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Jan 17, 2009 10:39 PM

Sign O' the times...

do you feel like you're eating at chains more or less these days? to save money, i've been eating out less and cooking at home more but some of my friends who have been eating out but just at chains because they claim it's more economical and can find good deals. i figure if i'm going to go out, it's probably not going to be to a chain but what's your take?

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  1. My main change is that I now cut chain restaurants less slack than I did in the past. The main reason to patronize chains--as far as I'm concerned--is consistency. With money getting tighter, my attitude now is on the first experience of poor quality food or service, the place is off my list. With an independent, I might be a little more patient.

    1. No. The independent places need our business more than ever. (plus, at least in my area, there are plenty of great indie alternatives)

      Well, I still go to Le Pain Quotidien (because it's good, but pricey) and sometimes Chipolte.

      1. I have found that it seems that as a cost cutting effort, the chains are cutting thier quality and thier portions etc. What scares me the most, is that as the economy gets worse (which it will have to do before it gets better) the mom and pop restaurants where truly good food is found will go under and all we will be left with are the chains. I shudder to think of it.....

        1 Reply
        1. re: SarahChef

          I worry about that too Sarah. I try to vote with my money when I can.

        2. I avoid chains at all costs, I'd rather find a reasonable Mom&Pop place and patronize them, they need the business.

          1. I find I'm resenting fast food more these days. Value menu excepted, fast food is really expensive food. A regular sized burger or sandwich is close to five bucks. Add a drink and fries and that's almost a $10 lunch ... for salty, tastless junk. And those value menu items are not that filling.

            Just eat at home more, make a lunch... and make your eating out food dollars count by going to a nice restaurant. Or explore the little mom and pops. Why pay five or more bucks at subway or Quizno when you can get a $2 Vietnamese sandwich, often with a freshl baked roll. A Mexican torta is often less expensive and twice as large.

            I have taken quite a few chances on unknown mom and pops over the years ... at a minimum ... one a week ... so let's say that over a few years that's over 200 meals at these joints. In all that time there were at most four that were not good.

            So I disagree about going for consistancy at chains in order not to waste money. Why buy consistantly mediocre fast food? Also on those occasions that I do eat at a fast food joint, as mentioned, the prices always shock me. There is so much less food for so much more money.

            9 Replies
            1. re: rworange

              I remember a time when there was very few fast food restaurants and chains. We did have Howard Johnson's. In my area there weren't many pizza places and no chinese food. But there were plenty of diners. The fast food I got was a steak sandwich or a meatball sandwich from the local cheesesteak joint. I remember the one unhealthy meal I was allowed to get once in a very great while was a fried chicken basket at the blue spruce diner. To this day the connection is there and when I hear or read the words blue spruce, my tummy gets hungry for some diner fried chicken and fries with catsup. I'd like to think that if something has to go it would be the chains, but I know I'm dreaming. Still, I think I'm heading to Pudge's for a cheesesteak tomorrow. I think Pudge's will be just fine but hey, better make sure. :)

              1. re: rworange

                Sounds like you're in a great area for mom n' pop type places. Although I seldom pass up a chance to try one when I hear about it, my experience has definitely been mixed. Probably about 60% good. Where I live a lot of them are owned by folks of Greek extraction. So we get some good gyros, Cincinnati-style chili, and a local favorite called double-decker sandwiches for not much more than the price of fast food.

                I'm not so interested in consistency at the bottom price point. But given my family's financial resources, it definitely bugs me to spend $30 or $40 a person for a disappointing meal. Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the direction where that's as likely to happen at a chain as at an independent.

                1. re: Emm

                  While, yes, I currently live in an area with good mom and pops, however a few years ago I lived in an area where all I could see were chains ... until you looked.

                  That's the problem ... no one looks. You wrote 'I seldom pass up a chance to try one when I hear about it"

                  That is one problem. People don't go until they hear about a place. Someone has to walk in that place the first time and try it out.

                  When I lived in chain-land, as I liked to call it, it was surprising how many good restaurants there were. I watched a Brazilian steakhouse go out of businesses that had and amazing salad bar, flew in sausage from Brazil, and had all you could eat meat. Price-wise it wasn't any more expensive than Mimi's or Macaroni Grill for anyone ordering three courses ... and the food was so much better. People would not step in the door. There was that fear of anything different.

                  I think that is the real value of chowhound. You don't have to take the risk. You can ask if anyone tried a place and if it is good and worth that $30 or $40.

                  From your profile, I'm guessing you are in the Cincinnati area. It's a little more difficult because you have to share the entire midwest board. Kind of a shame there's a board dedicated to chains on Chowhound yet breaking up boards to be more manageable seems like an undoable task.

                  Still If searching the Midwest boards for "Cincinnati", there are almost 500 results, If people post, they build a community and more people participate. Use this valuable resource for shushing out good food.

                  The web itself is valuable. Put in almost any restaurant out there and some sort of info comes up be it a blog, newspaper, or other food sites.

                  Not to promote another site, and not in the $30 range, but in the $ range outside of the stuff Cincinnati is known for ... doing a quick scan ... and this is ONLY an example. I have no clue if this stuff is any good ...

