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Every so often someone posts on the chains board for presumably the sole purpose of bashing chains and telling everyone how they only eat at local non-chain establishments.

DH and I just got back from five days in Maine. We had some wonderful food at local non-chain establishments. However, we also had really bad hot chocolate at two different local places, and stale cinnamon rolls at a local bakery that came recommended. THAT HAS NEVER HAPPENED TO ME AT STARBUCKS. In fact, when we killed some time at a mall in Bangor before our flight back, the first thing I did was hit the Starbucks kiosk to get their hot chocolate, which is the best hot chocolate I've ever had anywhere.

Even when you're enjoying local regional cuisine on a trip, it's nice when there are chains nearby in case you're having a bout of bad luck with the local stuff. You usually know what you're getting with a chain, even if the quality varies a little bit by location.

That's why chains are great.

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  1. Sometimes, when I do get a bad locally-recommended meal (you can't always trust the desk clerk!), it's necessary to "reset" my taste-buds by seeking out some guaranteed homogenized chain food. I know it's wrong...but I've had some bad meals that require a prompt response.

    1. Ah, next time you are in SF, ask for good hot chocolate recs. You will weep in despair when forced to drink Starbucks hot chocolate again.

      You are relatively new to Chowhound. In five years, if you follow tips ... see if you have the same opinion about choosing reliability over greatness.

      Yep, there will be a few bad items here and there. But I read your post about Maine and the bad was minor compared to the great.

      When I started on Chowhound a few years ago, you would probably find a few posts like this from me. My bete noir is McDonald[s. Yes, I ate mainly at good places, but at least weekly I ate at McDonald's. Now I eat maybe 3-4 times a year at McDonalds ... mainly trying new stuff like the "Southern Style" chicken sandwich ... the reason I'm currently trolling this board.

      I also ate a lot more fast food than I do now.

      However, after finding so many great meals through the boards ... when I eat at chains ... well, the thrill is gone. The food is kind of blah.

      At best, places like Starbucks and McDonald's are good because they are open early morning or late night hours when nothing else is open. Actually had an apple fritther at a new Starbucks near me. Didn't taste like much and I once like their baked goods very much. I had a disappointing donut there a few months back. Maybe donuts are not their thing.

      3 Replies
      1. re: rworange

        I am a new reader here and I am really surprised that there even IS a board dedicated to Chains. I'm sorry to respectfully, but completely, disagree with you, "starbucksbrew" -- My feeling could not be more different. The last thing I ever want, when traveling, is to experience that which I avoid even when I am at home -- chains provide a completely impersonal experience from start to finish. I've had the depressing experience of driving around and round some little town-- even, here in MT, from town to town-- searching for something that's NOT a chain, at any hour of day or night. I just can't do it. I can't support it, I can't settle for it. But then, I tend to pack a cooler.

        1. re: rworange

          rworange, I'm actually not new to Chowhound, but even so, I'm certainly not new to food!

          I should clarify that my reference to chains rarely includes fast food. I despise fast food, although I will get it if I'm in the middle of podunk nowhere and it's all that is available. I meant that's why I like chains like the oft-despised Cheesecake Factory, Brio, and PF Changs.

          1. re: starbucksbrew

            Repeat the chowhound mantra "Chains are bad, chains are evil, chains are bad."

            After a few weeks you will be a doubleplusgoodduckspeaker.

        2. I disagree as well, I would rather eat local food(especially in Maine, it would be lobster, or other seafood every meal, every day I was there or I would be pretty disappointed in myself) when on vacation, than lower my standards and go to a chain anyday. I rarely eat chain food at home, and am not going to break that habit when out of town.

          2 Replies
          1. re: swsidejim

            Hey, buddy, didn't you know you can get a lobster roll at McD's in Maine? ;}

            1. re: KevinB

              I have heard that, but I dont eat McDonalds, I am going on 8 months since I last lowered myself to eating McD's.

