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Best chain restaurants?

I know, I know. But I spend half my time out in the country where I have no other choice the few nights when I'm out running errands and don't want to cook. (Taco Bell is listed in the "ethnic" section fo the phonebook and no, there aren't great local finds. This weekend I followed the "Roadfood" book to supposedly awesome Virginia ham and fried chicken and as it happens the place turned into another dull sandwich shop the moment the book came out. A Korean took over the diner -- promising! -- but stopped serving bulgogi after a month when nobody but me wanted it.)

So. If you faced a future of Chili's, Waffle House, Cracker Barrel, TGIF, Buffalo Wild Wings, Olive Garden, etc., are there any bright lights (or at least 40-watt ones)? Any dishes worth trying?

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  1. I always like the pot roast at Cracker Barrel, and Chili's has a pretty good Chipotle Big Mouth Burger (try to get it medium rare or medium).

    1. Broccoli Cheese Soup at TGI Fridays and SouthWestern EggRolls at Chilis

      1. I usually avoid chains but I do like Bucca de Beppo. It's especially great when we go out with our less adventerous friends as everyone can find something they like. I can honestly say I haven't had a bad meal there.

        1. If I am travelling out in Podunk central, and stuck eating at chains, here is my plan of attack ... listed in order of preference:

          1. Some type of salad at CHEESECAKE FACTORY (e.g. Cobb or Tuna). And, if throw caution along with my diet to the wind but have enough Zocor in my travel bag, I'll opt for one of their burgers, usu. BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger or the Kobe Burger.

          2. A Monte Cristo at BENNIGAN'S. The Grilled Meatloaf isn't bad there, either.

          3. Teriyaki Bowl at APPLEBEES.

          4. One of the Frescata Sandwiches at WENDY'S.

          1. I really like Quiznos. I know it get's flogged a fair bit but as far as sub chains goes, it's the best.
            If you get near a McAlliser's Deli, go there. I order the muffaletta. It's quite good.


            7 Replies
            1. re: Davwud

              If/when a Potbelly sandwich place opens nearby, give them a try. I doubt you'll be back to Quiznos.

              Quiznos IS better than Subway, IMHO, but that's like saying bone cancer is "better" than lymphatic cancer. They're both nasty.

              1. re: monkeyrotica

                I disagree. I think Quiznos is just fine.
                It does beat Subway, Mr. Sub (Canada) and Penn Station. I think they make a pretty darned good sub.


                1. re: Davwud

                  My problem has been a combination of Quiznos using stale bread and toasting the sandwich too much, creating a mouth-shredding sandwich. Add the layer of molten cheese, and I'm spitting blood halfway through my meal.

                  That said, I'd still rather eat Quiznos than Subway. A mouthful of toast, hot cheese, and blood beats a mouthful of negative flavor any day. It's like Subway sucks flavor OUT of your mouth. If they could only find a way to use that anti-flavor energy to power a starship...

                  1. re: monkeyrotica

                    Maybe it's the Quiznos you go to. I don't have any trouble at mine. Usually the bread is ultra fresh. Not overly toasted and as for the molten cheese. I guess we can go our separate ways. I love it, you don't. As they say, "That's why there's peanuts and cashews."

                    Probably the thing I like the best about Quiznos is, their horseradish mayo has kick to it. Their 4 pepper sauce has bite. Not like a lot of other places that seem to dumb it down for mass consumption.


                  2. re: Davwud

                    Penn Station is my favorite chain sub shop, but I can always go to Quiznos or Jersey Mikes with no problem. Subway is just dreadful IMO.

                    1. re: Janet from Richmond

                      I used to love Subway. I don't know if it was me growing out of it or it going south on us but it's not the same for me. When I go there, which is not very often, the only thing I'll order is a tuna sub.

                      People criticizing their tuna sub need not apply.

                      As for Penn Station, we ate at one in Indiana I think and it was okay. I want better than okay for the prices they charge. People think Quiznos is expensive. Wait 'til they go there.


