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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.

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/04/mag...

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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.

                            Link: http://thecosmicjester.blogspot.com

                            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.

                                  Link: http://www.feastinginphoenix.com

                                  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.

                                  2. While it is silly to think that every chain is bad and every independent is good, I don't believe that a chain can ever be the best of it's particular genre (cost/style/location). By chain, I'm specifically referring to places that have corporate kitchens that require absolute adherence to market-tested recipes, procedures, sources, etc... This very definition points to the goal of consistently apeasing the masses - that means a nice mediocrity, never hitting the highs and never hitting the lows.

                                    Such chains are safe bets, known quantities - and can't be called really bad. But they're never going to be really good, by chowhound standards (real finds, either for authenticity, cost, or some other property that speaks to being unique - places that we're really happy and proud to report and debate on this site).

                                    Given the economic part of the equation, although not directly a chowhound goal, that such places tend to displace the truly unique places, and that such a trend is counter to the overall desire of chowhounds to find the really unique places, my judgement is to stay the heck away from all chains as much and as often as I can.

                                    I don't know how many folks remember that wonderful film, Demolition Man, starring that wonderful actor Sly Stallone, (cough, cough), but it foretold a completely castrated future, in which all restaurants were Taco Bells, because they had won the "restaurant wars". Every time someone goes to a Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang or McCormick & Schmick's, etc. etc., when much better, independent alternatives are nearby, I fear that this future of the Demolition Man is just around the corner.

                                    1. as a previous poster noted, there's a difference between local chains and national chains. I personally find local chain to be, on average, slightly more consistent (I used to regularly visit Le Pain Q - not all great, but mostly decent).

                                      I haven't eaten at any of the top-famous places Bittman wrote about, so I can't comment on that. But I've eaten at enough places to feel that if the head chef isn't there, the food can still be good but most often fell short of great. There's just not that perfection.

                                      National chains is another story. The best I've had from them is mediocre, and the worst....I prefer not to remember it. At the volume anyway, one can't really cook, one can only serve and distribute.

                                      So even though I admit there are plenty of awful independent places, I still prefer to go to them because there still can be a possibility of the unexpected, whereas with national chains I already know it's going to be disappointing.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: zorgclyde
                                        Caitlin McGrath

                                        By the by, Le Pain Quotidien isn't an apt example of a "local" chain; it's an *international* chain with many, many shops everywhere from its native Brussels to Dubai.

                                        Link: http://www.lepainquotidien.com/

                                      2. Hmm. With the singer analogy, you're implying that the person cooking is more important than the food itself. I'd have to disagree, since I think that people other than star chefs can make food of the same quality as a star chef. They may have more limited repertoires or creativity or business acumen, but they can cook. Heck, I'd put my chocolate tart up against Gordon Ramsay's any day.

                                        Speaking of Gordon Ramsay, I guess you'd have to consider him a chain. And Nobu, and Batali's places, and lots of other high-end restaurants generally considered good by foodies. Would you say those can never be good?

                                        17 Replies
                                        1. re: Cagey

                                          Batali's places are a chain? That's news to me.

                                          1. re: fara

                                            In as much as the "star" chef can't possibly be at each one simultaneously I'd have to view tham as a chain. Granted they each have different names and themes but you yourself called them "Batali's places" and are already consolidating them in your head.

                                            Whether they can be good or bad is another issue, but they are somewhat analogous to the Lettuce Entertain You group in Chicago. Many restos, one company.

                                            1. re: Larry

                                              Well you christened them "batali's places" first --

                                              Anyway, I can see your point, but they're not a chain. Each chain restaurant is supposed to be the same or very similar to the others. The great Mario does not pretend that Spotted Pig is anything like Babbo (see the NY times article on his reaction to the Michelin guide.) They each clearly serve their own purpose.

                                              The fact that Mario is not likely to be in the kitchen when you dine at these places is already known, but doesn't seem to diminish the quality unlike some other over-hyped restaurants.. uhumm Le Bernardin -- where we had terrible service by servers that appeared to have just walked in off the street, food that was bland, and we spent 4X as much as we did at Babbo. we were also seated in a large room with plenty of space, but were bumped constantly by the servers b/c there wasn't enough room between our table and the next!!

                                              At Babbo the place is small, we were seated more tightly, but the servers knew what the h-ll they were doing!
                                              Le Bernardin has only one location, was given very high marks by MIchelin and NY Times, and it was the worst dining experience ever.
                                              I don' t think the chef in or out of a restaurant NEEDS to be the deciding factor, they have to hire decent managers and under-chefs is all.