          2. I agree, it is nice knowing that when all else fails there are chains to fall back on. I don't think the OP is singing praises for chains because they like them and seek them out, it is nice to have fall backs for those days you are tired starving and in an unfamiliar location (especially those that don't see much Chowhound love on the boards). For the most part the menus are familiar, hours better for travelers, and in some cases service is better. I do prefer researching Chowhound or Yelp for local restaurants, but that is not always possible. I would rather have a quick familiar meal at a chain than driving around hoping to find an open local restaurant.

            1. I don't think chains are "great" but will agree they are consistent, with some exceptions. I've had incredibly vile food at some locations of chains but that's another discussion. You may have a comfort zone for certain things (like your hot chocolate) and that's fine. I think your blanket statement (or scream) of "This is why chains are great" is a bit too much. They are not all, in that vast sweeping statement, great.

              I have different views on chains that has little to do with food. I've worked at restaurants over my many years, both chains and independent places. The peeve I have with chains is this.....in smaller communities, chains are slowly destroying the mom and pop shops; the "WalMart effect", if you will. The large chains like Red Lobster, Outback, Chili's etc have come in and closed down the small businesses. Smaller towns are now getting these new restaurants and the locals shun the old for something new. While the chain may give back the community in some way, the profits don't necessarily stick around. Yeah, there are jobs created and the like but it all washes out in the end. We have a local coffee roaster here that had a decent (read sustainable) business. When Starbucks came in, people flocked to the new (not necessarily better) and local guys' business sufferred. Fortunately, he's stuck it out and people are starting to see that they had something really good before Starbucks came along. Business is picking up again but it will take some time for him to recover fully. He's very fortunate and the exception. Most places would have closed down.

              1. I have to agree with starbucksbrew on the issue of beverages. I never eat in chain restaurants, but I find the coffee situation (particularly in small towns or in cities where there isn't really a coffee-drinking culture) can be a bit dire. I was in Bethlehem, PA for a summer, and I once walked into a cute local cafe and ordered an espresso, only to see the cashier turn around and open a can of instant coffee crystals to use in the espresso machine... In my own city, I always prefer to support local coffee shops who are making a high-quality product. When traveling, however, it's nice to know that I can go somewhere and have 100% certainty that my coffee was made from an actual coffee bean ground on the premises.

                1. I never eat at chain restaurants, but I always go to Starbucks when I am at home visiting old friends. It just gives us a place to sit and chat, without having to pay for food (we are cheap, what can I say?) It still provides an opportunity for us to get out of our houses, though.

                  That being said, when I was living abroad I enjoyed on occasional stop in a Starbucks to cure a short bout of homesickness. Honestly, as truly outstanding all of the tea in Japan is, enjoying a familiar cup of psasion iced tea gave me exactly what I needed. The same goes for visiting Wendy's and getting a frosty and a bowl of chili. I could not enjoy my mom's homecooked food, and wasn't in the mood for local Japanese food. Clearly I would not go to these places every day, but once or twice a month really made me happy. Going to Starbucks in Shibuya or Ginza brought me back to my friends that I meet at Starbucks, and made me feel a little bit more at ease. Afterwards, I would go home and enjoy some good homecooked Japanese food!

                  1. How many links do you need to make a chain. Sometimes you can get some really good food at a local or regional chain. In the west two regional chains come to mind, Pasta Pomodoro and Il Fornaio. Probably Miguels Taqueria #2 near you is also good.

                    The local places can be exceptional, good and bad. It all depends on your definition of travel. If it is being comfortable and not put out at every turn, national or international chains are your ticket. If your idea of travel is to experience new things, taking the good with the bad, eat local.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: EdwardAdams

                      Pasta Pomodoro was sold and from what I've been reading on the SF board ... it was not a good thing.

                      I think that is the thing with chains ... USUALLY ... under the original owners ... they can be good stuff ... but once they sell out to a big corporation ... expect decline. There was a time when I loved Marie Callendars ... till they were sold and became almost as dreckish as TGIF, et all.

                      I hope the people in large corporations that do this to decent chains spend eternity in hell eating the food they ruined.