                2. re: Davwud

                  My problem with Quiznos is the cost - nine bucks for a combo (toasted sub, chips, soda). They've got to be kidding - you can get almost the same thing at Subway for roughly half the price. I'm in NYC, so usually I don't go to either, however; I can get a better sub pretty much anywhere else.

                3. I like Chipotle, Baja Fresh. I haven't tried everything on their menus, though--stick with chicken salad at Chipotle w/ corn salsa; grilled fresh fish tacos at Baja Fresh.

                  1. In 'n' Out Burger, for sure!

                    1. Most anywhere BUT Applebee's. I don't know how they manage to screw up simple diner fare so much, but I can honestly say that I've never had a good meal there. Well, at least they have booze.

                      1. Macaroni Grill is pretty solid.

                        La Madeline is also good.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: frankiii

                          You must be one of the few to have a Macaroni Grill nearby that doesn't go overboard on the salt. Congrats!


                        2. Jamocha shake at arby's. the best shake in fast food.

                          1. You've never had a Burgerville shake then...

                            1. Bonefish Grill is very good for a chain. Their "Bang Bang Shrimp" appetizer is addictive!

                              1. I do ok with the catfish at Cracker Barrel.
                                I second the nomination for the southwestern eggrolls at Chili's, but avoid their gloppy dipping sauce and ask for salsa instead.
                                Also agree that for a ubiquitous sub chain, Quizno's is passable, but there's a new chain spreading out in the upper midwest called Potbelly, that I find preferable to Quizno's.
                                Chicken salad sandwich at Chik-Fil-A.
                                Waffle House for breakfast if there's no Perkins around.
                                Also agree that dumpster diving would be preferable to Applebee's.
                                Haven't found anything worth eating at TGIFriday's, other than maybe some of the apps.

                                In general, I find that the apps seem to be the safest bet at most of the sit-down chains, or at least I'm least disappointed in the quality to cost ratio.

                                1. When forced into chain-restaurant eating:
                                  --simple steaks at Outback
                                  --veggie plate at Cracker Barrell
                                  --peppercorn burger at Chilis
                                  I'd probably choose to eat at a gas station (Slim Jim, bag of Cheez-Nips, & a Coke) over Applebees or TGIFriday's.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: Hungry Celeste

                                    Oh, and I forgot to add: PF Chang's. Good veggie dishes--sauteed asparagus, spinach, eggplant, etc.

                                    1. re: Hungry Celeste

                                      PF Chang's almost doesn't feel like a chain though I guess it is everywhere these days. I like their lettuce wraps.

                                  2. if I had to choose between all the chains that I have tried, I'd pick Claim Jumper. their portions are Cheesecake Factory-like, but nobody forces me to eat all of it so it doesn't matter to me. (just for some perspective, I think of all the chains mentioned so far, the only chain that I haven't tried is Cracker Barrell)

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: bijoux16

                                      I know some put down Claim Jumper but for the variety and value for the money I have to agree that Claim Jumper is the best. Not gormet but good value. Its like the difference between a 20 dollar bottle of wine and a 600 dollar bottle of wine, yes the more expensive bottle is somewhat better, maybe 5 or 10% but not worth 30 times more.

                                    2. Claim Jumper is very good, just take it for what it is worth! People criticize chains immensely, but fail to consider that they simply cannot compare to most high end establishments. They never intended to outshine or compete with the likes of 4 star restaurants! The quality and service will never be there, so just lower your standards for one meal!!

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Kam7185

                                        The cashew chicken sandwich at Claim Jumper rocks! Their fresh baked pretzels are great also. I'm in there probably once every 6 weeks or so for lunch with the same order. The sandwich is so big that you can take it home and eat the leftovers as a midnight snack.

