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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.

                  1. I was in similar situations a couple of times, and from what I remember, BJ's Brewhouse, Mimi's Cafe, Rubio's and Chipotle were the best chain experiences. I do think you can do a lot better, depending on where you are staying. For example, I was happier with an Indian place near Ontario airport than I was with most of the chain experiences. It was walking distance to several hotels.

                    1. In the IE, try Elephant Bar.

                      1. Ruth, where exactly will you be based?

                        In Temecula, there is a small CA [so far] chain - Lazy Dog Cafe. Crowded, can be loud, but excellent food and a nice selection of wine and beer. Proprietors are the former owners of the Mimi's Cafe chain. We love it.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: nikkihwood

                          Attending an event at the Citizen's Business Bank arena, which is apparently right on the border of Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            On the outside road of Ontario Mills Mall is Victoria Gardens Mall and a stand-alone Bass Pro Shop. Excellent restaurant inside the store; Islamorada Fish Company. We went there for a wedding anniversary one year; it is that good.

                            http://restaurants.basspro.com/fishco...

                        2. I've actually had pretty decent food at Claim Jumper -- I assume there's one somewhere in the area -- especially since they dropped their huge gut-busting portion sizes and decided to just focus on a decent meal. As I recall they had a pretty good salad bar and some nice soups available.

                          Marie Callender's is not much more than a coffee and pie shop but the food is decent, the pies great and they do a nice salad and soup bar as well. The burgers, as I recall, were not bad either.

                          Wood Ranch has at least one Inland Empire location, and while the BBQ won't impress anyone from the South, the Tri-Tip is really worth a stop, and the cole slaw is different enough to be worth a try, unless you have a peanut allergy.

                          There are a few mall-based soup and salad bar places as well, one of which is called Souplantation and it's not bad -- they should be in abundance down there.

                          All of these places have menus online you can check out.

                          You might also try the California board and see what they have to say.

                          Depending upon where you're staying, you may actually be surprised at the quality and variety of choices you'll have available to you. You'll likely have a huge variety of high-quality Asian and Hispanic/Latino choices just steps from wherever you are standing. Of course, whether your traveling companions are up for this is anybody's guess.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: acgold7

                            Mimi's Cafe, I think it is one of the better chains.

                          2. Brio Tuscan Grill (by a mile) or, Carrabas, Outback or Bonefish.

                            1. Do let us know where you ended up and how it was; good, bad, or in between.

                              4 Replies
                              1. re: KaimukiMan

                                Long-standing (actually, born here) Inland Empire resident.
                                - The Bass Pro Shop restaurant is very good, fresh fish and excellent atmosphere (GIANT fish tank)!
                                - Another nearby place, well-known and loved for many years, is the original Cask N' Cleaver.
                                Nice steaks and Prime Rib, AND they have a good salad bar.

                                1. re: aurora50

                                  Yes Ruth, please let us know how it turned out!

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      We ended up being able to avoid the dreaded national chain (although we did end up at local chain Market Broiler, which I believe should be included in the post I'm going to make on the LA board).

                                      As I suspected, I didn't have a lot of input into where we went -- I was just lucky that the woman who was driving was as eager to avoid chains and fast food as I was.

                                      Report here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/814061

                              2. Well, Ruth ... I didn't even see you ask on the California board for non chain recs.

                                I scrolled thru yelp to refresh my memory of my former home of Vista, CA which I swear was the chain capital of the US. Even there there are tons of good joints that are not chains.

                                That being said, you know your group, so chains might be more appropriate.

                                Mimi's Cafe has a bigger presence. Here's the map so you can see if there is a California location near you

                                http://www.mimiscafe.com/LocationsSta...

                                I always liked Ruby's Diner, probably the best of any chain. There are quite a few locations, maybe one near you

                                http://www.rubys.com/index.aspx

                                It s a buffet, but Souplation is big down that way. It is the SoCal version of Tomatoes ... so there you go.

                                Maybe more than you want but Il Fornaio has a few locations south of the Bay Area border.

                                One to-avoid if one is near you ... Joe's Crabk Shack ... ugh ... I'd rather eat at Red Lobster.

                                And, though it might be location dependant, if you need breakfast for the group, I was impressed by recent visits to IHOP. The pancakes actually are still good and the other stuff was better. If going for dinner though, they don't serve booze.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: rworange

                                  I'm guessing any experience at IHOP is location specific. The last three times I was dragged there I was not a happy camper by the time I left. 45 minute wait for cornmeal pancakes when there were only 4 other tables occupied. A patty melt that came out fast, but oddly the cheese had already started to congeal and the burger was not hot. French fries so limp, soggy, and greasy it was literally difficult to dip them into ketchup. Bacon burned but left under a heatlamp so long it had also turned limp.