                      I think you are right about comfort level. Also, as others have said, it was using 'great' that was the overstatment ... reliable, comfortable but ... and I will say this with confidence ... when you get to a chain level like Starbucks ... never great.

                      They serve their purpose. As others have said, there are times when you need them. I remember being in Athens and eating at a number of miserable restaurants. Since McDonald's is my interest and I'm always curious about the local version ... I always stop by to at least check out the local variations.

                      However ... that time in Greece ... was the one time I actually ate at a McDonalds when traveling outside the country ... and it was ... thank you god ... because all I seemed to find was bad food ... really, really ... really bad food. Yes, it was due to lack of planning and just some bad judgement ... but really ... thank zeus for that McDonalds.

                      Something else that flies under radar, is upscale chains ... the restaurants by the Wolfgang Pucks, Bradley Ogdens, etc of the world. There's one 'restaurant group' that has close to 200 restaurants.

                      I have little enthusiasm for throwing big bucks at these places ... my dinner being planned in some corporate boardroom ... what is the latest Disneyesque-retaurant trend that can be foisted on the public. I've lost a lot of respect for Rick Bayless with his little Frontera chains and supermarket stuff. When the buck rather than the passion, love and pride in what is being served becomes the priority, that's when I lose interest.

                      I'd almost rather have a bad meal by someone trying than a passionless, sterile, calculated one.

                      1. re: rworange

                        I always admire your passion on the SF board and agree with you for the most part. I had not heard that about Pasta Pomodoro. It is a sad thing. They really had a great concept to start. The same thing happened with Chevy's, really quite good at the beginning and a slide after that.

                        1. re: EdwardAdams

                          Chevy's is another one I liked quite a lot too.

                    2. One of the great things about Chowhound is that there's almost never an excuse for chains when traveling. You might eat there for other reasons -- convenience, to please non-houndish friends, lack of transportaion -- but you don't *have* to. One of the great gifts of Chowhound is to enable you to travel and sample the local food by getting great recs from the people who live there.

                      That's a large part of what this resource is all about. And I'd rather drink Maxwell House than Starbucks.

                      1. For the most part I will avoid chains while traveling, but yeah, I will sometimes stop in a chain, and it's usually a Starbucks. I do have to say I found some of the best banana bread in one in the middle of Nebraska-they claimed they didn't but it so tasted like someone made it at home and brought it in! I ate at some good and not so good local places during my stay there, and I started every morning with a latte and a slice of that bread.

                        1. There are certain parts of the country that chains are the best option. I moved to NC 11 years ago and let me tell you, "eating local" is still tricky to this day. The local cuisine in many small towns is NC's version of BBQ, something that I have never been able to warm up to. These local BBQ places are adored by the locals, but if you don't like your vegetables cooked to mush, and hot dog relish in your potato salad and coleslaw (these are the common options for sides in these places) than these places are not for you.

                          In downtown areas of Raleigh and Durham, there are some rays of light, some locally run ethnic choices that are actually pretty good, the only problem is often parking, driving around for 10 minutes and end up walking blocks often make these places less desirable for many.

                          When growing up in Maine, local places were always better than chains for American fare, but with the lack of ethnic diversity chains were the only option to fill the gap.

                          I will never be so pretentious to say "no chains ever", because there are times when they are the best option out there, there are some pretty decent ones.

                          If chains were always as bad as some people on here think, than the local places would have no problem competing, take for instance Red Lobster in Bangor Maine, it lasted a few years, but with so many better seafood options, building one there was just silly.

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: bakeman

                            Sides in BBQ joints are kindof beside the point, so I wouldn't judge them based on that. It's the meat, baby.

                            I never meant to imply that chains are bad -- most of them aren't, and some have one or two menu items that are pretty darned good. But none of them are amazing, none of them give you a real sense of locale or ethnicity, and none of them are going to qualify as chowhound experiences.

                            I agree that building a Red Lobster on the coasts is just dumb, but people liked it back in Oklahoma, and they probably should.

                            1. re: JonParker

                              I agree with your post completely, there are just some comments on this board that come across so pretentious, it makes me ill.