                                              1. re: fara

                                                Actually, it was I who said "Batali's places." I was referring to the OP's suggestion that a place with more than one location is a chain. I do realize that the places are different. I've been lucky enough to have the pleasure of eating at two of them.

                                                1. re: Cagey

                                                  well they are "batali's places" so i don't see the point in arguing over it. :)

                                                2. re: fara

                                                  I'm sorry you had a lousy experience at Le B. I've only been there once for lunch, but it was memorable, pristine seafood and perfect service.

                                                  I love Babbo, too, and you make a good point that none of his restaurants are meant to be carbon copies of each other.

                                            2. re: Cagey

                                              I agree that the singer analogy is not right-on. A singer has a voice that is a "One-of-a-kind." Cooking is closer to the Blue Man Crew. As for the chain issue. I admit that when I am on the road and need a snack and a Coke IMO McD does a "Fries and Coke" better than most Big$ places. So many places just cannot get the Coke right and have no idea what Fries are. Yet McD can do it at a thousand places and for Low$.

                                              1. re: Like-Go-Eat?

                                                McD fries are only good when compared to BK's. When compared to real Pommes Frites at a fantastic bistro, they are sad imitations. Same with just about everything that's been mentioned as good at a chain here and any other time we've had this discussion.

                                                Two points:

                                                1) If we're all about telling each other about wonderful, delicious finds, what the heck are we doing discussing McD fries (or any other unbiquitous chain food)? They're neither wonderful and delicious, nor a find.

                                                2) As Brian said in reply to a poster above, and I said before - what if people going to these chains is causing the individually inspired places to either go out of business or simply not be able to get established? Then, aren't people who go to these chains directly responsible for the demise of deliciousness?

                                                What's the good of universal mediocrity? What's the good of discussing universally mediocre places on a site like Chowhound that's supposed to be dedicated to excellence, not mediocrity?

                                                1. re: applehome

                                                  As much as we may hate it, that's the bittersweet truth about life -- you can make every logic-based, political, emotional, philosophical, and economical argument from here to Sunday supporting the superiority of fantastic bistro pommes frites and all one has to say is: "Well...shucks. I just like McD's fries better." The scoreboard of life would still read a one-to-one tie in valid opinions.

                                                  I also don't think ubiquity necessarily precludes deliciousness.

                                                  1. re: MSPD

                                                    That's your opinion. ;)

                                                    Everyone's opinion is presumably valid to themselves. (Why would anyone knowingly hold an invalid opinion?) But where there is a desire to share knowledge and opinion, we judge each other's opinions based on such factors as experience and knowledge. If one has had outstanding bistro pomme frittes and judges McD's to be better, that's one thing. If one feels that McD's isn't as good, but will do in a pinch, that's something else. And if one has never had great bistro fries but still feels that McD's are the best, well - that's just an invalid opinion.

                                                    The same issues come up every time we discuss chains here. While ubiquity may not mean a complete lack of deliciousness, it does mean that it's probably not worthy of discussion here. What's the big deal in sharing that McD's fries, Cheesecake Factory or PG Chang's are good (in a mediocre sense)?

                                                    If McD's announced that they were going back to tallow instead of their partially hydrogenated vegetable oil - that would be a really worthwhile discussion to have here. I would anticipate lots of reports on which branch is doing it really well!

                                                    1. re: applehome

                                                      I attended a lecture by Julia Child a few years back at the Chicago Botanic Garden, when she was still doing the PBS series with Jacques Pepin. She opined that Burger King french fries were very good, and that she liked eating them while on road trips up from Massachusetts to Maine.

                                                      Was her opinion "invalid"? Says who? You?

                                                      1. re: peg

                                                        Good point Peg. I read an interview with Julia Child and I recall one of her favs was In-N-Out Burgers.

                                                        The intended focus of my post was that the singer analogy is not right-on because a singer's voice is a "One-of-a-kind" thing. I made a quick attempt for an analory of Cooking and thought it being closer to the Blue Man Crew performers. Upon more thought I would say a chef is more like a song writer / composer. The work product can be transfered to paper. The issue then becomes whether another cook can read the recipe. I used McD being able to serve fries and a Coke with the correct amount of syrup and fiz as an example that a recipe can be followed no matter who reads it. I stand by that statement. To believe otherwise I would have to consider great chefs as Gods who are the only ones who can create and then re-create the same meal again and agian. No Way. Any Bistro menu can be mulitplied. The problem is when the corperate mind gets it fingers in the pie (dead beats at the top who begin to cut corners to fill their pockets -$).

