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Are Chain Restaurants a good or bad thing?

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  • LeviT Feb 4, 2010 02:49 PM
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What are your thoughts about Chain Restaurants? Do you think it's a valuable asset to our community? It does provide consistency, and value. However, is there a problem with the mainstream food that is on the menus? It does seem like the menu is targeted towards a specific age group. But couldn't one say that it is a good 'transition' for younger people to approach eating out at restaurant instead of at the food courts at shopping malls?

I've been reading the posts on this board for a while, and I've never seen the selection of restaurants such as Earls, Joey's and Cactus Club been mentioned for any of the suggestions to eat in Vancouver.

Just wondering what your thoughts are.

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  1. I think there is a Chains board on Chowhound that probably talks about this topic exclusively. If you mean why don't local Hounds recommend chains to visitors etc, one answer is that sometimes they do. Someone just suggested The Keg in Yaletown for a birthday dinner, and White Spot is often mentioned as an "only in BC" option.

    The whole "casual fine dining" category, under which most people would likely put the establishments you mention, frankly drives me a bit crazy in Vancouver. There are SO many of them, and they seem so similar. The food isn't necessarily bad but there is nothing distinctive about it. You can't tell if you're in one resto vs another, with the same designers, the same wait staff, the same menus. Not very interesting IMO though probably safe and consistent as you note. But good value? I rather think not. When I do end up eating at these places (work-related reasons only), I always find that my wallet is much lighter than it would have been in an independent restaurant of my choice. But perhaps it is the portion sizes that create value for you? Well, I'd rather pay less for a smaller portion, thanks.

    If these places are in fact a way for younger people to segue from food courts, I suppose that is a good thing. I can't help thinking that they aren't all that different from shopping mall offerings, with dumbed-down versions of international foods and bland flavouring. Those are my somewhat curmudeonly thoughts, since you asked :-).

    1 Reply
    1. re: grayelf

      To expand on the Value proposition of Indies vs Chains...

      There is a perception that Chains are inexpensive relative to their Indie counterparts.

      Bacon-Cheese Hamburger prices:

      Cactus Club (Chain) - $14.50
      Earl's (Chain) - $13.55
      Hamilton St Grill (Indie) - $12.00
      Refuel (Indie) - $14.50

      I guarantee you that the burgers at HSG and Refuel are head and shoulders better than the Chains.

      As far as Chains being some sort of gateway to Fine Dining...I think there is some truth to this (drawing from my own experiences growing up). Also, I can imagine a bunch of high school teenagers meeting up at Earl's or Cactus Club...but I can't really say the same for Refuel or HSG. (I boils down to the marketing and positioning.)

    2. I too will only eat at these restaurants when a rep is taking me out and PAYING! I think they're horribly over-priced for average food. I would never pay with my own money to eat at any of them. Now, I'm not saying there's not a couple of bright spots on the menu in a couple of these places, but in general there's not much to rave about. For the prices there is much better dining one can do!

      I do love Whitespot still though. That happens to be because it was my fave as a kid and it's comforting for that reason...and I still love the burgers though I visit once every three months or so now when I get the old craving!

      1. Sometimes we do recommend a chain, when the circumstances call for it - e.g. a large group of extended family, varied in age, with some picky eaters.

        1 Reply
        1. re: victoriafoodie

          Same here. I would recommend CFD places with those circumstances. Office lunches, for example.

        2. I have to say, I like Whitespot too but only the classic menu items. Good burgers and I like the club sandwich. The fries are good too. It's a good lunch place.

          2 Replies
          1. re: tdeane

            +1 on the Whitespot Triple-O. I always have a hankering whenever I drive past one.

            1. re: fmed

              There is something about a Burger at triple O's. It always ways makes me crave one. I feel guilty for wanting one every tuesday when its cheaper too.

          2. I think people don't recommend chains in Vancouver because there is much better and unique food for better value at non-chain restaurants.

            For example, the last time I went to Earls with my sister we spent $80. For cheaper or the same price my sister and I have much more interesting meals at Guu with Garlic, Tapastree and Aki's.

            Although I think chain restaurants serve a purpose. I ate my fair share of catus club, milestone, & joeys when I was younger. I think those expereince refined what taste preferences I have and it gave me a sense for the level of service you should expect at restaurants. Also you don't know what great food is until you've eaten bad food.

            But I still like White Spot and The Keg.

            12 Replies
            1. re: moyenchow

              nothing wrong with chains,they definetely have their place, unfortunately there is that element of food snobs who believe that to be a true foodie you gotta hate chains

              1. re: vandan

                There is nothing "wrong" with chains per se. As stated above, they're consistent and provide atmosphere that some people like.

