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Best "fast casual" chains?

I have a long weekend coming up where chains may be the only option (I'll be with a group of people and without my own transportation in the Inland Empire of SoCal where the mall is king). So if I have a say in what to choose, what should I push for?

"Fast casual" only, i.e., places with table service like Applebee's or Chili's, not places that hand you food in a paper bag or on a tray. Extra points for places with decent salads or salad bars.

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  1. Ruby Tuesdays usually have a nice salad bar.

    4 Replies
    1. re: LaLa

      Thanks, but according to their location finder there are no Ruby Tuesdays in Southern California -- can this possibly be true?

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        There seems to be quite a few nationwide chains that do not have California locations - it probably has something to do with the business climate, tax laws, and such, but I do not know that for certain.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          i checked on yelp, there is an amazing dearth of RT's in SoCal. One in Temecula, and one closed in West Covina. Wow. The ruby tuesday site does not show the one in Temecula. Hummm... OIC, it has closed too, how odd. They do exist in northern ca. for some reason the chain has decided not to expand in this area. strange.

        2. re: LaLa

          In our experience, had, not have. The salad bar seems to have gone way downhill.

        3. it gets a lot of heat in chowhound, but if you are willing to take a bit of time to read the menu carefully you can get a good meal at Cheesecake Factory, especially the salads. Let the server know you don't want it drowning in dressing, etc. They don't have a salad bar.

          As LaLa mentioned, Ruby Tuesday's salad bar is one of the better ones. California Pizza kitchen does a pretty good job on their salads, but do tend to overdo the dressing a bit.

          Chili's doesn't have a salad bar, but they have some decent salads, and if you end up at The Counter, you can get most of the sandwiches served Salad Style, something my mom often does. In general Outback is not bad for steak, overpriced for what you get, but not bad food. The salads are not their strong point.

          My experience at Macaroni Grill has been mixed, from quite decent to really honestly pretty bad food. My SIL likes Macaroni Grill because they tend to be accommodating about subtitutions, and she is a picky eater. Olive Garden is meh, I've certainly had worse. Red Lobster, well its not terrible, but I've never been impressed.

          My two experiences at Applebees were not good. I have not heard great things about Claim Jumper or Carrows, but no first hand experience. If you end up at Denny's remember, it started life as a truck stop, stick to burgers or simple stuff, not salads, and just say NO to IHOP unless you want mediocre pancakes for lunch or dinner.

          People here tend to go on and on about what TERRIBLE food these chains serve. Truth is very little of it is terrible, some of it isn't all that good. Almost none of it is great, and none of it is excellent. No doubt a steady diet of the stuff is not the best thing you can do for your body, but an occsional meal, or few meals are not likely to kill you, just keep your expectations real. You will be spending $15-$20 for a meal, not $30-$60. It will not be a gourmet experience.

          1 Reply
          1. re: KaimukiMan

            In my experience Denny's is TERRIBLE. But for the others, I'll agree. I would avoid Denny's at all costs.

            1. re: johnseberg

              Oops!!!!!! At least I specified what I really meant. :-) Although actually, fast casual would work. I just wanted to distinguish what I was looking from from places like Sonic, Five Guys, Popeyes, Chik-a-Fila (sp?), etc.

              I guess these places are usually called "family restaurants"?

              1. re: johnseberg

                I was thinking the same thing. OP, what you're looking for is "table service" restaurants. Fast food, fast casual, or table service are the 3 categories I'm aware of.

              2. I don't know if there are any still around, but I used to occasionally get a decent meal at Pat and Oscars. There was one by Ontario Mills that was good. Also there is Old Spaghetti Factory on Foothill in Ontario. Sometimes they can be a bit too salty, but it is a chain. I don't know if there are any in the IE, but a fairly good chain (as chains go) in SoCal is Claim Jumper. Finally, it isn't what you describe as fast casual (it is more just fast food-ish), but there is a King Taco in Ontario that would be worth checking out if you guys like Mexican.

                1. I'd be curious to find out where you're staying, There are some pretty decent restaurants in downtown Riverside and Redlands, and you might even be able to walk from your hotel if the rest of the folks are going to Chili's.