                                                        1. re: peg

                                                          Are you sure she said BK fries? She was (in)famous for endorsing McD's fries.

                                                          I myself don't care for McD's fries in the US since they stopped using tallow. At least in Canada, they are (or when I last had them a few years ago) made right.

                                                          1. re: Karl S

                                                            I even have a witness! ;o)

                                                            1. re: peg

                                                              "The preeminent gourmet admits to a taste for hamburgers and hot dogs. And she has even been known to stop at a certain Burger King in Maine. Says Child defiantly, "I don't care, frankly, what people think. I do what I like." See link below.

                                                              Julia Child and In-N-Out Buger

                                                              Buttom line -- A chain can be good! Also, when on the road and without a Chowhound book or list of notes from a Chowhound Board a chain may be your safest bet.

                                                              Link: http://www.grandtimes.com/child.html

                                                          2. re: peg

                                                            JC had made many references to McD fries before they started using veg oil, as did Jeffrey Steingarten, as did many others. I had never heard any reference to her saying that BK or In and Out fries were good, and I followed her pretty well, including meeting her on a couple of occasions, but it's certainly possible.

                                                            Fries made in veg oil are just not as good as those fried in tallow, I don't care how consistently you can make them. My own experience with McD fries, especially driving across the country many times, says that they're not as consistent as you might want to believe. They can be utterly and inedibly horrible.

                                                            And yes, this is my opinion, and yes, I had my tongue firmly in cheek when I wrote the last response. But even in jest, if you read that post carefully, the only opinion I called invalid was the one that was based on ignorance - and no one could call JC ignorant.

                                                            1. re: applehome

                                                              I have to say the McD fries generally tend to be among the worst found in the chains nowadays. It's very sad.

                                                2. Yes, they can be good. If you're not looking for haute cuisine but looking for something that hits the spot then in some instances national chains can be good. The three that come to mind are Marie Callender's for pies, Popeye's chicken and plain ol'pancakes at IHOP. There are some remarkable mom pop shops in my neigborhood but none of them do what Marie's, Popeye's or IHOP does.

                                                  8 Replies
                                                  1. re: Tracy L.

                                                    "There are some remarkable mom pop shops in my neigborhood but none of them do what Marie's, Popeye's or IHOP does."

                                                    Maybe that's because Marie's Popeyes and IHOP put them out of business.

                                                    All pies are $6 at Marie's this month throughout much of the Southwest, by the way.

                                                    1. re: Brian S

                                                      I wrote "there are some remarkable mom pop shops...", I did not refer to the past tense.
                                                      For the record they are all currently in business, they are thriving and they are not endanger of going out of business.

                                                      1. re: Tracy L.

                                                        I meant in danger.

                                                    2. re: Tracy L.

                                                      What is good about Popeye's chicken? I don't think its even deserving of the classification "food"!

                                                      1. re: calabasas_trafalgar

                                                        Too each his or her own. I really enjoy their spicy chicken.

                                                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                            What about the beans and rice? They are always so creamy and freakin' delicious. Oh. My. God.
                                                            I think I want to be embalmed with the essence.

                                                        1. re: calabasas_trafalgar

                                                          Maybe you've never had it fresh? I remember the first time I ate Popeye's was at a rest stop and it was really dried out. I wouldn't go near the place until someone insisted it was better than KFC. OMG, it is the best fried chicken you're likely to find anywhwere when it is hot.

                                                      2. In my own, quite opinionated opinion, no, a chain of restaurants cannot be good.

                                                        Individual members of that chain, however, may be as good as a one-of-a-kind good restaurant.

                                                        In my sad experience though, they aren’t usually. At least, they don’t remain consistently good across changes of management and across changes of shift, much less across geography, and consistency in management quality across members of a chain seems to be impossible to achieve.

                                                        My 2 cents - don't spend it all in one place.


                                                        1. As far as the high end places, go how about Thomas Keller's restaurants? I guess you could consider Bouchon a chain since there's the Vegas and Napa locations, but what about Per Se and French Laundry? He may not be at the Bouchon restaurants as much as the other two, but he has a Video Teleconference connecting Laundry and Per Se, so he can keep an eye on both restaurants.