                              As far as BBQ places here in NC, maybe I was a little harsh, I have just never been able to warm up to this stuff, but many of these places make killer fried chicken and hush puppies, so I am a happy camper. I have never had a chain make chicken like these places, well Smithfields chicken and BBQ is a local chain and their chicken is first rate, but no national chain can touch it.

                            2. re: bakeman

                              There may be "certain parts of the country that chains are the best option", but NC isn't one of them. Any town so small as to not have any option other than a BBQ joint isn't likely to have any chains, either. If you need help finding somewhere good to eat, head over to the South board!

                              1. re: bakeman

                                Stuck in Tonopah, Nevada last night... The choices were two small local casinos where the cigarette smoke was thick in the restaurant and the wine list consisted of the red or white box, a mexican restaurant that is substandard compared to the fast food chains, and two chain fast food places...I opted for the Burger King as that was the best choice in town.....

                                1. re: NVJims

                                  Actually there are about 15 restaurants in Tonopah. Which of the two Mexican restaurants were you talking about ... El Marquez or Cisco's Taco's (tho this sounds chain-ish)?

                                  While El Marquez has average food this old report says ...
                                  "The chips weren't home made, but the salsa was, and it was some of the best I've had lately ... BTW, their coffee was the best I had anywhere on this trip, including the espresso at Mon Ami Gabi. Maybe they did this for Christmas, but the beans were ground with a touch of cinnamon. "

                                  And doesn't BK really have substandard food compared to other good burger joints?

                                  This points to a number of problems with falling back on chains
                                  - not enough people take a leap and maybe miss out on something good
                                  - then there's no info on these places leading them to fail while chains thrive
                                  - the perception that there is nothing but chains out there

                                  Yep if you take a chance you will have a few crappy meals ... but they will probably be memorably bad rather than forgetably mediocre.

                                  Also, by taking chances, you hone your Chowhounding skills. I am much better at zoning in on what might be great in a restaurant others might consider mediocre. You just pick up chow skills.

                                  I lived in a suburb for a while and my first impression was that there were nothing but chains ... but when I looked closer ... I found some of the best restaurants I've ever ever had.

                                  Not to mention the local color ... there are real people running these joints and there's usually some colorful memory that gives a feel for the town and place

                                  Or else you can leave with a burger that you can get anywhere served by a bored teenager whose face you won't remember the minute you get your change.

                                  I once was 'stuck' a few days in a town called Buttonwillow in California in the middle of nowhere because my cat got sick and we couldn't travel.

                                  The Motel6 (they take pets) was surrounded by chains. However, driving up the road I found the center of town with a great little pupsa place. I have yet to try another Mexican restaurant that makes guacamole tableside.

                                  On another trip I stopped with my inlaws at the pupusa place and a local for some reason became enamoured with me and proposed marriage (or something not quite as honorable, my Spanish ain't great) and sang songs to me in Spanish while the guys in the family rallied to my defense. It is still a story everyone tells and laughs about.

                                  I posted about that pupusa place ... lots of Chowhounds stopped. It was picked up by the Yelp/Chowhound crowd ... that restaurant now has a second location in Buttonwillow.

                                  However, despite my posting about possible greatness at the other guacamole place ... no one has taken the leap of faith and tried it or posted about it.

                                  Yet posts about eating along this stretch of road (I-5) inevitably turn up the same old joints and the advice there is nothing to eat ... but there is a fabulous deli that makes there own sausages on one exit, an amazing fresh apricot shake at another ... and a crazy Carribean restaurant that is out there for no apparant reason that I have on my list to try the next time I'm down that road.

                                  The best post about chain usefullness was someone who was traveling with kids. Unless you cave to the easy popular selection, it can be a long weary trip ... but then again ... that's just training another generation that will choose the chain.

                                  1. re: rworange

                                    Things have changed since 2005 when the report was written on Tonopah. I've endured the poor places in town. The lettuce was crisp, the tomato was ripe and the burger actually looked almost as good as the picture on the menu at BK. An indie place called the Cranky Crab has come and gone(poor service....)and the town is still a foodie wasteland. Best bet is to pick something up at the market and do it up in the microwave in your motel room.................