                But, I'm pretty sure there are many reasons (also stated above) that (most) people on this board don't like CFD's, and I don't think, at least for the most part, they are because they're trying to fit in with other foodies.

                Sushi Tacos, Over-priced Burgers, and Santa Fe Chicken Salads don't do it for me. Does this make me a snob?

                1. re: Cancuk

                  no it doesn"t, and i ididn't say it applied to all, nor was it in any way specifically about this board

                  1. re: vandan

                    I didn't get that from your comment, vandan -- I thought you meant that some people who call themselves foodies set up rigid guidelines about what "good" food is and refuse to deviate from them even when faced with the awful reality that some snacks at some CFDs are in fact tasty :-). I don't call myself a foodie or a snob, but I guess some people might, and I'd be okay with that as long as they understand that I will eat good food with good value anywhere anytime.

                    1. re: grayelf

                      yup greyelf, you got exactly what i was saying, and i guess seem to convey it better than i , thanks

                      1. re: vandan

                        Not too long ago before the Rob Thomas concert we had a dining dilemma where I wanted to go to Cibo, they wanted Moxies but we ended up settling at Milestones in Yaletown.

                        My personal bill was $50 including 2 glasses of wine & tip. When we were walking to the concert I said to my friends, "We could have had a burger at Hamilton St. Grill here for cheaper". I got told I was a food snob & that they had enjoyed the food just fine & I should lighten up. They went on to tell me they couldn't even understand the menu at Cibo meaning who would eat that?!

                        I told them I was only trying to say that it would have been fine if the food was GOOD for the price I paid! I know this (me) "trailer trash in new shoes" is not a snob! ;-) Oh, and I don't think vandan was saying I was either...but I did ponder it...

                        1. re: ck1234

                          haha, so what convinced you otherwise?

                          1. re: vandan

                            Well, you said, " unfortunately there is that element of food snobs who believe that to be a true foodie you gotta hate chains".

                            I don't hate chains, I just don't like paying for them! =D

                            1. re: ck1234

                              ok got it

                2. re: vandan

                  - i am not anti-chain, but i find these places boring and the ambiance contrived. chains are vital: they make it possible for something truly novel and inspired to actually surface- they act as aesthetic counterweights. my preference for, say, oolichans at the ovaltine- over a chain- is not based in elitism. rather, it is based in experience. patrons at places like cactus club, joey's, milestones, etc. tend to exhibit particular social behaviours and mannerisms that- to be frank- irk me. it is like the difference between a double- bill of tarkovsky at the ridge theater ( try 10 years ago ) and ' sex and the city ' at a metroplex somewhere.

                  1. re: slugsunderfoot

                    Just a side comment, but what restaurants aren't contrived? Restaurants that even care about their ambiance are contrived and meticulously planned to evoke a sense of place - a specific atmosphere. For the most part, they weren't accidents! ;) It's not just a chain thing.

                    1. re: Florentine

                      - fair enough. yet, somehow- a plate of oolichans at the ovaltine cafe fails to feel contrived to me; whereas the croonings of sinatra or doris day on a canned sound- system while i am bagging some tomatoes at urban fare, does. one experience ' feels ' authentic. the other experience feels ( to me, anyway ) ' manufactured ' .

              2. - one can only stomach so many oft- repeated yelps of ' yaaaaaaa ! ' and ' like, like, like ', not to mention ' right ? ' at the conclusion to every sentence. the iphone / smartphone chat / text activity that is seemingly unceasing. inane music, inane programming on big- screen sets. food ?
                - i wonder if Krispy Kreme will ever locate on robson st.

                1. I feel like the more less family oriented chains have become a social well, where people can gather after work and have a couple of drinks. Not to mention, they normally close at midnight. (2 o'clock during the Olympics). And it is a good place for people to meet and have a few drinks before going out on town. So should people(foodies) really frown upon people who just want to have a good time?

                  Not many Vancouverites have gotten into the food scene yet. Living here and eating healthy all the time is already a hard and expensive thing to maintain. So eating out at indie restaurants may not always seem like something one would want to do. I personally think that because we see the names (brands) of Earls and Cactus Club around so much, that when some people who do want to go out for a nice dinner in a nice setting, will choose to think of these places first. Instead of someplace such as Chambar where it might be seen as "pretentious" by someone who doesn't dine out much because of how respected and praised the restaurant is. Myself, I still believe that Vancouver has yet to make its mark on the North America as one of the captials of dining experiences.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: LeviT

                    Earl's, Cactus Club, etc have been around for a long time and have good marketing. Indies just can't compete with their marketing budgets. We know about them here on Chowhound because the people who post here regularly are obsessed with food and dining. Places like Chambar, Refuel, etc. while very well known to us here, are completely off the radar for the typical Vancouverite. To compound that problem, Vancouver is an expensive place to live - let alone eat.