                  Sophia's Deli which only has one brief web mention and no Chowhound mention I could find has supposedly great mac and cheese, good deli sandwiches and home made desserts. Most items are in the $5 range.

                  Cafe De Paris supposedly has great affordable breakfast and the French owner in the kitchen serving mainly lunch items at good prices. No chowhound mention,.

                  Ok, maybe not the best example, but maybe stop at Habanero if your taste runs to places like Chipotle. The website says "We believe in a few basic ideas: serve really good food in a funky, cool environment with great people who actually care if you enjoy your meal."

                  Personally, I'd like to try the CHUBA CABRE there ... cinnamon-roasted squash, pinto beans, rice,apple green chile salsa $6.50. There's a lunch special for $6.95 that where you create your own burrito and a soft drink is thrown in.

                  The thing is if we choose to settle for medicore corporate chains because it is a good, realiably mediocre value, well we have only ourselves to blame. If we continue to throw our money at them as quality declines we deserve what we get.

                  Leave the chain board behind. Start using the local boards more if only to ask questions, but better yet to report the good and bad.

                2. re: rworange

                  Im curious why you immediately started talking about fast food, are those the only chains you have? I assumed that the OP was talking about places like Chili's, Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, Applebees, Ruby Tuesday, CPK, etc. Not gourmet fare, but certainly a cut above the KingMcJack type places.

                  Having said that, the appearance of saving money at fast food or mid-range chains generally is an illusion. But there are things there that most people are not going to be making at home, starting with a simple french fry. No doubt better fries can be made at home, but no one I know happens to have a deep fryer, doesnt want to spend the money to buy all that oil, fat, crisco, whatever, and doesn't want the mess that a fryer can create.

                  One area that there can be some cost savings is in those rather expensive salads that some of the chains specialize in. For me to buy the say 12 different ingredients in a CPK thai or waldorf salad doesn't make sense. I won't use it all up before they go bad, and it drive me nuts when I have to toss it. That might be different if I was cooking for a family of four every day.

                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                    - Chili's, Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill, Applebees, Ruby Tuesday, CPK

                    That's even worse than the low-level chains like BK and group. That is throwing even more money to eat food that comes from a can, freezer or salad bag. It begs the question of why you go out to eat ... is it only a social function to get together with friends or to try something delicious.

                    Do you really think you are getting anything better at a place like Macaroni than canned minnestrone, frozen lasagna and pre-made desserts ... and paying four or five times more for the priviledge ... with tip ... than if you went to Safeway or whatever the local supermarket is and eating that at home.

                    The french fry doesn't have to be from a chain or the salad from CPK.

                    If there is the perception that the only inexpensive sit-down restaurant food can be had at the Chili's and Olive Garden ... which I believe is not true ... but if that is the perception ... why not eat out less frequently but at a better quality restuarant. Instead of two visits to a chain at $30 a shot, go to a local restaurant where there's a chef in the kitchen making real food one time for $60. Why waste money and calories ... and your life ... on the mediocre.

                    I'm not putting myself above that. I'm here reading the chain board and contemplating the Angry Whopper ... but I find myself more and more unsatified by fast food choices ... and Olive Garden ... just don't do that anymore unless I have a dining companion that I can't persuade to go elsewhere. I have better uses for my bucks.

                    1. re: rworange

                      I guess I'm lucky; I live just north of Toronto, in an area where there are many Asians. I have literally a hundred Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Korean spots to choose from in a five-mile square. Some of them are very luxurious, and you can easily drop $100/person without booze for dinner; others are cheap and cheerful, and it's hard to spend more than $15/person unless you opt for shellfish. (And not always then; this fall, lots of places offered 2 lobster specials for $20.) We have upscale chains, too. Il Fornello and East Side Mario's are local (Canadian) Italian chains; Mr. Greek, Montana and Outback Steakhouses, etc. We hardly ever visit those - we'd rather go to an owner-run spot, spend less, and get better quality food.

                      I do go to FF places for lunch sometimes. They are quick, lunch specials are usually inexpensive, and if you pick carefully you can get something palatable. BK has Whopper or Double Whopper Jr. combos for $3.99 twice a week; not bad. My favourite, though, is still Wendy's large chili and a sour cream baked potato. Almost nutritious, cheap, quick, and with the hot sauce, tasty.

                      1. re: rworange

                        I can't speak to the others, but I worked for awhile at a macaroni grill and dated the head chef for quite awhile. They actually make many, many of their dishes each day, including the sauces, which do not come in a bag. I watched the kitchen prep these dishes each day and they followed huge recipes to make giant amounts of whatever dish, but they do make it, they get in a lot of raw ingredients and follow recipes from corporate.

                        1. re: rockandroller1

                          rock, I also worked at Mac Grill. A few years ago they stopped making their own soups and sauces due to inconsistancies in following the recipes. They do come in bags now. They also used to make all the desserts, but that was also stopped.

                          1. re: timbug

                            boo, that's disappointing. I will write to Phil Romano.