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Jun 4, 2006 05:07 PM

Can a chain ever be good?

  • b

I've always thought that if a place has more than one branch, then it's not very good. Or only one branch is good. A lot of New Yorkers think this. But, here in Tulsa, a lot of people prefer to go to nationwide chains. Are they ever any good? Can they be? If a famous singer trained a whole bunch of people to ape his every movement and vocal nuance, would you want to see one of those clones?

Today's New York Times has an article echoing these sentiments. With the top chef in the kitchen, "they taste constantly, berate even their top staff for not getting the seasoning right, micromanage shamelessly" But the chef can't do that if he is a thousand miles away.


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  1. I don't think your analogy is particularly good -- perhaps it's closer to the difference between a recording and a live performance. The recording may be technically better, but it doesn't have the immediacy and vibrancy of a live performance.

    "Good" is a relative and semantic question. Is the food good? The whole dining experience good? The whole sociopolitical aspect good? Certainly some nationwide chains offer dishes that are well-prepared and tasty. I'm still not sure that would make them "good."

    If you are defining it as places with more than one location, than yes, definitely. I know some restaurants that would qualify as chains under that definition that are good.

    I've been in places where a national chain was definitely the best option -- at the very least they have consistent standards, and the menu is tried and true.

    20 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler
      Melanie Wong

      Saying that chains are always bad is about as silly as believing that independently owned restaurants are always good.

        1. re: taxchic

          So name a good chain. A chain that, were it to open a branch in San Francisco or New York or another big city, you would post about on the local board (if you could), saying, if you don't eat there because you are prejudiced against chains, you are missing some great food. This will help me, since I'm currently in a city with a lot of chains, and the place you name will be the next restaurant I eat at.

          1. re: Brian S

            Houston's consistently gets good reviews from posters I trust.

            1. re: Homer J

              in n out burger is fairly indisputably delicious

              1. re: california

                chipotle isnt bad, if there aren't any other good burrito places around (like in manhattan)

                1. re: mj

                  Burritoville is pretty good I think.

                2. re: california

                  I had my first in and out burger about 2 months ago. Nothing special..and the fries were awful. My step-son was in town and he drove clear across town the get them. It had to be a nostalgic thing with him...

                  If I want a chain burger..I stick to the Carls Jr. six dollar burger. Sometimes...that is soooo good.

              2. re: Brian S

                Despite another poster saying that Roy's clones are not nearly as good as the original, our Roy's in Chicago turns our some of the best mid-priced seafood in town (I say mid-priced because obviously very high end places like Avenues and Everest are going to have better food, including seafood). Roy's is better and more imaginative than local places like Shaw's. Another of our favorites in the chain restaurant category is Ruth's Chris. We just happen to love the way they do steaks, and they are always great.

                We tend not to eat at low-end chains, so can't say about them.

                1. re: Brian S

                  Macaroni Grill, about 10 steps better than Olive Garden. Il Fornaio is another chain (small) that I would mind going to, so is Piatti.

                  1. re: Brian S

                    It's been a while, but years ago I had a number of very good meals at Legal Seafoods in the Boston area.
                    I'd also echo another poster's thimbs up on Houston's--for what it is, it's solid.

                    1. re: Brian S

                      I like Popeye's. There are few mom and pops that make fried chicken as consistently good. I also love White Castle hamburgers (an acquired taste, perhaps). And Steak and Shake isn't bad for what it is (at least it wasn't the last time I was in one...probably five years ago). In DC, I liked Five Guys--I think they are expanding. Oh, and Waffle House. Pecan waffles, hash browns scattered, smothered and covered--roadtrip favorite.

                      1. re: butterfly

                        I should qualify this a bit... I'm going mostly on nostalgia with these particular chains, as I haven't lived close to any of them for a long time... But when I go to the US on road trips, these are the places that I gravitate toward if there isn't any promising local place close-by. About Waffle House, the quality seems to vary from place to place. Waffles can be tricky.