                                      2. The Old Timer burger at Chili's is great; similar to Whataburger which I also recommend. Breakfast at Cracker Barrel is always good.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: steakman55

                                          I hate to say it, but breakfast at Perkins is reliable. Even though it may be a somewhat dumbed-down version, the potato pancakes hit the spot. Also, eggs cooked to order. I mean: To. Order. That's worth a lot to me.

                                        2. I really miss El Pollo Loco since I moved back east. Best chicken for a fast food place. I'll also second the Bonefish Grill for good chain food.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: dpan

                                            Hmm, what about Boston Market? I've always found their rotisserie chicken far superior to what El Polo Loco offers.

                                          2. You should try the fried mac and cheese at T.G.I.F. & Whataburger out in Ks is way cool, really dig their tater tots!

                                            1. Sometimes I think a lot of us here and elsewhere bang on chain places a bit too harshly. They've all got business models and they may not be "food-first" in their thoughts, but they serve a public that demands a lot of what they've got, and some execute it very well. My only knock against chain places is when they knock off great local places.

                                              That being said, my favorite chain places are Houston's and Wood Ranch here is SoCal (mid-high end), Chili's, Portillo's (Chicago area) and Ruby's in SoCal (mid), and SoCal's In-N-Out Burger for the fast food low end.

                                              A particular favorite of mine is the CHicken Crispers at Chili's/

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: RSMBob

                                                I'm surprised the thread made it this far before somebody mentioned Houston's.

                                              2. Omg...yes. I live in NYC and still love Houston's. I was just there with my mom the other night. We shared Spinach Dip, and each got the Thai Beef Salad, and it was damn good. Plus, I will never stop loving their Hawaiian steak!

                                                1. I vote for Stonewood Grill.

                                                  Have not had even a mediocore meal there in 8 visits.

                                                  Have ordered salads, steaks and fish dishes. They give you a seasonal magazine that gives their recipies and is an excellent source of food/travel information.

                                                  I think they are only a Florida and California chain though.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: mcanni

                                                    Do you mean Stonefire Grill? The place with the huge salads that come in metal bowls?

                                                  2. Surprised nobody mentioned California Pizza Kitchen (CPK). I like their salad and the triple fudge sundae. Kid friendly too.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: notmartha

                                                      My kids like CPK so I've adapted and find their Tostada Pizza really good: black beans and cheese and cripsy iceberg lettuce and chopped tomatoes and tortilla strips on a decent crust (ranch dressing on the side). My husband likes the fettucini with mushrooms in a cream sauce. The desserts are good and the place is kid friendly and parent friendly. They pour a short glass of wine though which annoys me.

                                                    2. Upscale chain: Good -- Bonefish Grill. Roy's. Rip-off -- Ruth's Chris (steak needs to be char-grilled, not broiled and buttered).

                                                      Sandwiches: Good -- St. Louis Bread Company/Panera's. Togo's. Rip=off -- Quizno's (need double-portion meat to have any filling at all).

                                                      Burgers: Good -- In and Out (though fries must be ordered welldone and still not great). Bad -- Carl Jr./Hardee's. Horrible mistake -- not being able to get a fresh-grilled burger at McD's. Used to be able to get a decent double-cheese by special ordering without mustard, but now all patties are rewarmed in the microwave.

                                                      Family/Value: Good -- Claimjumper. Cheesecake Factory. Bucca de Beppo.

                                                      Worst, consistently bad, microwaved, horrid: Olive Garden.

                                                      1. My folks and my sister swear that the food at Applebee's is GREAT! Me, I prefer not to go there as I have never had anything that can be described as good.

                                                        My brother-in-law, a man with generally sophisticated tastes eats regularly, several times a week, at Hometown Buffet. He loves it. I have never been to one..yet.

                                                        Cracker Barrel; yes, very good breakfasts, but dinners are bland; Waffle House for slumming, but they are really not good.

                                                        Macaroni Grill used to have some excellent food, but I stopped going there as the noisy atmosphere is a nuisance.

                                                        Outback can do a pretty good steak. Skip the Bloomin' Onion; too greasy.