                                                          1. I know that chains can have good food, maybe even great food, but I never go to one unless it was not my choice. I think it is terrible that most of the cities in this country have the same restaurants. My own brother was in Vancouver BC and wanted to find a TGIFriday’s. He called me to find one….my own brother!! I couldn’t believe it. Vancouver has some of the most amazing restaurants…and he was looking for a TGIFs!! Grrrr. It’s too bad people don’t take the time to find the local restaurants …I think we as a country are lazy. I’d rather have average food in a "local one of a kind restaurant" than have “good” food at a chain. The whole idea of them just annoys me.

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: janedoe67

                                                              "It’s too bad people don’t take the time to find the local restaurants "

                                                              That's the thing though, it takes time to actually find local restaurants. A case in point. Last week I was driving from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, taking the scenic non-turnpike route. Stopped in Altoona for a dinner break. After at least 30 minutes of trying to find any kind of local restaurant (that wasn't a bar) I had to give up and go with a chain - Pizzaria Uno in this instance.
                                                              Like everyone else here, I would much rather find the local spots that are unique and possess local/regional tastes, but sometimes you have to settle for what you can actually find.

                                                            2. Culver's is pretty good - the butter burgers are worth the trip, IMHO.

                                                              1. There is a great Belgian chain called Le Pain Quotidien - they have restaurants all over the US and Europe. Also, Pret a Manger a European sandwhich store chain isn't bad - I think they have some outlets in NYC too.

                                                                1. There are exceptions to every situation and here's mine:

                                                                  Claim Jumper, Carlsbad CA
                                                                  We hit this place right after a full day at Sea World. It was my introduction to the concept "You'll never Finish this single-portion helping." I still tried.

                                                                  Macaroni Grill, Milpitas CA
                                                                  I wouldn't hesitate to hit this chain if there over any local Italian choices. The service has always been quick, the prices good, the food consistent.

                                                                  Olive Garden, Lubbock TX
                                                                  The only OG I'll go. Service is always great and they handle some my extended family's eccentricities more easily than other restaurants in the area.

                                                                  Fern's, Lubbock TX
                                                                  I can't get enough fried okra when eating at this cafeteria smorgasbord.

                                                                  In-and-Out, Mountain View CA
                                                                  I have yet to find a time that they aren't busy but fries come out cooked and the burgers delicious.

                                                                  Sizzler, Blythe CA

                                                                  1. I can't believe no one has added Chick-Fil-A to this long list. Their chicken nuggets are like no other!

                                                                    1. Morton's, Ruth's Chris, Palm, Capitol Grill are all chain steakhouses and are all quite good.

                                                                      And I'm willing to bet that in 90% of the country, Popeye's is the best fried chicken readily available.

                                                                      3 Replies
                                                                      1. re: mattlap_2000

                                                                        I repeat - Popeye's chicken is not even food!

                                                                        1. re: calabasas_trafalgar

                                                                          Of course it's food. Just because you think it's terrible doesn't make it not food.

                                                                          I actually like it now and again (meaning a few times a year). It's way better than KFC, Church's or (gaaaack) Mr. Bojangles.

                                                                          1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                                            I'll never go to a Popeye's again. For fried chicken, I stick with Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles, Shakey's Pizza(no foolin!), or the takeout deli at Whole Foods.

                                                                      2. Hmmm - revived post....I'll chime in:

                                                                        Houston's - really great ribs and chicken caesar and loaded baked potato and french fries
                                                                        Penang (east coast upscale asian chain) - really good everything
                                                                        In-n-Out Burger

                                                                        The thing about the singer's: as someone mentioned each vocal quality is different AND singer's ARE trained by famous singers and end up copying their sound and style and become famous themselves. They are often then known as a So-and-So Singer. But no singer (unless their art is mimicry like in "Little Voice") is capable of absolute exact replication, much like the chains I like cook their food fresh, not out of a corporate 'bag' and while consistent, would be nearly impossible to have an exact replication.

                                                                        1. I love The Keg steakhouse chain in Canada

                                                                          1. "Buttom line -- A chain can be good! Also, when on the road and without a Chowhound book or list of notes from a Chowhound Board a chain may be your safest bet."

