HOME > Chowhound > Chains >


Is there a difference between Bakers Square, Carrows, Denny's, IHOP and Marie Calendars?

If there is, how would you rank them and why?

For the life of me, I've never been able to discern a difference.

But while waiting in line at the market today, two ladies in front me were having a rather heated discussion about the merits of Carrows versus Bakers Square versus Denny's. For a minute there, I almost thought that they were going to go to blows to settle the issue. (One of them did pick up one of those rubberized separators and started waiving it rather menacingly, however.)

I'm not asking if these places are any good (that's a separate issue).

I just want to know if there is a real difference between any of these joints?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Not sure there's a lot of difference between Denny's and IHOP save for the brilliant individual thermal carafe of coffee at IHOP. Marie Calendars definitely distinguishes itself with excellent pies of all sorts. I've never eaten at Carrows, so I can't comment there.

    So, personally, for breakfast, I prefer IHOP....for pie, Marie Calendars. For anything else, none of the above.

    7 Replies
    1. re: ccbweb

      I would say that Marie Callender's and Baker's Square distinguishes themselves at doing it a little better than the others. Can't comment on Callows since I have never been. To me Denny's is a low brow version of the 24 hour restaurant, I know it boggles the mind. IHOP to me is an anachronism, they don't adhere to what is best of the diner craze and they also don't follow the best of being corporate in terms of service, cleanliness or consistency.

      1. re: ccbweb

        Yes,the best feature of IHOP is the thermal carafe of coffee placed on your table and refilled often, if needed. I like that and usually stick with the breakfasts especially the grain and nut pancakes. Haven't been to the others in years but remember Denny's as late night stop and Marie Callendar's for pies.

        1. re: foodseek

          i haven't been to ihop or denny's in years, and i've never been to any of the other places...but i remember when i was a kid we always thought it was such a great treat when we were allowed to order those chocolate chip pancakes @ ihop. they made a smiley face with the chips and garnished them with whipped cream. plus, i got my very own little jar of boysenberry syrup to pour on my silver dollar pancakes. i know, i know. boysenberry??? hey, i was a kid, what can i say? :)

          anyway, as far as the difference between the two places i think i've always considered ihop to be more of a breakfast-y place, i.e. pancakes, french toast, potato pancakes, etc...while denny's was more for savory meals [although i do recall occasionally diving into a banana split during late-night college study sessions @ denny's....]

          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

            How could I forget those chocolate chip pancakes at IHOP. Yes, they were sweet,gooey, and probably not made of things that would make an adult swoon but they were memory breakfasts for a kid. I loved them especially the whipped cream topping. Thanks for the memories goodhealthgourmet!

            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

              What's wrong with boysenberry syrup? Comes from a fabulous hybrid developed by the Knott's family, I believe.

              1. re: PommeDeGuerre

                nothing's *wrong* with it, per se...i just recall that the particular stuff they served @ ihop was obnoxiously sweet and very thin/runny....the kind of thing that would easily please a kid's palate, but now the thought of it just isn't very appealing.

                1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  Fair enough. Althoough I find that most of the better tasting syrups are a bit thin and runny, no thickeners added like in so many "maple" syrups, and a sign that they are not perhaps quite as loaded with sugar or cooked to as a high a temp, though not always the case.

        2. Marie Callender's and Bakers Square have a larger selection of pies than Denny's, Carrows and IHOP. I have spent more time at Denny's than at any of the others, especially in high school and college, when it was the main late-night dining option.

          1. Yes, I think their menus are different. But of course they all go for the same type of home style food. Marie Callendar's and Baker's Square are known for their pies (which I haven't tried, but I know it's their selling point). Denny's and IHOP are those kind of all-night diner type places you can find after a night of driving.

            1. I have no idea about Carrows; I've never been. Denny's is a short-order diner. As is IHOP but focusing on breakfast. Baker's Square is a little more upscale as is Marie Callender's. I don't remember about Baker's Square, but Marie Callender's has a bar, so I'd describe it as a quieter, more family oriented restaurant than Chili's or Applebee's.

              Have you ever been to any of the restaurants you can't tell apart? I've never been to the Rainbow Room, nor have I been to a Bubba Gumps. For the life of me, I am not able to discern a difference.

              1. They are all lumped in the same catagory for me. Places I will only go if nothing else is available/open, and I am starving.

                1 Reply
                1. IHOP, despite officially taking the "pancakes" out of its name, still relies very heavily on them and continually has elaborate special pancake promotions which mainly involve various fruit toppings. I prefer Denny's, because they seem to be slightly cleaner and have a wider range of food options. But if you have to have food at 3am, how picky can you be?

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: mordacity

                    My unofficial, statistically insignificant, and biased experience is just the opposite. The Denny's I have been to have been disgusting sanitation wise, if not food wise. The IHOPs have not been stellar but it didn't gross me out to go to the bathroom there. Waffle House on the other hand have been pretty clean. Just the ones I frequent way back when.

                    1. re: Phaedrus

                      I've seen quite the range of Denny's restaurants. There used to be one in Oregon off of I-5 that was spectacular... so much that we'd wait to eat there rather than anywhere else on the drive between California and Washington. There are quite a number of nice (as in tidy establishment, not stellar food. Denny's food is low end diner food and good for 24 hour study sessions) Denny's scattered through Washington. South SF bay area however... I won't ever step inside another one if I can help it. Those places have serious sanitation issues.