                                                        Chili's burgers are a good bet, especially if accompanied by a Top Shelf Margarita, or whatever they call it.

                                                        One of the things I really dislike about chains are the servers' schticks. It is just almost too much to bear sometimes, as when for example, they write their name upside down in crayon; when they explain what focaccia is for the 6th time you've been there. Worse, when the server sits down in the booth across from us to take our order. Another waiter at TGIF actually increased our tip on the cc slip. Luckily, my wife caught it while doing the accounting.

                                                        And that junk on the ceiling and walls! Give me a break! There must be a Central Warehouse where all those chains get their Americana Memorabilia.

                                                        That said, we sometimes eat at chain restaurants here in Mexico,. VIP's, for example, clean, comfortable, good service, but bland food, sometimes tepid temperature.

                                                        Sanborn's, a bit classier, good for breakfast, not so great for lunch. The food is middle of the road, "genteel" fare.

                                                        Restaurantes California, a chain with big dining room and a buffet but you can also order from the menu. Fresh salad stuff good, hot foods bland and mediocre. Awful desserts on the bar.
                                                        Still, despite their blandness, these places are a welcome change from the adventure of eating in taquerías or menuderías. It's kind of soothing and restful.

                                                        *I haven't seen any mention of IHOP. I have had some enjoyable breakfasts there and some poorly made ones.*

                                                        1. It may help you to post which chains are present in your town. I would guess that many of the ones listed are nowhere near your place. Most of the stand-out chains are either in specific geographical regions or in affluent suburbs. In many cases, the best places in medium sized cities (i.e. large enough to have chains) are usually the non-chain stores found in the downtown or fringes of the area - at least that has been my experience.

                                                          1. Where in podunk are you? I'm in Jersey near Trenton, so the chains might be a little different. Usually, I'm just looking for something other than Italian (one can only have so much pasta, no matter how good it is). Otherwise, I would eat at Macaroni Grill, which has some pretty good stuff.

                                                            PF Chang's is pretty nice--tasty and good quality, but limited menu in comparison to most Chinese restaurants. For sandwiches and soup, I love Panera.

                                                            Don't do Applebees, I beg you. I've read that it rates the highest among nationwide polls in popularity, but I think it's horrible. And I'm pretty laid back about my chain restaurants...

                                                            Red Robin has some interesting burgers, but I wouldn't stray off of burgers and fries there. The fries are bottomless though, which is great if you really like fries.

                                                            Chili's has some great stuff-- good burgers and fajitas. Love them southwestern eggrolls. And they had some really great soft tacos the last time. They have a lot of reasonably healthy options now too...

                                                            And if you want decent Mexican from a chain, then definitely try On the Border. they have a "build your own burrito" option that is a lot of fun. Good chips and salsa too...

                                                            Olive Garden is ok, but me and my friends call it "pretend Italian." Like Papa John's is "pretend pizza." We like the breadsticks and salad, basically.

                                                            And Outback is pretty safe for steaks.

                                                            Ummm, that's all I got. I'm going to try the new Longhorn Steakhouse near me soon. We'll see how that goes...

                                                            1. Here's what I generally like for chains:

                                                              Sit-down: Red Robin seems to be the usual choice around here. It does get to be a bit on the noisy side sometimes, but I've never really been disappointed by them. Azteca is decent too (the food is a bit hit-or-miss, but the service is always excellent.) Claim Jumper is good every once in a while too, but the food there can be hit-or-miss too.

                                                              Upscale fast food: Lately, the "Fresh-Mex" places have appeared around here all over. Of these, I think Baja Fresh is my favorite, followed by Qdoba (Chipotle is good too, but too far away for me to go there too often.) Arby's is good every once in a while, but they're a tad expensive for what you get. Panera Bread is pretty good for a soup-and-sandwich lunch, but that's also a bit too far from work for me to get there too often.