                                                                            I would say a true chowhounder would not rely on a book or notes. While they certainly can be helpful, it certainly infringes upon the exitement of discovery. This is just the reason i never go to chains when traveling. If i am somehwere on business, i will travel around to find something that looks unique. While i certainly have had some bad food while wandering into places, i have also had some great food. The reward outweighs the risk for me when the alternative is bland chain food. If you are on this site, then you must love to travel for this reason, to eat things you cannot eat at home. If you have the same chain at home, why would you eat it on the road.

                                                                            One of the things i hate about America is its uniformity, how everywhere has begun to have the exact same stores and restaurants. I cannot contribute to this, so i do not support chains.

                                                                            1 Reply
                                                                            1. re: MVNYC

                                                                              I think you've presented a good case for the opposing opinion as well. A 'true chowhounder' finds good food wherever it lays, be it upon Limoges in a tony zip code or a greasy bag upon orange naugahyde. A chain restaurant can vary wildly in quality simply because they staffed by human beings rather than robots, all having differing work ethics and management techniques.

                                                                              To digress: chains suck much of the time. Yeah, I said it. Probably because making ends meet on 7 bucks an hour makes you want to kill everyone. It's the hate that makes the burger taste bad. But I've had as much (or more) bad food from quaint mom-and-pop restaurants as fast food restaurants.

                                                                            2. Interesting and amusing thread.

                                                                              My son, an engineer for Wrigley, was visiting their plant in Taipei, Taiwan a few years ago. His engineer-host announced that as a special treat for the visiting Americans, he was taking them to McDonrals for lunch. My son hoped he had heard wrong, but no....it was a five-story Mickey D with kitchen on the ground floor and an elevator to four stories of tables above. (I couldn't bring myself to call them "dining rooms.") Taipei is pretty densely developed, it seems. The food was, well, McD. He said that at the time he hadn't been in a McD for seven or eight years, and was looking forward to a similar interval before his next visit.

                                                                              He also mentioned that, when taken to a Chinese restaurant on Taiwan, you should question your Taiwanese host very closely about each dish, or you would find yourself biting something that you never in your wildest dreams would have thought to be edible. Whatever precautions he took, he said the food was, in fact, pretty great. Maybe he could be a Chowhound after all.

                                                                              I'm suprised that no one in this discussion of chain restaurants has mentioned the restaurant empire of the Pappas family. It started (in either Dallas or Houston) with a couple Greek brothers in a "typical" Greek greasy spoon in - as I think - the late 1920's.

                                                                              I picked this up some years ago from looking at photos in various Houston-area restaurants, and I'm a little hazy on the details. I hope someone with more precise knowledge of their history can fill this in and correct as necessary. I think it's a fascinating saga.

                                                                              Today, the company operates what must be at least 100 restaurants in a variety of formats- Pappadoux for Cajun, Pappacito for Mexican, Pappanino (I may have that not quite right) for Italian, Pappas Steak House, Pappas Seafood, Pappas Barbeque, and maybe a couple more.

                                                                              They are all over Houston and Dallas and I don't know where else, though there are two Pappadoux in the Chicago suburbs. One of them, fortunately, near me. I've eaten in a bunch of them in Houston. Their quality control, for such a far-flung operation, is just astounding. I've never had a bad or disappointing dish.

                                                                              As far as I know, the renowned Pappas Restaurant in Tarpon Springs, FL is a different bunch of Greeks. ;-)

                                                                              If you can get to one, order the fried onion rings. They are the best onion rings in the known universe.


                                                                              2 Replies
                                                                              1. re: MikeLM

                                                                                I've been to two Pappas' places--first to a Pappasita's in Houston about 15 years ago, which was pretty good. More recently, I tried Pappadeaux at the Houston Airport while waiting for a connection. Dang--those were some of the best crabcakes I've had. Almost makes me want to fly Continental again just to connect in Houston.

                                                                                1. re: MikeLM

                                                                                  I agree ... the Pappas family really knows how to do chains, though I haven't been to one in awhile. Pappacito's has the best chicken enchiladas I've ever had. You probably recall how they got nailed for conspiracy for moving illegal chefs around their restaurants like chess pieces. I kinda respected them for it--shhhhh, don't tell Immigration I said that ;)

                                                                                2. Houstonian here. The Pappas restaurants USED to be uniformly good. Sadly, Pappasito's (Tex-Mex) is on a serious downhill slide due I think to cost-cutting measures more than anything. Their Greek concept, Yia Yia Mary's, is surprisingly awful - worst Greek salad in town. The seafood places - Pappas Seafood and Pappadeaux - are still fairly good though. And Pappas Steakhouse is one of the best in town. I'll still hit a Pappas place every now and then, but they're a lot less consistent than they used to be.