                      2. re: Brian S

                        Santouka (currently, my favorite ramen place in the NYC area), just as good in LA and Tokyo.
                        Din Tai Fung would be a big hit in NYC, as it is in LA and Tokyo, among other cities.
                        Original Pancake House. Haven't been to the ones in Western NY state, but the ones in LA and San Diego are pretty great.

                        1. re: Eric Eto

                          Eric, is the Santouka in NJ or in NYC? TIA

                        2. re: Brian S

                          "So name a good chain"

                          Off the top of my head....using the "more than one location" criteria earlier in the thread and emphasizing "good" as opposed to "spectacular", I'd be fine with any of the following if I were traveling in unfamiliar Anytown, USA:

                          Bonefish Grill
                          Beard Papa
                          Smith & Wollensky
                          Commanders Palace
                          Ruth's Chris
                          Kopps Custard
                          Texas Roadhouse
                          The Capital Grille

                          1. re: Brian S

                            Carrabba's is exceptionally good, IMHO. Better than Macaroni and Olive Garden combined.

                            Houston's is great. Has one of the best steaks I've ever had.

                            In N Out is surreal. Best burger and fries available at a chain.

                            Krispy Kreme's hot donuts for sheer decadence. I guess Cold Stone could fall under that umbrella too.

                            1. re: Brian S

                              Palomino has consistenly outstanding lamb shanks. Oceanaire has a remarkable variety of fish, always fresh and well-prepared in my experience. I would certainly rate these chain restaurants as "very good." It isn't three-star haute cuisine, but definitely a good dining experience.

                          2. re: Ruth Lafler

                            RUTH: Good wording. I love your comeback. I still don't know why some people treat chains as a stepchild. In most cases, chains are better then individual restaurants, as they have testing kitchens, time and money to test and sample recipes, months to try them on customers, and sometimes for free, they have expensive gourmet chefs trying to come up with something that no-one else may have, and they always try these new ideas before marketing.

                          3. j
                            JK Grence (the Cosmic Jester)

                            There are a few reliably good chains out there. The problem you state where the clones aren't as good as the original are fairly limited; the ones that are most noteworthy for that are Pizzeria Uno in Chicago, and Roy's in Hawai'i. Both have extended to nationwide operations, and in both cases the original restaurant is leagues better than at its extensions. In this case, it's sort of like the party game Telephone, where the recipes get translated multiple times until they hit the diners' plates. Once it gets there, it has been slightly adjusted by numerous chefs along the way, and the original vision is different from what it once was.

                            I think the main problem with chains is not so much that the chef isn't there, but that marketing departments exist for bigger chains. It's less of a problem of a cloned singer, as it is the upper management trying to play to as wide of an audience as possible. Think of it as being like American Idol; there are surely some truly great singers who get knocked out early in the competition because they have a very unique voice (someone like Tori Amos comes to mind). While a number people will absolutely LOVE that person's voice, there are other people out there who don't like it as much for whatever reason they have. So, American Idol and a chain restaurant are very similar because they avoid finding that absolutely amazing stuff that not everybody may like, and tread the safe road by creating something as inoffensive (and in turn, banal) as possible.

                            I remember Z'Tejas Grill before they got really huge (Phoenix had their fourth location, it was their first outside Texas IIRC)- one of their signature dishes, Voo Doo Tuna, was a very assertively flavored dish that I really loved, but could see some people out there not really liking it. I had the same dish years later after they went national, and the flavors that I enjoyed so much before were now muted. What likely happened is that the people who didn't like it mentioned that they didn't like it, and then management tweaked the recipe so that the offending note disappeared. The worst offender on creating bland, inoffensive dishes (in my mind, at least) is The Cheesecake Factory. I still remember the very first time I ate there. I had the Asian Orange Chicken; the first thing I thought when I took a bite was "Gee, this used to be better than it is now". You could just tell that the dish used to have so much vibrance and life to it, and through focus groups the dish turned into a hollow shell of its former self.