                  2. Not in Vancouver or Victoria but here is my take on chains as a person with kids to feed.

                    The last fine dining experience we had in Vancouver was at Cibo. Read lots of reviews both here and elsewhere and it looked like a good choice.

                    Well the food was good, not great, the service was good but not great. The portion sizes were strange. The appy portion of tripe was huge and left little room for the rest of my meal. The server had assured me the portion sizes were small to allow diners to sample all sections of the menu. The server had to have someone else answer our questions about wine. The bill was fairly high for the food and service we received.

                    That same weekend we ate at Earls on Robson. The service was prompt, friendly and knowledgeable. The food was tasty, met our expectations and all in all it was a nicer experience that Cibo.

                    Ric's is a chain that we have enjoyed for family and business dinners.

                    When looking for places to eat out when away from home with the kids, it is far easier to just look for a chain where we know what to expect on the menu. We go to Milestones, Whitespot and Earls at various times. DH loves to go to Chili's when he is in Calgary.

                    At home (Duncan BC) we only have one chain, Whitespot, we have enough good to great indy restaurants to keep us well fed. Oh I guess that is not quite true we have Romeos an Island chain for pasta and Italian food that we very rarely eat at, generally if we need to eat late. There is a Boston Pizza that we never go to as well.

                    We are food lovers, but not food snobs. Sometimes a BC Burger is what satisfies, sometimes it is a $600.00 dinner.

                    We will not return to Cibo, but will eat at Earl's, Milestones, Cactus Club and Whitespot again and again. And we will return to the Post Hotel where we have had two of the most memorable meals in our lives.

                    We do not eat at Kelsey's or Montanas, tried both once and was dismayed by the lack of cleanliness, poor service, food quality etc.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: mlgagnon

                      Well said. I too have had nicer experiences at chains than at independent restaurants. It depends on the chain (and its location) and the independent restaurant. I don't think it's fair to paint all chains with the same brush. Why does it have to be either or? Why can't you love independent foodie establishments and enjoy a meal at a good chain? Some chains are horrendous. Others do it well. Most recently I've had an excellent meal with prompt, friendly, and knowledgeable service at the Milestone's in Yaletown - it exceeded my expectations. Wine prices were more than fair and we had a wonderful time. The servers were a range of ages and never have I encountered a bimbo. Earl's on Robson on a Friday night? Entirely different scenario. When we ordered their seasonal prime rib entree, she asked us if we were sure we wanted to order that "because it comes with celery root". I kid you not. Her logic was that since she didn't know what it was, and it sounded gross to her, why would somebody in their right mind want to order celery root?

                    2. These days there are various types of chains including very high end ones like Joel Robuchon, Gordon Ramsey etc. Some will argue it's not a chain but to me its the same concept.

                      Chains restuarants have its purpose and place for various reasons. People like familiarity, they know what to expect and that's why it works. Whether you enjoy that specific chain or not, that's a personal choice, just like choosing to like one independent restaurant from another.

                      So my answer is, I don't mind them but it doesn't mean I have to love all of them.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: gourmet wife

                        I was thinking about Market and db Bistro Moderne in those same terms. They are, in fact, chains.

                      2. Nothing will kill my love for White Spot. :)

                        1. I think chain restaurants provide predictability for older people who don't care about the random element in independent restaurants. Also it represents an affordable "step up" for young couples who are used to McDonald's or Jimmy Johns as their previous "fine dining". The fact is fine Italian restaurants will cost 2-3x as much per person and I sense a lot of snobbishness by those who CAN afford the real thing.

                          1. Yesterday I saw a sign at the Whitespot which read something like 'Comfort Food Coming Soon'. I also saw a sign at another 'chain' at Duncan advertising 'Comfort Food'. Is this a new trend?

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Puffin3

                              Comfort Food is so 2010 ;-)

                              1. re: fmed

                                I sure hope they bring it back. Meatloaf, liver and onions. I have no interest in going into a White Spot and seeing the same menu items I'd find at Cactus Club. I want what that chain did well 30-40-50 years ago. That would get me in the door.

                                1. re: Tinfoilhat

                                  With identical menus, CC's would taste better than WS's hands-down !