                                                                                  1. I am generally not a fan of chain restaurants.
                                                                                    That said, while in Honolulu I visited a fusion sushi restaurant called Sansei that my parents had highly recommended. I was surprised at how good it was. There were a few unimpressive dishes out of the things I tried but all in all, it was very good and we had a great time.

                                                                                    I suppose sometimes the success of chains depends strongly upon a: the degree to which the stores are managed by the parent company or original managers, and b: the specific goal of that chain in particular.

                                                                                    1. I like good food. If its at a "chain" whether local, national or international, so be it. I have found some chains have certain locations that are better than others. And, consistency tends to depend on whether a chain has franchised locations or fully company owned and operated by a single entity. If you want to sample a chains, then I suggest a visit to Dallas, TX--seems like that have chains I never heard of there, everywhere!!
                                                                                      There are a couple chains I wish we had in NYC (e.g. Peet's Tea & Coffee, Chik-Fil-A).

                                                                                      My Favorite Chains:
                                                                                      Cheesecake Factory--Surprised no one mentioned this!!!
                                                                                      Le Pain Quotidien
                                                                                      Don Pablo's
                                                                                      Red Lobster
                                                                                      The Palm Steakhouse
                                                                                      Juice Generation
                                                                                      Cracker Barrel
                                                                                      Smoothie King
                                                                                      Peet's Tea & Coffee

                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                      1. re: Ora


                                                                                      2. Consumer Reports now surveys consumers to assess which chain restaurants are best; the July 2006 issue features tons of ratings. For the most part, the scores were very close. For example, the 2 points separating Il Fornaio and the Olive Garden are less than the 5 point margin of error, a statistical tie. Poor Chevy's came last in the Mexican category, apparently downrated for the service. (Really? Those festive office birthday lunches never seemed to lack for staff attention. ;-) For the rest of the exciting results, you'll have to check out your local library or subscribe over at consumerreports.org.

                                                                                        1. I got three words for ya!

                                                                                          Star - Mega - Bucks!


                                                                                          1. Somehow I can't imagine ever seeing a plausible rendition of osso buco at a chain Italian joint. That's a dish that demands a bit of the chef's soul. But I don't have to worry about getting a great version anywhere I go in Bologna. That to me pretty much sums up how I feel about chains.

                                                                                            Gotta love hearing radio commercials for places that use "real balsamic" and "genuine Italian parmesan". If that's all you've got to promote, good luck.

                                                                                            There are so many good choices for Italian everywhere on the Eastern seaboard, that's one category that never made sense to me as a chain concept.

                                                                                            I have been to Olive Garden and to Bucco di Beppo. OG just tries to do too much with each dish. Most dishes should have stopped at maybe four ingredients, but they felt the need to put eight on. BdB doesn't want you to taste the tomato, so they hide it in boatloads of spices. Obviously their "gourmet chefs" and "kitchen experts" must have learned that San Marzanos are "too tomatoey" for American tastes.

                                                                                            IMO, chains are for the "accidental tourist" who prefers to dine in a well-defined comfort zone. But I own an indie coffeehouse, so I support indies whenever I can out of principle because I want people to support me.

                                                                                            I have the advantage of knowing shop owners like myself throughout the country who know what's good in their area - and they'll rarely recommend an indie over someplace that's unique.

                                                                                            Additionally, when I travel I usually want to try whatever represents the regional style of wherever I'm visiting. Chains can't meet that desire.

                                                                                            I can honestly say that I eat perhaps one meal a month at chains where I can get takeout, usually an Outback burger or a meatloaf at Boston Chicken, because it's relatively cheap, relatively decent for the price and still hot by the time I get it home. But that's it - more functional that taste.

                                                                                            I'll note that I do hear an awful lot of positive things about customer service at Panera Bread. Apparently their managers are empowered to do whatever the heck they want to satisfy customers. I don't hear much about the food though. Just the service and the free wireless.

                                                                                            1. There are chains out there that are "any good", as you phrased it. I'll agree that it's pretty uncommon, though. But for me the chain that delivers consistently is Ruths Cris Steakhouse. I've been to only four locations, but has always been a winning meal.

                                                                                              1. Cheesecake Factory. They are the best at what they do, period. They're so good in fact that I refuse to set foot in them. I'm just not worthy of such perfection.