                                1. re: Davwud

                                  If we're talking wired chains, Panera's had offered good quality free wireless a far back as I remember there being a Panera. No strings attached. The drip coffee is about as good and the breakfast options are better. In my road warrior days, Panera saved my cake many times when I had to find connectivity to collaborate on presentations and had no desire to pay the high Starbucks/T-Mobile tarriff for poor upstream bandwidth.

                                  Although beyond a few breakfast items, I wouldn't give the food a big thumbs up. Especiaily not the soup. And really not the onion soup. Really.

                                2. I like chains when I'm travelling with the family. When you're on a 10-hour drive from Toronto to Chicago, you don't want to spend a half-hour driving around trying to find some quaint local place that may or may not be any good (although, truth be told, having worked at Blue Cross Michigan for a while, I found some pretty good local spots in Lansing near I-94). I'd never pretend a Bob Evan's or a Cracker Barrel is great food, but when you leave Toronto at 4 am, and you're looking for a predictable breakfast, I'd rather go to either of these than take a chance at some local greasy spoon or truck stop.

                                  But Starbucks?! Can't stand the pretentious attitude of the staff, the high prices, and the sloth-like service. I'd much rather grab a cup from Tim's or Dunkin Donuts.

                                  1. I too love local restaurants and avoid chains but I do sometimes rely on them...

                                    I was in Phoenix for a work thing recently and I had to book a dinner for 15 people. I had never been to Phoenix before, nor do I have friends there that I could trust to make a good recommendation. We ended up going to Flemings, which worked out wonderfully, since I needed something nice, with decent food and I could depend on it. I'm not sure that I would have felt the same confidence, booking a restaurant that I had never been to before.

                                    1. I agree that there are certain items that can be favorites in any business, or that there might be a bit more consistency in Chain operations, or at least, you would hope so, with all the time and money they have to spend on getting it right through planning, orgainzing and then building and doing business the same way over and over, again.

                                      That said, I often feel a sadness that so many of the things that were "great" when I was growing up, like your hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls (which they do not make themselves, do they?), at Starbucks, have been bastardized with those people that have no idea how to run a restaurant, and have turned what used to be a great product that was a major part of the day in and day out experience of a neighborhood or small town/city into a mass produced, taste lacking, lower quality product, now served on plastic plates!

                                      Some of the best examples are T.G.I. Fridays, sold out in the 80's. Taco bell was my favorite taco stand in Southern California, and although I do like some of their stuff, and they have worked hard to build the look and taste of the concept, of late, it is just another one that Pepsi, who has no desire to make it good, just make it profitable (which is probably why all chains go down the drain, because that is not what this business is all about... it is about the neighborhood it serves, with a consistant and quality product, people that know how to treat their guests right, whether it is a diner or find dining), in a comfortable and clean atmosphere - which is truly lacking in many operations, today). I was just researching the old Bob Big Boys chain, and found the original story of it's start, and also the many directions various companies tried to take it, like Marriott that absolutely cut it to pieces, to the next group that went belly up because they couldn't keep it like it once was. The public is not smart, but they can't be fooled that much when it comes to what they know and like in food, especially something that is a part of the past or their childhood!!

                                      That's what NOT ALL CHAINS, are great... some that are, due to a great effort to be "consistent", include California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory (yes, even with that huge menu), and Panda Express who is coming on strong right now... and are immensely consistent (in atmosphere and food, although their service still lacks, for a fast food place, but then that has to do with the quality of people that are available to hire, that have the right amount of work ethics that it takes to provide "good service", no matter what kind of concept it is. I know this from having been there and done that, for over 30 years... and it is not the same... the food, the places, the people... and no one wants to work hard enough to make it better, so I have given up on what has been (and will always be, in some ways), a large part of my life... the Passion it takes to be successful in this business, whether a chain or a local. That's what I think, and thank you for allowing me to vent here, with the rest of you.