                                  1. re: LotusRapper

                                    You might be right. Still, I have a craving for White Spot meatloaf that can't be denied.

                            2. I avoid eating at chains.

                              I'm aware that I'm making generalizations based on my knowledge of the operations of one chain, and that there are exceptions to every rule, but here goes...

                              Having worked at a "casual dining" chain for many years, I know that in order to maintain the consistency valued by so many patrons, much of the food served comes already prepared - prepared pasta sauces, dressings, marinades, etc. Too many preservatives for my liking.
                              To keep consistent chain-wide, regional and seasonal foods are ignored.
                              Menus are developed according to food trends, with an effort to continue to appeal to a broad base, so there is less of an adventurous spirit to the menus.

                              In order to meet the food cost guidelines set by the head/home office, pasta, vegetables, sandwich meats etc. are pre-portioned in thousands and thousands of plastic bags which find their way into landfill because labour costs don't permit a recycling program. The environmentalist in me hates this!

                              A portion of the price you pay for every meal at a chain restaurant goes to the corporate or franchise headquarters to pay for the salaries of the executives, advertising, R & D, etc. I'd prefer to keep my money in my community and support my neighbours, and have interesting, adventurous meals when I choose to eat out.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: hungryjoanne

                                Interesting post, hjoanne, thanks for that perspective.

                                1. re: hungryjoanne

                                  Sounds like the practices in the airline & cruise ship industries ! :-(

                                  Thx for the insight, Joanne.

                                  1. re: hungryjoanne

                                    I was about to touch on something similar so I will just skip that part and add my other ramblings here. In general though I agree completely with everything you just said Joanne :)

                                    As for chains, I think I'm with the consensus that I'll go with a group, either work or friends but won't really suggest it myself if people ask me. After thinking about it for a while I think the reason I don't really like chains is every time I go to one I feel like I'm settling. I feel like I could be trying somewhere or something new or different but I'm going for the same old thing whenever I eat at a chain. No chain has had a menu item that intrigued or surprised me in decades.

                                    The biggest reason though is that 90% of the time I prefer home cooked these days. Either cooked by myself, my wife, friends, family etc. As Joanne said, I know where the food is coming from, it's usually local, fresh and interesting. I get something new almost every time and it's always more fun than a restaurant.

                                    But, often enough I dont' feel like cooking or we're out and it's not an option and I always gravitate to finding something new, cool and interesting. That's how I first tried Sushi 30 years ago, Ethiopian 20 years ago and various other holes in the wall that were some of the best experiences of my life. Chains just don't have the same risk/reward and are there fore boring to me.

                                    Cheers.

                                  2. They serve a purpose ... convenience, predictability (usually) at certain price points - i'm neither here nor there about them.

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: bill_n_opus

                                      while not my first choice for a quiet dinner or a special date, I agree that chain establishments have a particular purpose. When dining in a group which includes people with allergies and specific dietary needs, then a chain can be useful. Additionally, some chain restaurants have detailed food handling protocols and training plans. Not to be despised, but neither are they "fine dining", chains have a place in the overall dining landscape. Also, not all chains are massive foreign conglomerates. The Keg, for example, is a chain which began in Vancouver.

                                      1. re: KarenDW

                                        Bottom line why do people go to restaurants? Because they are hungry. Why do so many inde restaurants go broke and virtually every WS that was busy 20 years ago is still busy. Because they give the customer what the customers wants/expects consistently. As previously posted virtually every ounce of food served at a chain is prepackaged/pre portioned and seasoned exactly the way the 'focus group' said they liked it. That's one of the reasons why I no longer go to any restaurants. I really enjoy cooking for family and friends and I get a lot of satisfaction knowing I'm serving best quality fresh in-season produce/meat as local as I can get. Any day of the week I can go to the local docks and buy fresh caught crab/ling cod/rock cod/prawns (I paid $20 for four pounds of still moving large prawns a week ago right off the boat!). Local fresh free range eggs/chickens/ducks are just down the road. So why would I spend $40-60 bucks on food-like substances out of a plastic bag?

                                        1. re: Puffin3

                                          Because you have it figured out ... and are willing to do it for yourself.

                                          Sometimes, I just want to have an easy dinner with no cleanup ... so I hustle the wife and 4 kids to a Pho/Boston Pizza/WS place where I know the food is consistent (and the menu in my head already). Food is ready in 10 mins or less from order to table, I pay the bill and add tip when i'm done, don't have to worry about major cleanup, jump back in my gas vehicle and pollute the environment some more.

                                          It is what it is.

                                          1. re: bill_n_opus

                                            Amen !