Best chain overall?
I've always been pleased with Houston's. In the higher end, I think The Chart House is very consistently good and most locations have great views. Since I have little to eat--fish-eating vegetarian--at most of the big steakhouse chains, they hold little allure for me.
We live in Sarasota during the winter, and have been to Outback which we like very much, but their higher end steak house known as "Flemings" is truly excellent in every respect. We also love their fish restaurant known as ""Bonefish". These are both high-end restaurants with excellent food, service, atmosphere, and waiters who aim to please.
Everytime I eat at Outback I am consistently disappointed. I find it impossible to get a rare steak at this establishment. I get medium, well done, if I'm lucky medium rare. If steaks are their core-competency and they can't get that right how good can they be. Service is also consistently bad.
Decent Chains in Southern California:
Buca de Beppo
Mimi's Cafe (Fair)
King's Fish House
I'll put a second on King's Fish House. I had a fantastic meal there with my family at their Oceanside location - at the time I didn't even realize it was a chain.
My step-mother raved about their honey mustard salad dressing and when we mentioned it to the waitress she brought out a copy of the recipe for us. Later, after leaving the restaurant, I wished I had made a similar request for the recipe for their grilled artichoke appetizer (it involved a marinade prior to the grilling) and called them up - the manager emailed me the recipe. That's just not the kind of service you get at your run-of-the-mill chain restaurant. I was (and am) impressed with them.
Kathy/Kuisine (formerly KathySK)
I don't have the recipe for that honey mustard (my step-mom has it). I do recall it was fairly involved, and not really practical for the home cook - it was one of those things that called for ingredients that were only worth dealing with in mass amount, and it didn't hold for more than 2 days or so.
The artichokes though - it was more of a short summary of their process than an exact recipe, so here goes:
Start about a day ahead of time. Starting with whole artichokes, with stems as long as you can find, begin by peeling off the toughest outer leaves, trimming the pointy parts of the leaves that remain, trim the stem of the artichoke, peel the outside of the stem. Then quarter the artichokes and remove the thistly part. Marinade them in an oil-and-vinegar mix with whatever spices appeal (I wimped out since I made it for a large party and used pre-done Italian dressing - worked fairly well, but probably left a little more oil on the artichokes than ideal).
Then, the next day, take them out and let them drain a bit, then grill until you get some nice charry marks and the leaves come off the base easily. (I broiled them instead, since I'm grill-less, using essentially a metal cooling rack over a sheet pan to catch the dripping oil - worked just fine). That's pretty much it (I couldn't believe there wasn't more involved), serve while hot with dipping sauce.
And the dipping sauce was the part that completely cracked me up. My family utterly *devoured* it when served at the restaurant, and I was floored to discover it was simply pesto and mayonnaise mixed 50/50. This makes a surprisingly (to me) delicious dipping sauce. (My suggested even shorter cut - the pre-jarred pesto sauce from Costco sold in their cooler/freezer area is really, really good so just use that and mayo.)
Kathy/Kuisine (formerly KathySK)
I'll second Buca di Beppo.
Some other chains I will visit without qualms:
Round Table Pizza
Rubio's Baja Grill
Ones I avoid at all costs:
I admit I'm a big Rubio's fan and was expecting to be more like that - and it's not. Except for fish tacos, they have no seafood, and the quesadilla was one of the worst I've ever had! The only good thing were the chips and salsa, and that's not good enough to go back for...
They should call it not-Baja, Stale!
I love Chipotle! I find their ingredients to always be fresh, and I love the "subway-esque" set-up, so you can see exactly what is going on your burrito.
I also think their atmosphere is very amusing (Small mexican statues of Aztecian gods and the workers wearing shirts that say Master of the Grill, I made the Guacomole this morning, etc)
Outback's food is pretty blah, but the worst part is they don't even try to emulate any Australian fare. Nothing on the menu attempts to be Aussie and they only have one beer from OZ: Fosters. People might like or not like Olive Garden, PF Changs, etc. - but at least they attempt a certain cuisine.
Outback simply takes a dish such as Buffalo Wings and renames them with an Aussie moniker. Me thinks Australia should file a grievance with the U.N.!
Sample menu for laughs: http://www.outback.com/ourmenu/menu.asp
Some chains I like (I am in SoCal):
In N Out (for the rare occasion I eat a burger)
Most of these (except Roy's) are lunch opions near work. I am forced to go to Olive Garden and Bennihana for family gatherings, but I do so under protest.
Guilty pleasure: TacoBell bean burrito, baked in the oven till crisp with lots of Fire sauce. Shh! Don't tell the other 'hounds! It's a leftover from the "salad days" of my 20's!