                      The IHOPs that I've been too have usually been lacking in cleanliness, but not as bad nor as good as I've seen Denny's be.

                      1. re: Luthien

                        The Denny's in Emeryville is pretty decent, if you feel like giving it another go. Had a couple of late night study session noshes there.

                  2. It's a dated reference, but I remember hearing a priceless description of Carrow's as "Sambo's in drag."

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: misohungrychewlow

                      Of the chains listed, Carrow's is most like Marie Callendar's, though without the pie -- more upscale than Denny's or IHOP, but still "family dining." And less "hip" than, say, TGIFriday's.

                      Like Sambo's, Carrow's (and Coco's) is based in Santa Barbara, though I don't know that there's any connection. Quite possibly.

                      1. re: Muskrat

                        Carrows and Coco's are part of Catalina Restaurant Group, which is owned by a Japanese investor. I'm not sure that they have anything to do with Santa Barbara. They both operate out of Carlsbad. Catalina was spun off from the group that also owned Denny's and Pollo Loco.

                    2. To me, Denny's and IHOP are for breakfast foods only. I've tried sandwiches at both, and they were gross.

                      Marie Callander's, however, has served good lunches on many occasions. The one on Miracle Mile in LA has a really nice, albeit old school, decor and outdoor patio too. That was our go-to sit-down lunch spot when we didn't want to drive from the office for lunch.

                      1. While all of these restaurants have changed over the years ... and not for the better ... the rankings have remained the same.

                        1. Marie Calendars ... way above the rest

                        2. Baker's Square

                        3. Denny's

                        4 Carrow's

                        5. IHOP

                        What exactly are you ordering that you can't tell the difference?

                        I can understand not understand the difference between Marie Calendars and Baker's Square since the focus at both restaurants is pie.

                        I can understand Denny's and Carrow's seeming similar.

                        However, IHOP is to the other four as Dunkin Donuts is the McDonalds, Jack In the Box and Burger King. It is a totally different category. It's about the pancakes. Sure they sell other food, but it's about the pancakes as Marie Calendar and Bakers Square is about the pie.

                        In addiiton to the pies, MC distiguishes itself with the salad bar, a larger selection of soups, quiche, meatloaf, cornbread, and vegetables. There are actual vegetables at MC.

                        The issue of quality can't be put aside in any of these. Marie Callendars is the closest to a homemade meal. There is, however, no real reason to go to MC for breakfast. That is fine, but the focus is lunch/dinner. They added breakfast maybe a decade ago.

                        Baker's Square is a MC wannabe. The quality and variey isn't there. They get off big-time on the latest trend of the moment. Currenlty they are featuring Angus burgers as is everyone else ... and Ciabatta sandwiches ...

                        Denny's is diner food that been chained. The breakfast is the strong point, especially the Grand Slam where price at one time figured into the equation ... not so much now. If you must eat lunch or dinner at Denny's, stick to the burgers and sandwiches.

                        Carrow's ... poor Carrow's. Carrows is 'the early bird special'. Denny's is for families with kids. Carrow's is for Seniors. The food looks more processed than Denny's. With Denny's you can imagine real eggs and potatoes.

                        It promises more than it delivers. It has good ideas that don't translate. It is likely to have items other places won't have. Currently they have banana custard French toast ... sounds like a good idea ... probably not. MC excepted, Carrow's is more about dinner.

                        Though I will rate them number 2 for dinner. You can get prime rib and decent enough steak. The green beans are ok and you can get a baked potato.

                        IHOP is pancakes ... pure and simple ... with the thermos of coffee to go with hem. Don' order the eggs. Don't order the potatoes ... for heaven's sake, never order lunch or dinner items.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: rworange

                          stopped into a Marie Callender's a few days ago - my wife remembered having one at a pot luck dinner and enjoying it. We went for the razzleberry pie ( combo of blackberry and rasberry IIRC ) ...... $10.99 for the whole pie. Quite good ...... nice fruit flavor, not overly thickened and flaky crust. What's not to like? This was my first pie from MC - probably won't be my last but my waistline is sort of glad that there isn't one closer to our house. :~ )

                        2. What did Baker's Square used to be called? I know they had a different name many years ago. I'm pretty sure, at least.

                          This is what people fight about?

                          3 Replies
                            1. re: Fibber McGee

                              Years ago, Baker's Square used to be called Poppin' Fresh.

                            2. Carrows moved into many of the old Sambo's locations when the chain went belly up. There is one Sambo's at this time and it is the original on the waterfront in Santa Barbara, CA. Carrows and Bakers Square are similar. Denny's and IHOP are pretty close. MC has the edge with it's pies over competing Bakers Square.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Big N Fat

                                I'd opt to fast before going to any of the mentioned.

                              2. Carrow's and Coco's are owned by the same company, and since I haven't eaten at Carrow's, I'll include Coco's in its place.
                                Food overall:
                                Baker's Square > Dennys > IHOP > Marie Callendar > Coco's
                                The caveat is that IHOP and Denny's tend to vary by location--some have great cooks, but others are terrible. I've only eaten at one Marie Callendar, so there's a chance that too was unrepresentative, but for the price, I was really underwhelmed. Coco's food tends to be uniformly mediocre to bad.

                                Pie (the primary reason I would go to most of these places):
                                Baker's Square > Coco's > Marie Callendar > Denny's > IHOP
                                Denny's barely has pie any more. I will say that their apple crisp a la mode is pretty tasty.