                                                              Standard fast food: Wendy's is the best of these, by far. They have more interesting choices on the menu, and the fastest drive-thru in town (I can be in and out in 2 minutes if I go late at night.) In spite of better judgment, I eat plenty of Taco Bell also.

                                                              Pizza: The area in which I live is all but a barren wasteland in the pizza department. Papa Murphy's is just about the only pizza I bother with most of the time. Round Table is pretty good too, but expensive. If I happen to be in the area, I like the pizza at the Sam's Club food court too. Until they all but disappeared from the area I liked Godfather's for the lunch buffet, but I suspect I'd get some disagreement on that one.

                                                              Others: For a cheap meal, there isn't much to compare with the Costco Dog (or for an even cheaper lunch, just go inside for the free samples.) Back when I lived near one, I also quite liked Sonic, but the closest one to here is in the next state.

                                                              Places I avoid: Applebee's (it takes effort to be that consistiently mediocre,) Jack in the Box (everything in the place is excessively greasy,) Papa John's (mediocre pizza that costs way too much.) Pizza Hut (even worse,) Domino's Pizza (Worse than that even,) Krispy Kreme (How can people stand to eat those sugar bombs?)

                                                              1. I'll "bite" ...lemme start with what I HATE: TGIF and Applebees (reasons stated above)
                                                                I don't mind Pizzeria UNO (not for the pizza but the other food is ok), a local WNY chain called Northen Pizza Kitchen has GREAT make-your-own salads, Denny/IHOP/Original Pancake house/Perkins all decent for b-fast foods, I still have a soft spot for Friendlys...not great food but I like their sundaes..

                                                                I guess if it is a choice between what I call gourmet-fast-food, like the ones I mentioned above, and REAL fast food, like Micky-Ds, I would opt for lunch at Houlihans over Burger King. Then again, I limited time at lunch, and often just opt for "take out" at wegmans food store (is that fast food???)

                                                                1. My votes go to Bonefish, PF Changs & Outback. Also Flannigans deserves mention...the best ribs and pretty good burgers.

                                                                  The very worst......OLIVE GARDEN...I would rather eat Stouffers frozen....or any frozen Italian than Olive Garden!

                                                                  1. The only good thing at Olive Garden is the salad and breadsticks. My grandmother loved it, so I ate that a lot.

                                                                    1. I like the salad bar at Ruby Tuesday. I'd pick that even if I wasn't vegetarian and unable to eat anything else on their menu.

                                                                      Tex-Mex places are usually good - I dig Chipotle, Qdoba and Baja Fresh. Otherwise, my fave is SaladWorks.

                                                                      What's good about all these places is that you can go as healthy or indulgent as you want.

                                                                      1. Podunk podunk. No PF Changs, California Pizza Kitchen, etc. (Those chains tend to exist in areas that already have good restaurants.) This area is Applebee's, Chili's, and so on. An Outback is opening soon. I look forward to the vegetable plate at Cracker Barrel, because I love green beens cooked forever and corn in any form....

                                                                        1 Reply
                                                                        1. re: sweetpotater

                                                                          At Chili's: Cajun Chicken Pasta, Baby Back Ribs (barbeque sauce...), pretty much all Big Mouth Burgers (request medium-rare or medium at most). At Outback: Prime Rib, Coconut Shrimp, Pork Chops. At Cracker Barrel: Daily Special, Pot Roast (Roast Beef), most vegetables. At Olive Garden: Soup, Salad, Breadsticks, and Cannelloni del Forno.

                                                                        2. Palm.

                                                                          Seems to be a chain, they're all over the east coast anyway.

                                                                          Maybe Emeril's too, apparently in the Atlanta one they jump up and down wires to get wine. schweet?

                                                                          1. I actually think that Cosi is ok for a quite bite in general. While from time to time I will find some not-so-fresh lettuce in my salad, for the most part I have had ok sandwiches from Cosi. At least the bread is always good in my experience.

                                                                            Now I have only had Cosi in NYC so it may not be the case in other cities...