach Red Lobster could hold its own against the locally grown businesses. Can't say how many times I'd hear someone talk about "yeah, I know they suck everywhere else, but the one in Ft. Walton is (pause) actually quite good. They know how to pick and cook their fish. You wouldn't believe that a Red Lobster could actually compete with the Summerhouse or Pandora's but they do"

                                                            Of course that was about three management changes ago, the restaurant has now figured out they don't have to care, and so it totally sucks now, but it was this weird little spot of niceness in an otherwise mediocre at best chain.

                                                            1. Please check the link from further down the thread. That last sentence really sums up the most cogent single point of chain vs. not-chain: resources expended on chains will not go to support locals. Thank you, Robert.

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

                                                              6 Replies
                                                              1. re: Shep

                                                                I would hope that my response to the link you provided wasn't read as agreement.

                                                                I don't know I would say this was the answer to your question.

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

                                                                1. re: rworange

                                                                  No, I could have done that a little more gracefully. I thought Robert's point stood on its own.

                                                                  My perspective here is a little more than strictly chow-ish; I do assert the intrinsic value of the local and the independent for their own sake, especially as the financial impetus seems to be so constantly against them. Big money has its own logic, and you and I and Lola's are simply to be used, ignored, or co-opted. Every feisty little independent operator stands against that one-way, slow-motion avalanche, even if they are someplace crappy that neither you nor I would patronize.

                                                                  Maybe I ought to re-post this on Really, Really Not About Food.

                                                                  1. re: Shep

                                                                    Yeesh, this will be my last post because I'm doing exactly what I complained about.

                                                                    I'm taking this liberty because you are a regular poster. If that is your choice, cool. I admire you for that and am certainly not going to discourage that.

                                                                    My own personal decision is to eat where I find the food most delicous, and if it happens to be a chain, to me it doesn't matter, and I'll report that on Chowhound to share with other like minded people.

                                                                    I eat at Lola's because it just has some of the best food in the East Bay, not because I like John and Donna.

                                                                    I believe Jones BBQ and El Chalon are worthy little businesses. However, if it isn't a night Lola's is open, I'm going to buy my chicken from Ralph's because that is just the best tasting chicken in my world. That's not to say I won't gush about the great things at the first two businesses, taste-wise, it isn't roast chicken.

                                                                    I really, really like another small business on Solano, was charmed by the owner, but you'll never see a post about it on Chowhound because the food is just mediocre.

                                                                    I thought about patronizing them, but the fact is my little meals aren't going to keep a barely average place open.

                                                                    I make personal decisions about what food I eat. I don't eat fois gras or veal for political reasons. However strongly I feel about it, there are going to be posts from people who enjoy those foods. Cool for them.

                                                                    If I am less than graceful, IMO, to think that someone is uneducated as to their own personal tastes, their knowledge of coroporate food or the impact of buying a cup of Starbucks instead of Phil's, puts me in a cranky mood.

                                                                    And that really is the last of it for me. If the Chowhound team wants to delete this or complain, fine. I don't plan to respond further.

                                                                    I'm probably going to have to eat out and post something useful on the SF board to make up for wasting all this bandwith.

                                                                    1. re: rworange

                                                                      Just cause I expressed all that stuff doesn't mean I adhere to it. When I left work last night at 8:30, Wendy's was open and close by and willing to sell me something small and light and in a hurry, so that's where I went.

                                                                      It's my perception, or delusion, that posters on this site probably are more conscious than the general population, so I'm really not questioning anybody's choices. This has been kinda fun, but it's way off-topic, so I'm outta here. See ya at Rick's this afternoon.

                                                                      1. re: rworange
                                                                        Robert Lauriston

                                                                        If you object to foie gras for political reasons, how can you bring yourself to buy chicken at Ralph's?

                                                                  2. re: Shep

                                                                    Not necessarily. If the locals make it big and become a chain, still led by the local founder, are we then required to shun them because they started as Mom and Pops but found a winning formula?

                                                                    Whether there is an inconsistency in this logic or not, I can only agree in part: supporting mediocrity in whatever form just encourages mediocrity! I definitely *will* patronize the really good local places, and mourn when they go under (RIP Lotus Garden, although I dont think it was any chain that did that one in....). However, when I am in (names removed to protect the guilty), PA, darn right I will be happy to know that there is a Chevy's nearby as an alternative to having dinner at Denny's or McDonalds!

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