                            PS- as far as national chains go, my favorite is Texas Roadhouse. They have reliably good steak, and their fall-off-the-bone ribs just can't be beat.


                            1 Reply
                            1. re: JK Grence (the Cosmic Jester)

                              I'm also a Texas Roadhouse fan and have a tendency to forget they're a chain. That could be because the one in my area (Abilene, TX) has perhaps the lowest turnover rate I've EVER seen in anything but a family-run restaurant where you basically have to die to quit. ;-) In the six or seven years we've been going, we've seen two bar-backs rise to management, and were stunned not long ago to have another long-long-term server come over to our table and tell us he couldn't believe how big our kids are now (they're 9, 13 and 14) because he remembers when new servers would cringe when they saw us coming (you know, the kid thing) and the older servers would always tell them they'd be lucky to get our table - we had the best behaved kids they've ever seen. (OK, I digress to brag a little, but you get the point.)

                              I may've mentioned this here, or at another forum, but during this economic period, I'm more likely to go to that trusted chain than a hit-or-miss local spot. Sacrilege, I know.

                              (In fact, we may be heading out to dinner soon as I just realized I have three entree certificates thanks to emailing the restaurant not long and suggesting a brand of low-carb margarita mixer.)

                            2. Actually, the Salvadoran or Vietnamese guy or gal actually executing the dish may be a better cook than the star chef, just not equipped to run a restaurant show....

                              1. Actually there are a number of chains that New Yorkers rely on: Wu Liang Ye, H&H bagels, Le Pain Quotidien, Popeye's, Tasti D Lite, and many others not to mention the supermarkets - Whole Foods, Fairway, etc - clothing stores, and everything else that people in the suburbs use.
                                The difference is that the food has more variety. Nothing stands in the way of a good chain here. Le Pain Quotidien is an international chain of cafes and it is all over Manhattan.

                                1. s
                                  Seth Chadwick

                                  I think there are differences between local/regional chains and national chains.

                                  There can be inspired items on the menu at chains, but by and large, they are standard to appeal to an American thought process that dynamic is scary and static is good. An acquaintence of mine will always eat at chain restaurants when he travels without exception because he wants no surprises and knows what to expect. Oddly, he would rather go to Red Lobster in Portland, ME or Outback in Kansas City or Chevy's here in Phoenix rather than try a local place.

                                  I am fairly sour on national chains because there is rarely ever anything that is truly inspired or unique. Of course, if they are like Claim Jumper, they aren't worried about anything inspired, but simply are serving large portions for the "wow!" factor.

                                  Unfortunately, those obscenely large portions of mediocre food is still mediocre food.


                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Seth Chadwick

                                    Yes, some very local chains can be good if they allow autonomy. One small fast food chain in Tulsa lets franchise owners add their own recipes in their branch; one local owner prepares the spicy fish sandwiches he used to sell out of a van before buying the franchise. The best local chain I know is Ron's Hamburgers. It started as a single branch. It looked like a cowshed and it would be jammed with people waiting for a seat. Rich lawyers sitting next to construction workers on lunch break. Ron was a genius cook and he put each burger through about ten steps. Meat was pounded flat, seasoned with salt and spices, coated with lard using a paintbrush, cooked on a superhot grill (500 degrees), steamed under a dome. I like my burgers extra rare and this is much harder to do , so Ron took it as a challenge and he gave me the best burgers I have ever tasted. Now this style of burger is flat and very thin (about a third of an inch thick) and as big as an old 45 RPM record. The meat is succulent and juicy and melts in with the cheese. The best chef in New York could not make a better burger. Ron doesnt cook any more but there are now seven branches. Ron developed a unique franchise system. He gave each of his kids a branch, and his wife got the busiest branch, downtown. But none of those branches can compare to the burgers I ate when Ron was behind the grill.